In Praise of Singing

Music is emotional: be it happiness or sorrow it engages us emotionally (e.g. Psalm 137, James 5:13). Singing gives voice to our emotions. Congregational singing unites us in expressing our common belief by articulating how Christians feel.

A fortnight ago, at the thanksgiving for the life of John Chapman, the force and beauty of congregational singing was palpable. Maybe it was because I was standing in the middle of the congregation, between the organ and the brass, that I was overwhelmed by the sheer power of the music, but others have commented to me about the effects of the hymns.

Why was the singing so good? In part it was having Ross Cobb playing the organ. He is a master in using the instrument to aid, assist, encourage, lead and accompany congregational singing. In part it was having the brass and timpani add passion to the music. Additionally we had a congregation of hymn singing Christians who filled the whole building. And it was also “an occasion” - praising God for “Chappo’s” life. But the value of the singing was more than all these.

What makes good congregational singing? It’s not that it is loud or in tune and in key. All those things are important but they are not the critical factors. More important is the sense of congregational unity – singing with one voice of our common faith in our one Lord. This is a unity of mind and purpose, connected to our emotions by the wonder of God’s creation of music. It’s the unifying factor of singing in such a fashion that though I make my contribution, yet my individuality is lost in the congregation singing as a whole. It is to this congregational unity, which the technicalities of the musicians make their contribution. 

This gives congregational singing a power that is greater than that of the soloist or choir. Listening to a performer is not the same as singing with a congregation. Congregational singing requires participation, and attaches us to the lyrics and to others around us. It engages us in what we believe and unites us to one another as we sing together. It doesn’t entrance us with the beauty of the music or get us to marvel at the agility and ability of the performer. Rather it enthrals us in expressing our common experience of God’s gospel. My feeble voice is given power to speak of the greatness of God – of his wondrous creation, his loving salvation, his gracious mercy, his faithful character.

All music is emotional, but to make singing Christian and edifying requires giving our emotions the appropriate voice. It’s more than the great or a moving occasion that gives congregational singing such power. It’s clothing our music in words that express our beliefs. The hymns at Chappo’s thanksgiving spoke of the realities he lived and spent all his energies preaching to and teaching us. They pointed to Christ and his victory over sin and Satan; over disease and death. It is in the congregational singing that our minds and emotions are knitted together – feeling what we think and expressing thoughtfully what we feel.

Week by week in church we cannot expect the same emotional awareness as on great occasions. Singing in our regular church gathering will seldom express our feelings with the same intensity or awareness. We may not be moved to tears often, but regular singing in church does more than teach us the great truths of the gospel. In singing we commit ourselves to the great truths and to a community of fellow believers. We also learn to speak and even memorize the words that express our belief. This ministry to each other is part of our spiritual walk (Ephesians 5:18f Colossians 3:16f). We fail to serve each other and miss out ourselves when our singing is half-hearted embarrassment that refuses to engage with the hymn or the congregation.  On the other hand, it is sadly misguided when so called “worship leaders” try to utilise music to create or heighten such emotional states. We must not confuse intensity of emotions with spirituality or engage in our own private reverie with eyes shut and hands raised or see music as ‘the way to the Father’.

Singing together regularly creates a community feeling that is of great benefit to us individually and corporately. It enables us to develop a history of common understanding and commitment. It develops the possibility of nostalgia, which is so important in touching our deeper feelings at times of great grief or celebration. In much the same way as liturgy and creeds, it gives to us a common way to express our beliefs.

Herein lies the disadvantage of constantly changing the ‘play list’. Most hymns and choruses do not survive a decade of singing. It is only the greats that are able to hold the heart’s affections and the mind’s edification for generations. Teaching the great ones is a community leader’s responsibility, for much is lost by neglect. On one occasion in a blackout, I called upon the congregation I was leading to finish our gathering by singing the doxology, only to discover it was a solo as nobody else knew it! I had never taught them Thomas Ken’s classic Christian statement that has been sung by believers since 1674. My mistake – and not just for that evening – it was a failure to teach our heritage properly.

It is not only to the past believers that great hymns connect us but it is also to believers in other congregations and denominations. Thus retaining something of a canon of Christian music is important not only for our own congregational health but also for fellowshipping with others outside our own congregation.

Attempts to improve the music at church are usually counterproductive. New songs and louder amplification is often the death of congregational singing – it is to chorus singing what playing hymns too slowly, in a key beyond the range of the average voice, is to hymn singing. Our aim should not be to ‘improve the music’ but to develop the congregational participation in addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. For then we will be able to unite in emotionally expressing our response to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Phillip Jensen, is the author of a number of books and a sought after speaker in Australia and internationally. He is the Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral. Visit his page here or go to phillipjensen.com.

Comments (3)

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  • Paul Whiting
    December 18, 12 - 4:40pm
    You make important points here Philip. On one Sunday in our church a small group (three people I believe!) decreed that more than 1000 years of Christian hymnody was never to be sung again. And it hasn't been. It is difficult to express how sad it is that a whole generation is now ignorant of our heritage of Christian music. Of course there is some interesting and edifying new music and even som of the words are helpful, but to sing together the songs that generations of Christians have found edifying over the centuries is an important part of recognising that we are part of the whole church of God. In doing so we are helped to realise the timeless validity of the eternal gospel and some of its its implications for life and eternity.
  • Bren McLean
    December 18, 12 - 5:46pm
    Hi Philip,
    Thank you for the reminder that music has great power to stir the emotions. Congregational singing unites and edifies us as brothers and sisters in a profound way.
    As a Music Minister, I am also aware of the dangers that exist when music (or any of the arts) is used to manipulate a response from people.
    Classic hymns that stand the test of time do so for many reasons. For example, they usually declare a gospel truth in a profound way, with a stirring, memorable melody. But are you suggesting we only sing traditional songs? Ignore songs that were written after a certain time? Are our attempts to improve music at church really counterproductive?
    Personally I believe we should pursue excellence (not perfection) in all areas of our life. God deserves our best, as long as the motivation is to honour Him, resources such as technology and new songs can be used with great result.
  • Bob Cameron
    December 20, 12 - 1:44am
    Very helpful article, Phillip. I especially appreciated your comments on the value of "retaining something of a canon of Christian music." I also get your caution against private reveries, but I am noticing a certain legalism in this regard amongst some of my brethren. Scripture doesn't forbid it closing of eyes or raising of hands, so I think we should be cautious in doing so. And in my own experience of late, I have found on occasion that closing my eyes (usually only briefly) shuts out distraction, yet does not isolate me from those around me, as it only shuts out the visual, not the auditory connection. I would be nervous however if we were all equipped with individual headsets so that we could only hear the musicians leading us (as has been tried in a certain dance fad lately)!