Singing Corpses: John Wesley on Lackluster Worship

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought3 Comments

The following is part of a series of blog posts dedicated to exploring John Wesley’s Rules for Singing.

Reflections on Rule #1

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.”

3 Comments on “Singing Corpses: John Wesley on Lackluster Worship”

  1. Awesome post. I’m loving the Wesley series. I wrote about this a while back as well, exposing idols on both sides:

    It is often the man who hates ritual in his religion that is most ritualistic in his daily life. He wears the same clothes everyday, prefers the same food, and has the same morning routine. At its core, he is a person of ritual in the things that do not matter. But for the things that do, he shuns ritual and the wisdom passed down through the ages.

    On the contrary, the man who prefers solemnity and seriousness in his religion is often the same man cheers loudly for his sports team on tv or in person. He is the man who jeers in adulation of others. He is the man the celebrates the simple things of life. And yet he has trouble being exuberant for the things most worth celebrating.

    What these ironies reveal is not as much a comment on religion, but more a comment on self. We often lift ourselves most highly in our religion. Instead of worshipping the object of religion (in my view, Jesus is the source, means, and end of worship), we worship the trappings of religion. Instead of worshipping the Creator, we worship created things. And we worship the self and its desires most. Those seeds of pride are dangerous to the soul.

    The danger to others comes when we make that self-worship mandatory for them. "How dare they celebrate during worship with loud guitars!" OR "They have such a stodgy form of worship that is outdated. I wish they’d get with the picture!" The very seeds of religion become judgmentalism. Religion becomes something ascetic and something we earn, instead of something given, received, celebrated, and appreciated.

  2. Good words David.

    I wonder if there is a correlation with people who find it tedious to sing in Church, and those who find it tedious to pray?

    Since prayer is a gift from the Holy Spirit that I have to ask for, I wonder if we should encourage our brethren to ask for the gift of singing and the joy of singing?

    Besides, if they refuse to sing they are refusing to obey Christ’s command to admonish the other people in the worship service through songs, hymns, and spiritual songs. They are being selfish and not serving. They are not acting like a hand or eye or foot, but a dismembered limb, or cast off piece like a toenail.

    Since Christ serves us we ought not to assume a posture or practice above that of our master. Singing is foot-washing. Those who do not sing are refusing to wash Christ’s feet. Because WE are his body.

    The first mention of congregational song in the Bible is after crossing the Red Sea. Maybe these parishioners do not realize the full deliverance from Egypt (Sin, Death and the kingdom and tyranny of the Devil). Singing is the response of the redeemed. The slave set free. The victory over oppression. They might not feel it, or OWN it deeply enough. It is the song of remembering past deliverance, while wandering through a wilderness, living in the struggle and hope for the promised land. The book of Psalms is all of this. Are you discouraged? Sing about it. King David did. And we know Christ is our King David, therefore we should sing the songs of our King, that is, the Psalms. He sang on the cross (Psalm 22).

    Ultimately, I believe it is a cultural problem as well. Secular music is the celebration of subjectivism and the freedom of the will as autonomous. Rugged individualism and sensuality. Liturgical music is not, or should not be. It is the celebration of God working through history to redeem His people.

    Every song is a love song, sung to a "beloved". The beloved can be self (narcissism), or another creature, or even an idea or virtue like the harmony of nature or social justice. Ultimately we should gather to sing to our creator. Our lover. Every lament is a cry for intimacy with the beloved. We bemoan the loss of intimacy, and the deep unfulfilled desire for deeper intimacy. (Still havent found what I’m looking for). When the "beloved" in all our love songs is anything other than Christ, we are just harlots singing to our idols.

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