Growing amounts of words have been and are being written on the question of congregational singing – or lack thereof – across denominations. It does not appear that the ‘charismatic’ traditions suffer from this problem in anything like the same way other denominations and movements do. All sort of interesting theses have been put forward; as ever, these vary in cogency, rigour, cultural savvy and theological/Biblical literacy.
As a humanities geek who now crosses the divide between both philosophy and theology, I’d usually have a lot more to say about this. But I have come to type this straight from my devotional this morning. Have a look at this:
The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous; The right hand of the Lord does valiantly.
That’s Psalm 118:15 in the KJV. That’s not necessarily going to get you to the import of the text. Try this:
Songs of joy and victory are sung in the camp of the godly. The strong right arm of the LORD has done glorious things!
Now that’s the New Living Translation – one of the many that is berated by various ministry-types and while on one hand I could never recommend it for non-basic Bible study, I refuse to kowtow to the conservative-Biblical mindset that dumps on all but the handful of approved versions. I’m more literate than many people and I grew up with the King James (aka the ‘Authorised’) version and I love literature, but I had to get away from the KJV in my twenties to get back to actually reading the Bible. So I say: any Bible you can and will enjoy reading is better than an excellent translation that you don’t read.
This is relevant because I love Psalm 118 but had never read it in the NLT, and here’s what jumped out at me: what do we hear in the ‘camp of the God-fearing and God-believing?
What kind of songs, pray tell?
‘Joy’ and ‘victory.’
I have to ask myself when last I went to church and I could describe the singing as manifesting ‘joy’ and victory.’ I know that people are trying to get people to sing louder – with varied results. I know that people are trying to get people to be more ‘lively’ – with varied results. But far, far, far too often, I am not at all sure that the praise teams or song leaders – and this is before we even consider the pastoral team and the congregations at large – are convinced by what they are singing. You can tell when ‘they like the song’ – but this is now about aesthetics! People like the beat, the flow, the melody, the words (and you can like the beat without there being a drumkit in sight, by the way). But that’s not the same sound as when you are singing out of the depth of your own experience!
I once went to a football (soccer) match. It was set to end in a draw…until the very last minute of the game, the home side scored a winner. I was one of the home fans, and I had the unforgettable experience of standing to my feet with thousands of people and singing the following charming ditty (to a tune that was essentially based on the ‘Bread of heaven’ chorus of the hymn ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah):
You’re not singing,
You’re not singing,
You’re not singing any more;
You’re not singing any more!
That was as HEARTFELT a singing experience as any I’ve been part of. Perhaps the use of a religious hymn contributed to that… Anyway, here’s a final translation – this time, from The Message:
Hear the shouts, hear the triumph songs in the camp of the saved? “The hand of God has turned the tide!
Interesting how it is put in the form of a question-and-response. Let me now give you my personal paraphrase of this verse:
“Can you hear the shouts of joy [Psalm 32:15 is a very sobering text on the question of those who are qualified to ‘shout for joy’] coming from that church over there? Can you hear the songs of deliverance? God has done something for these people, and you can hear it in their praise!”
The scariest reason why we don’t sing in church?
It’s not because “we had a bad week.” Or because “we don’t know the song.” It’s not even because “I don’t like this style of music” (or, to be more ‘Christian’ about it: “this music is unholy and not fit for the house of God”). And worse yet, it’s not even because “I know that the keyboard player is having an affair with the first elder’s wife.”
It is because we have not experienced victory over sin and self in Jesus Christ.
You ain’t going to sing about what you don’t know unless they’re paying you or you’re auditioning for X-Factor (or something else in that dimension).
We’re not QUALITATIVELY different to anyone else. So we cannot get too close to God in praise and worship, because coming into the presence of a holy God would mean we’d have to change.
So the football fans and the rock concert attendees are freer to worship than we are, because they’re not playing the same game we are. Their game does not involve worshipping one’s own existence whilst pretending to worship God…