The temporary loss of congregational singing highlights its unique value
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What do you miss most about church during enforced isolation? It might be the socializing, or the preaching, or the excellent Sunday school series that was interrupted.
I miss the singing.
Congregational singing is main thing online services can’t replace. We can—and must—join in fervent prayer with our brothers and sisters. We can listen to excellent preaching on Sermon Audio. We can even attend a virtual Sunday school if the teacher has enough tech-savvy. But there’s no substitute for congregational singing. Large families with robust pipes might have a go at it, but older folks with our shy, shaky voices are likely to fall silent and let the song leader onscreen warble alone.
Last month, inspiring videos of quarantined Italians serenading each other from their balconies made the rounds. Given the COVID-19 death rate in that part of the world, such a response seemed brave and touching. Viva Italy! How fitting for such a musical culture to respond like that!
But wait—all cultures are musical by nature. Music is one of God’s gifts to man, and back when most of it was homemade, every nation had its songs and styles. In the West, respectable young ladies and gentlemen were expected to play an instrument, or at the very least gather around the piano after dinner. Frontier congregations and community choirs learned a cappella sight-singing through shape notes. Work crews, sailors, laundry maids, and street vendors sang. Music was communal and participatory.
Then the phonograph and radio brought Carnegie Hall into every American home. At a twist of the dial, families could listen to the world’s best orchestras, composers, and song stylists. Still communal, though; if Pop wanted to listen to Frank Sinatra, everybody listened to Frank Sinatra. Over time, amateurs largely surrendered to the pros: with your favorite music available at Tower Records, why bother to make it yourself? And once iPods and iPhones delivered the whole spectrum right to our ears, every man became his own concert curator.
But a funny thing happened. The galloping availability of music has made the general public less musically literate. A YouTube video called “Why Is Modern Music So Awful?” shows in detail how ubiquity bred mediocrity in the pop-music scene. And, some would say, in the church-music scene.
I grew up in a denomination that made a doctrinal issue of a cappella singing. The doctrine was flawed, but the result—given a large-enough congregation—could be stirring. Not only did we hear each other’s voices; we heard our harmonies. My husband, by contrast, grew up in a nonmusical family and never attended an orchestra concert. In his 30s he discovered Bach and Mozart and his own sturdy baritone voice. Smitten, he took a year off between jobs to study music and voice at a state university, making our family’s life richer for it.
Few young fathers can do that, but the “I’m just not musical” excuse won’t wash. Everyone—except perhaps the tone-deaf few—is musical. You may never have played an instrument, but you possess one, created by God himself. The human voice travels easily and doesn’t need much maintenance. Which do you think God would rather hear: the worship band, or the voices he made? Could one song per worship service, for instance, be sung without instruments? And could one evening service per quarter be devoted, not just to singing, but learning to sing better? In harmony?
God Sings is the title of hymn-writer Douglas Bond’s latest book. God does sing, and the universe joins in. The reference in Job 38:7 about morning stars singing together for joy is not just a metaphor; musical frequencies occur in space. Yet the “music of the spheres” is merely accompaniment our voices raised in praise. Rather than leaving it to the worship team or choir, every Christian is commanded to sing. Perhaps, when we’re together again, we could become a bit more intentional about it.
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