If you’ve been in church long enough, you may not realize that some of the things church people do can be perceived as strange to newcomers. In the past few months, we’ve had a number of visitors come through our church doors for a variety of reasons. One of them had never been to church before, and one of his comments caught me off guard - he thought it was weird that we sing.
Singing has always been a part of my church experience. I can’t remember being in a church service without singing. In fact, when we gather as a Christian community, there’s something in me that itches for us to sing together, especially after experiencing the glory of Mennonites singing 606 (The Mennonite Doxology) together at conferences.
It never occurred to me that people new to church might actually find singing together to be a little awkward, if not outright strange. Perhaps it’s the act of singing that some people aren’t into, or maybe it’s because they don’t know (or don’t believe) the songs we sing. But for whatever reason, we shouldn’t take for granted that everyone knows why we actually sing.
So why do we do it? Why is almost half of our worship service spent singing as a church?
1) Singing is an expression of worship
Worship has been misunderstood quite often as being singing itself. But a more holistic way is to view singing as only one expression of worship.
If you go to a soccer game in Europe, you’ll witness thousands of people singing their hearts out to pay homage to their city or team. Hardcore fans sing, but singing isn’t what makes you a fan. You have to like, watch, and follow the team. You might also buy tickets or merchandise to further support them. Singing in the stands is just one way to express the love you already have.
In the same way, singing can be worship, but worship isn’t only singing. Worship is an all-encompassing word that describes how we give our attention and allegiance to something or someone in life. We all worship something or someone, even if it’s ourselves. And if we want to know what we worship, all we need to do is look at where we put our time, energy, talents, and resources.
Whatever we worship most, we make that thing or person a god in our lives. And so much of Scripture is God reminding His people that there’s only one God in the world who created everything and gave us our purpose. God is described as a jealous God who isn’t interested is sharing the top spot of our lives with anything or anyone else (Exodus 34:14). Our Creator is always calling us back to worship Him as God alone. That means giving our all to Him.
One way of worshipping God, then, is through song. We see this displayed in Scripture all the time, especially in the Psalms. We see another example when Israel was freed from Slavery, as Miriam and Moses started singing praises to God because of what God had done (Exodus 15). When we sing, we thank God for what He has done in our lives. Singing allows us to express our emotions and feelings as prayers and declarations before God and others. It gives us an avenue to share our love, commitment, and ultimate allegiance to God alone.
In a similar way to when we encounter the beauty of creation, music can be transcendent and lead us to an encounter with God. However, we need to be careful not to become reliant on a certain style or quality of music in order for us to worship. Everything has been tailored for us to consume in our North American culture, and if we’re not careful, our “worship experience” can turn into a show that we consume, leaving us craving the same kind of experience in order for us to worship. Worship can happen in stadiums with thousands of people, but it also can happen in the local church where people sing off-key and the instruments are played at different tempos. The music is not the most important, but rather the state of our hearts during worship.
2) Singing unites the Church
Old Trafford, the stadium for Manchester United, can hold 76,000 people. Just imagine the excitement and unity that surges through that place as the fans sing together “Glory, Glory, Man United” (yes, to the tune of the familiar Christian hymn “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”). It’s this same kind of bonding experience that we might experience at a concert, or yes, even at church.
As the church sings, we unite ourselves together in our faith and worship of God. We experience the unity of the Spirit as we declare our faith together as one. In one voice we are reminded that God makes us one family. If you don’t know what I mean, try singing beside someone after you’ve just had an argument about a deep theological issue and called each other “heretics.” It’s hard to worship together when we’re divided.
3) Singing forms our faith
Worship through song is a two-way street. Yes, we sing to declare what we believe, but by singing, our beliefs are formed in us as well. Just like when fans sing in the soccer stadium - they sing because they are fans, but singing together with the whole stadium deepens their fan experience, thereby making them stronger fans.
I can’t recall the number of times songs of praise have come into my mind when I’ve been in difficult circumstances. It’s only because I’ve sung those songs throughout my life that they’re engrained in me. They become a source for my faith and my journey - a soundtrack of my faith life.
We need to pay particular attention to what we actually sing because what we sing will inform our faith. The reason so many churches can’t shake the old hymns is the depth of the words, not the style of music. Those words hold meaning and shape us in our faith, especially when we sing about who God is in this world and in our lives. Singing of God’s mercy reminds us that God’s mercy is available to us without limits. Singing of God’s love reminds us of our call to love others. We are formed as God’s people as we sing.
And so, we, as Christian communities, keep on singing. In fact I would suggest that we must continue singing! As we continue to be intentional about how, why, and what we sing, may we continue to find meaning, unity, and formation as the body of Christ.