Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why do we sing?

Upon attending vibrant Christian worship, some in the assembly might come away from the event asking, "Why do Christians sing as much as they do?" Of course, there are plenty of Christian assemblies these days that do little communal singing. Such assemblies are influenced by our entertainment culture that values recorded music, or highly professionalized music, such that those assemblies are quite content to sit back and let a hot-shot band or choir do it for them. But there are also plenty of Christian assemblies that are enjoying a renewal of assembly song, where Sunday after Sunday, the assembly is given the task of being the primary musical ensemble in the room, singing a diverse repertoire of hymns and canticles around the means of grace.

That anyone would ask the question above should not surprise us. We live in a time when communal singing is a counter-cultural activity. Even at the ballpark, when the singing of a national anthem was once common-place, fewer and fewer people actually sing the anthem, and more listen to the professional hired to do it for them. Families may have more frequently found time to sing together in the past, but the plethora of activities pressing in on household schedules means that families infrequently eat together, much less sing together. So when Christians sing together, they are engaging in an activity that they rarely do elsewhere. Some may wonder if such a counter-cultural activity is worth it. Here is why I think it is worth it:

Jews and Christians believe in a God who creates out of an audible impetus. The first creation story of Genesis tells the story of a God who speaks, and from that speaking all creation comes into being. "God said, Let there be...light, dome, waters..." The story does not imagine that God visualized these things and made them visible. No, they exist because God makes a noise. Christians continue this understanding of an audible God with their reception of the Gospel of John, in which the Word -- the audible presence of the living God -- takes on flesh and lives among us. That Christians value ordered sound -- or music -- as a primary means of gathering, proclaiming, celebrating, and sending is no accident. Our God is an audible God.

The ancients even considered that when God set the planets, the sun, the moons in their orbits -- the very movement of the orbs caused a "music of the spheres." Such a belief values that music is intrinsic to creation, part of God's created order.

So, when Christians sing together in assembly, they participate in the creative work of God. Further, God's spirit is breath, and God's breath fills us that we may sing. When we sing together, our breathing is unified and we participate in the inhaling and exhaling of God's very spirit. Music gives form to the moving breath of God.

When voices are set together in tandem, either unisons happen, or relationships of harmony are created. The relationships of harmony can be consonant or dissonant, but they are still only created by relationship. Our singing together is metaphoric to our life together. Our individual voices come together with others and create relationships that are not unlike our life as a united body. The sound is molded and stressed and reshaped when we sing together. Such singing helps us to identify ourselves intrinsic to a body, like a hand or and eye or a mouth. In the singing assembly, we discover our part of the body.

Why do we sing? Because singing does something for us that no other thing can do. It pulls us into community, into the breath of God, into relationship, and into the ordered sound of creation.

Some may feel unqualified for the task. "I can't sing," they say. While it may be true that some of us are so damaged or abused that our voices lie dormant in our bodies, and some of us legitimately were created without voice, more of us can sing than we are willing to admit. Again, we are silenced by a recorded culture that creates an expectation in us that singing be perfect. No communal singing is perfect. It will bear the marks of humanity; it will be frail and fragile. It will not always be in perfect rhythm or pitch. Most people have the potential to find their voice and join it to the voice of the assembly, perhaps with help and encouragement. The Christian assembly has a responsibility to welcome all voices and to cultivate and encourage each voice to find its part. Such is the nature of a united body, set on a task. The body of Christ -- the assembly in which the Triune God is made audible -- welcomes your voice, be it fantastic or feeble, to the song of the church.

1 comment:

  1. Among my memories of my father is sitting with him in church and him singing. The man could not carry a tune. Someone said something to him about it once and he said, "The Bible just says make a joyful noise." It stands out in memory because it's somewhat atypical of my father, and yet it's something I carry with me. His willingness to sing badly speaks some deep truth to me and figures into why I still find communal worship (and singing) so important.