As many of us emerge from shelter-at-home orders, churches have begun planning for in-person congregational worship. This is welcome news! The gathering of God’s people for worship is a great good, a gift that the lack of which has sorely tested us. We have been warned, however, that “things will be different.”
One of the things that will be different is that for the time being, there will be no congregational singing. Right away rebellious thoughts rise up, threatening to sweep away all gratitude. We can’t get together and not sing?!? If we can’t sing, why bother to get together in the first place?
This moment gives us (another) unique moment for reflection. This act of “fasting,” like all difficult yet worthwhile disciplines, gives us the chance to enter more fully into a spiritual truth. In this case, that truth is the truth of worship. What does it mean to worship without singing?
For many in the Evangelical world, the word “worship” is equivalent to “sing.” Someone will say, “Let’s enter into a time of worship,” and what they mean is, “Get the worship band on stage.” While this is (only slightly) a caricature, there is an element of truth. Singing does seem to be an intense experience of worship. Singing involves us in a total holistic human experience. We use our bodies to produce a very distinct sound, we sing about ideas of the highest order, and our hearts are filled with every conceivable emotion.
Saint Augustine famously said, “[They] who sing, pray twice.” We recognize that singing is somehow a transcendent act. It is more than the sum of its component physical parts. Look at the words of a powerful song longing for racial justice:
Lift ev’ry voice and sing
‘Til earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on ’til victory is won.
The words by themselves are powerful, but who can deny that they take on even more power when sung?
Many churches sing or chant their liturgies, and while this might have begun as a way, in times before electronic amplification, to be heard in the far reaches of a large cathedral, it still does seem the right way to do it. “Lift up your hearts” – “We lift them up to the Lord” – these words cry out to be sung!
If singing is so vital, it should only be discontinued for the most important of reasons, and indeed, we have that reason now: love of our neighbor. How could we proclaim our love for God while simultaneously putting our families, friends, and neighbors at risk to their heath and very lives? The writer of First John says it is impossible:
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.“ (1 John 4:20)
We are called to a season with no singing. Will our worship then suffer?
This question should make us ask what the essence of worship is. Is there anything inherent in our worship that “makes” God accept it? God is not like a judge who measures our offering and gives us a passing or failing mark. God is more like the loving parent who accepts whatever the child brings as a gift, no questions asked. Apart from God’s grace, no worship of ours is acceptable.
The essence of worship must be found in the only proper focus for worship: God. Maybe this is a great gift to be found in the laying aside of singing. Singing tempts us to focus on ourselves as we worship. Make no mistake, we can experience God’s delight in God’s people as that people worship. It is all too easy, however, to slide over into thinking that that reception is the point.
“I was glad when they said unto me, let us go to the house of the Lord.” May our return to congregational worship be filled with gratitude. And paradoxically, our relative silence may be a great thing: God will finally be able to get a word in edgewise!
Charlie Clauss is a technical support representative for a company that builds humidification equipment.