The following is part of a series of blog posts dedicated to exploring John Wesley’s Rules for Singing.
2. Sing lustily, and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of it being heard, than when you sing the songs of the world.
Wesley is obviously using rule #2 to press his admonition in rule #1 further. When I read rule #2 to our congregation a few months ago, the line, “Beware of singing as if you were half dead” elicited laughter. But it was a nervous laughter because it exposed the truth. It is not an exaggeration when I say that over half the congregation really does look half dead or half asleep. In my early years of worship leading, this shocked and discouraged me. If you are a new or aspiring worship leader, you must learn to anticipate and then ignore this, or else you will find yourself perpetually discouraged. If you are a Presbyterian or some other brand of Christianity whose history of worship expression has been marked by austerity and reservation (usually the more liturgical traditions), know that your “singing corpse” statistics go way up.
I fear that Wesley’s final sentence falls on deaf ears because, since his time, we’ve moved even further away from being a singing culture, such that we don’t really “sing the songs of the world” like he means anymore. However, I think there’s an importable analogy in the way we use our bodies (or don’t use our bodies) in corporate worship. For us, it seems like pulling teeth for anyone to raise their hand in worship above shoulder-height. The irony is that these same people who claim, “I’m just not that kind of worshiper” go home and lift both hands high in the sky, jumping up and down, screaming, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” when their uniformed idols carry a leather ball across a certain demarcation on a big grassy field. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for exuberant football-watching. But when those same “lusty fellows” tell me they’re just not that kind of worshiper, they are exposing a duplicity of the boldest kind. I’ve more thoroughly developed this worship vs. football-watching reflection in a previous post, so check that out if the musings intrigue you.
Wesley’s point was about singing, of course, not use of bodies. “Be not ashamed” is a helpful point for those who feel they don’t have a good voice. Harold Best points out in Unceasing Worship that, regardless of training or lack thereof, the voice is the one instrument everyone has to make music to their Maker. We should therefore overcome our anxiety about our voices and press on. Each Sunday, I stand beside my co-pastor, Marty, and overhear his tone-deaf singing (he freely admits this, by the way). He often moves up and down as the melody moves, but one is never guaranteed an accurate pitch. What I appreciate about Marty is that he is not hindered in exuberantly singing to God with his voice. And I don’t consider his voice a distraction…I consider it sincere, and in its sincerity, it is very beautiful to me. Ultimately, the One we are supposed to please is God, and He indeed does look into our heart. If our heart is saying, “I’m trying my best,” I believe God is more pleased with that one than a world-renowned baritone who is “singing as though half dead.”