Have you ever stopped to think about how odd some of our church traditions are? I don’t even mean the super-liturgical, way “up-the-candle,” high church traditions of our most formal denominational brethren. I mean those common to nearly every ecclesial gathering around the world; things like congregational singing and communal praying. Have you ever stepped back, removed yourself from the integument of familiarity and habit, and really examined the parts of our gatherings that we most consistently take for granted? Why do we do these things?
I’ll state from the very beginning that I am, in no way, suggesting with this post that these elements of our community-life are superfluous or that they should undergo any sort of major overhaul. I believe they are, in fact, absolutely essential to the life of the Church and the lives of the individual believers therein. Whether or not they need to change in any way is a topic for another post. My only hope is to give some thought as to our reasons for doing them, trusting that if we will establish in our hearts and minds their truest purpose, we may do them with even greater fervor and deeper resolve.
I’d like to give consideration to one specific practice that has struck me as particularly strange over the last couple of years: the practice of gathering together and singing songs as a community. Now, I have a vested interest in this particular practice of ours, as it is my primary means of providing for my family’s financial needs. I make the bulk of my living planning and leading the musical pieces of a weekly worship gathering in Northwest Houston. I’ve loved congregational singing my entire life, having grown up in a denominational context in which singing was done entirely a cappella, with no instrumental accompaniment whatsoever, and with nearly every song being sung in rich 4-part harmony. But, until the last couple of years, I had never given much, if any, thought as to why we sing together in the first place.
I mean, think about it. You may have to mentally zoom out a bit to try and view the act objectively, but it’s really odd; a room full of people singing together? How many places do you experience such a thing outside the context of religious gatherings, Christian or otherwise? Occasionally you’ll hear a crowd sing together at a concert, or live sporting event (“Take me out to the ballgame…”), or perhaps at a birthday celebration, but that’s about it. It is, by no means, a common occurrence outside the context of various faith gatherings.
Why, then, do we do it? What’s the point?
Over the last 12 months or so, I’ve begun answering that question, at least for myself, and it has transformed the experience of congregational singing for me.
However, “Why do we sing?” is far too broad a question in and of itself. To get to an answer, I had to follow a trail of smaller, more digestible questions.
First, for whom are we singing? The answer to this question may seem obvious. However, if I learned anything in my twenties, it was this: often the questions with the most seemingly obvious answers are the questions we most desperately need to ask, as they may not have been asked for a while.
I’ve lived my entire life taking for granted the idea that because we sing to God, we must also be singing for God. I mean, it seems simple enough, right? But, is it so simple? After all, who really benefits from our singing? Does God need His ego stroked? Is He so insecure as to require the affirmation of hundreds of millions of people throughout time and space constantly reminding Him of His greatness? I think not.