“Music is the universal language of mankind.” ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Who hears music, feels his solitude peopled at once.” ― Robert Browning
“Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens.” ― Maria von Trapp
“Music… will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer
For hundreds of years, philosophers, musicians, and educators have debated whether or not music is a language. I lean on the side of those who agree that it is a language. I’d like to take that one step further though. That is to say, congregational singing, done a cappella (which only means “in the style of the chapel”), without the accompaniment of instruments, has the power to create community, form and transform the heart and mind, and transport a person completely into a spiritual dimension unlike any other.
We all have those musical moments in our lives that we’ll never forget. I remember the first time I sang at summer camp in the piney woods of East Texas with 200 other folks under the stars. We sang the immortal hymn of George Stebbins and James Edmeston, Savior, Breathe an Evening Blessing. I remember the first time I heard a large crowd sing the four-part polyphonic song, The Greatest Commands, based on the words of I John 4. Or the sound of 5000 people singing The Lord Bless You and Keep You. Maybe you have those moments in your life too, those thin places, where the distance between you and God is so small and music or singing is what took you there. We all have moments like this.
lucky for me, I’m a part of this wacky tribe, this tradition of a cappella Churches of Christ and have been for all my life. I have a long list of places where the singing of the community of God’s people has helped to take me to those thin places where Earth and Heaven meet.
Churches of Christ have long been known as a singing people. Many times, I’ve been asked where I go to church, or what church I serve, and when the inquisitor hears me say the words “Church of Christ” they are quick to respond with something akin to “Oh, y’all are the people who don’t have music.” And like fingernails on an aged chalkboard, my mind fights its urges to apply the right hand of fellowship to their left cheek of righteousness, because that’s JUST NOT TRUE. We have music. Beautiful music…and it’s something I cherish and wish I could do something about or change the minds and perspectives of people who view our tradition as the one “without music.”
That misunderstanding about our tradition bothers me greatly. And I think those of us in Churches of Christ are to blame for that misunderstanding. For far too long, the answer to “why” our tradition, by in large, hasn’t employed instruments in worship, has been a wrong one, or, perhaps better said, a misinformed one.
We’ve been known for far too long for what we AREN’T and what we DON’T DO, then for who we ARE and the beauty of what we do.
Allow me to unpack this just a bit.
I have long heard people reference the “five acts of worship” that are found in the New Testament as a guiding principle of sorts for “why we do what we do” with regard to worship in Churches of Christ. Preaching, Praying, Communion, Contribution, Singing…Granted, there are lots of flaws in reducing worship to merely five boxes to check off, and not to mention the more important perspective of what this says regarding who the “actors and players” are when the community comes together to worship. But, I digress. Five acts. We’ve stayed away from this kind of language, but these are essentially our sacraments. These are things that sit at the center of what the church does when it comes together to worship. A sacrament is something that is an outward visible expression of an inner spiritual reality. You notice, perhaps that this word looks a lot like the word sacred. I think that’s appropriate. But maybe singing is sacred not for the same reasons you may have always thought.
My friend Darryl Tippens has written a lot about singing as sacrament. And I think he’s spot on when he says that even though we may not use the word “Sacrament” there is something holy that happens within us, even those who may not categorize themselves as singers, that forms us, that shapes us.
This is the bigger point, in my mind, of passages like Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, not so much that they restrict or don’t restrict the use of instruments. Instead, they draw us together as a community of believers and form us increasingly into the image of Christ. Karl Barth said that “Singing is the highest form of human expression…We can and must say quite confidently that the community which does not sing is not the community.” This is the heart of congregational singing.
I am at least a fifth generation Campbellite on both my mother and father’s sides. I have a great grandfather and great great grandfather who served as elders for, and as song leaders for the great Restoration Movement Preacher and Hymn-Writer, Tillit S. Teddlie during his years in East Texas.
Our roots are deep in Churches of Christ. You could say it comes natural to me to love and appreciate our heritage of a cappella congregational song. But, my reasons for loving it, becoming an advocate for it are largely not based in the historical or traditionalist perspective that are held my so many in our movement. Some have arrived at singing being sacramental because it’s what they’ve always known or that they interpret scripture to say that this is the only way it must be done. I have arrived at this sacramental perspective because of largely experiential and aesthetic reasons.
Each and every time God’s people come together and sing, there is the strong possibility of something deeply spiritual and formative taking place. That alone is more than enough reason for us to sing. Singing does not always need to be the happy, clappy, joyous emotion that some think is required in worship. Singing can also be a place for deep grief, sorrow, and doubt to be manifested. Singing with these emotions of lament allow us an incredibly meaningful vehicle with which to talk to God, but also to each other.
But there’s also this cyclical occurrence that occurs in the beautiful simplicity of human voices coming together in song. As human beings, we’re drawn to beautiful things. Artwork, nature, words, their beauty endears them to us. It’s the same with song. The beauty of the God-given instrument, the human voice, almost without thought or effort, physiologically enjoining hundreds of muscles to create a sound, is just another example of the creativity of our God, the Greatest Creator the world has ever known. When we join our voices together, the created in praise of the creator, a thin place becomes a reality. And this beauty, from the creator to the created and then, humbly offered back to the creator again, regardless of your vocal prowess or the talent level of your alto or tenor, is holy ground. Something TRULY beautiful…this is why we sing. This is why I sing.
Yes, there’s plenty of evidence we can extract from New Testament context that talks about singing. But that alone is not what drives me to want to sing or what drives me to sing in praise of my creator and for the building up of my fellow “createds.” Here’s another passage you may have never thought about.
Jesus, when meeting with his disciples and sharing in the last supper during Passover, was in the middle of what had to be an emotionally volatile situation. Not eating and drinking with them again, someone being told that they’d betray Jesus, the thought of Jesus dying and leaving the ministry he had inaugurated with this different kind of Kingdom with this group of misfit disciples, everyone must have been on edge.
There’s a little verse at the end of Matthew 26 that never gets included when anyone reads this text around the sacrament of partaking in communion. And I think that’s an utter travesty because it offers unparalleled insight into the beauty of song and its function in the Christian community.
At one of the most poignant moments in the narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry, death, and resurrection, after they’d eaten, Matthew says this…
“ 30 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”
That’s right. At this moment in time, at this thin place that Jesus & his disciples experienced when emotions were running at their highest, what did they do? They took the time to sing. What I would give to have been in that room in that moment and to know what they sang, how they sang it, and how that impacted their lives.
If Jesus thought it was important enough to sing at this moment, there’s nothing in the world that should keep us from singing today…for who He is, for what He’s done, and because it’s a beautiful expression of that inner transformation that takes place inside the heart and lives of those who follow Jesus. It’s utterly beautiful. It’s absolutely sacred. Singing is a sacrament. And it’s a sacrament that has changed my life. Won’t you allow yourself the opportunity to let it change yours too?
Darryl Tippens, “That’s Why We Sing,” Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2006.
Darryl Tippens, “Singing as Sacrament,” http://char.is/blog/2016/05/13/singing-is-a-sacrament/