As a worship leader who tries to engage people pastorally, I not infrequently encounter men and women who don’t care one bit about the singing portion of a worship service. It’s pulling teeth for them. There are a host of reasons. Often times, it’s personal–they don’t feel they have a good voice, or the emotion tied to singing is uncomfortable and foreign for them. Sometimes it’s philosophical–they believe that the only important part of a worship service is the sermon and so they just want to “get on with it.”
John Bell helps us realize why singing is important. He came to me through a song he wrote which really had an impact on our congregation this past Christmas season: “The Word of Life (In a Byre Near Bethlehem)”. When I figured out that a book I inherited from a predecessor of mine was written by him, I cracked it open and found it to be one of the most delightful finds in worship-reading. Bell’s The Singing Thing: A Case for Congregational Song is a brief and very readable treatment on (a) Why do we sing, and (b) Why some people don’t sing. It’s written from the perspective of a seasoned pastor-theologian who has traversed the physical world and the world of worship literature. Hence, while it’s very insightful, it’s quite accessible and filled with great personal stories and illustrations. It’s a fun and convicting read.
In the book, Bell gives eleven reasons why congregations (and all people, really) should sing together:
1. Because we can.
Singing is natural. Really, everyone can sing. We cannot say this about many other actions.
2. To create identity.
Singing together creates solidarity among groups of people. It is one of the ways we forge a definable identity as a community or tribe.
3. To express emotion.
Whether singing makes us feel or feeling makes us sing, singing connects to the emotional part of our humanity, and we sing, in part, to express this aspect of ourselves.
4. To express words.
Singing words is different than speaking them. It opens up a range of expression of words not possible if they were spoken and not sung. Singing the same words differently (to different tunes, tempi, and chord structures) allow us to more tangibly see the many facets of a single statement.
5. To revisit the past.
Singing, for better and for worse when it comes to congregational song, triggers nostalgia. Singing can have the power of re-immersing ourselves in a past event or time in our lives.
6. To tell stories.
We sing to pass on the content of our history and beliefs from one generation to the next. This was especially the case in aural cultures.
7. To shape our theology and practice.1
What we sing directly informs what we believe about God, what we believe about Christ, and what we believe about mission. This, in turn, shapes what kind of Christian we are and how we live out our faith.
8. To enable work.
Just as singing was the means of energy, motivation, and togetherness of African-American slave-labor, so singing enables “the work of the people”—liturgy.
9. To exercise our creativity.
Inherent in our being made in the image of God is that we all are creative beings. Singing is one of the few art forms where every human being can participate in one, unified creative act.
10. To give of ourselves.
We sing to bless others, to mutually edify, and to stir one another toward righteousness.
11. To obey a command.
Scripture calls us to “sing a new song” (Psalms 33, 40, 96, 98, 144, 149), and so we sing out of obedience, and because God is simply worthy of it.