“Music is the universal language of mankind.” ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Who hears music, feels his
solitude peopled at once.” ― Robert Browning
like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens.” ― Maria
“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
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
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
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
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
Tippens, “That’s Why We Sing,” Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2006.
Tippens, “Singing as Sacrament,” http://char.is/blog/2016/05/13/singing-is-a-sacrament/