It’s been over two years since I’ve sang at church.
It’s not because my church plays one kind of music while I prefer another. It’s not because I’m angry at God. It’s not because I’m deathly afraid to sing in public. I just don’t sing at church.
But isn’t corporate worship part of going to church? Isn’t singing a huge part of that corporate worship- at least within the modern day church?
Yes, I guess you could argue those points and on one level I would have to agree with you. My response, however, is why? Why do we sing?
Bonhoeffer said that church singing is a way for a group of people to pray the same prayer. It’s a way for people of different ages, genders, social classes, education and spiritual maturity to all say the same thing to God at the same time.
I love the picture that Bonhoeffer creates. It’s the same picture we see in Revelation when people from every nation are gathered around the throne of God and sing “worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” If that were explained in church then I might be able to sing. Instead of standing to sing because standing to sing is what we do at church, the church was lead- shepherded, pastored- to the throne of God to pray the same prayer to God that would completely change how we sing church music.
Two other things also hinder our churches from realizing Bonhoeffer’s vision.
1. We must have prayers worth praying. In our conversation this means that we must have songs worth singing. Have you ever really paid attention to the words to some of the songs we sing at church? There are many songs that have well developed theology but there are many songs that do not, they just string a line of adjectives together and apply them to God. It brings me to the question, what does it mean to praise or worship God? Is worship merely describing God- God is holy, God is loving, God is full of grace? Is worship thanking God for what God has done? I’m not an expert on worship and I honestly haven’t done much research on the topic but when I read the Psalms or the early hymns of the church I see more than just assigning adjectives to God or thanking God for what God has done. Though I see those things, beyond them I see a change in the relationship between God, who is being praised and worshiped, and the one offering that praise and worship. In the Psalms we see the psalmist moved to steadfastness and action or we see evil crumble before God. When Paul writes or quotes an early Christian hymn, it ends with every knee bowing and tongue confessing that Jesus is Lord. I may be wrong and I may change my mind, but I don’t see many of our church songs causing a change in the relationship between God and the worshiper.
2. We must have community that is worth belonging to. If singing is praying prayers together, then it reasons that we need to know each other. In Romans, Paul tells us to rejoice with those rejoice and weep with those who weep; if we don’t know who is rejoicing and who is weeping, how can we rejoice and weep with them? If I don’t know what is going on in the lives of people around me, how can I pray prayers of thanksgiving with them, or prayers of comfort, or prayers of distress, or prayers of hope? What happens is that I sing or pray my little song in the context of my world in my rejoicing and my weeping and you sing your little song in the context of your little world in your rejoicing or your weeping and we are singing two individual songs instead of singing one song together. It’s only though really knowing those around us that we can truly sing and pray together.
As I said earlier, I really love Bonhoeffer’s picture of what church singing is suppose to be. Above that, I think it’s the picture we see in the Bible and in the example of the early Christian church. God hears enough of us singing our individual prayers- everyone in the world can do that- what we need more of is singing prayers as one body and that means having prayers worth praying and knowing what prayers to pray by being in true community with each other.