Worship as a Cross to Bear: John Wesley’s Anti-Consumeristic Approach

Zac HicksCulture, History of Worship and Church Music, Worship Leading Tips, Worship Theology & Thought7 Comments

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

1. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.

For every Sunday that I have led worship; for every special event where I have led congregational singing, there is always at least one person (but usually a measurable percentage, such as 5-10%) who refuses to sing, and stares at me or the band or the screen.  Their look almost always communicates one of four things—boredom, distraction, disgust, or anger.

The following reasons are the “usuals” that I’ve heard:

  • They refuse to sing because it is a certain style
  • They refuse to sing because they don’t know the song
  • They refuse to sing because the song is too hard to sing
  • They refuse to sing because they dislike congregational singing
  • They refuse to sing because they believe they have a bad voice
  • They refuse to sing because they don’t consider themselves a follower of Jesus and don’t want to give lip service to praising Him (in my opinion, ironically, this is the most honorable reason).

There are more, but these are the biggies.  Wesley has some important words to speak to the matter.  First, we must admit that his words seem very forward and maybe even offensive: “Who are YOU to tell ME how and when to sing with the congregation?  That’s MY choice!”  The individualism and idolatry of self had not yet wrapped its gnarly fingers around the neck of America when Wesley was writing this.  (But obviously something was going on which was significant enough for Wesley to put it into his rules…and put it first, at that.)  Why would Wesley demand that we “sing all”?  Because there are many reasons why it’s tempting not to.  Notice the word “tempting”?  Yes, the enemy takes pleasure out of robbing God of the worship He is due, and all our many “reasons” play right into his hands.  Wesley was aware of this.

Second, Wesley points out another worship-robbing idol: our own comfort.  The fact that, for some, to sing may be a “cross to bear” insinuates that it is still a worthwhile endeavor despite its difficulty.  In fact, it is a way that we become more like Christ.  For the person who says, “I just don’t like singing…I don’t get a lot out of it.”  Wesley’s answer is, “It’s not about you. Deny yourself and take up your cross.”  What a different approach to worship!  Worship (specifically singing) is not a product to be consumed by some and left on the shelf by others.  It is something we all must do, even if it means it is at times (or permanently) difficult for us.

7 Comments on “Worship as a Cross to Bear: John Wesley’s Anti-Consumeristic Approach”

  1. I wonder what percentage of those people you listed, get in their car after the service, turn on their music, and begin singing along during their drive home?

    They are not alone however. St. Augustine struggled with this also.

    [XXXIII.] 49. The delights of the ear, had more firmly entangled and subdued me; but Thou did loosen, and free me. Now, in those melodies which Thy words breathe soul into, when sung with a sweet and attuned voice, I do a little repose; yet not so as to be held thereby, but that I can disengage myself when I will. But with the words which are their life and whereby they find admission into me, themselves seek in my affections a place of some estimation, and I can scarcely assign them one suitable. For at one time I seem to myself to give them more honour than is seemly, feeling our minds to be more holily and fervently raised unto a flame of devotion, by the holy words themselves when thus sung, than when not; and that the several affections of our spirit, by a sweet variety, have their own proper measures in the voice and singing, by some hidden correspondence wherewith they are stirred up. But this contentment of the flesh, to which the soul must not be given over to be enervated, doth oft beguile me, the sense not so waiting upon reason, as patiently to follow her; but having been admitted merely for her sake, it strives even to run before her, and lead her. Thus in these things I unawares sin, but afterwards am aware of it.

    50. At other times, shunning over-anxiously this very deception, I err in too great strictness; and sometimes to that degree, as to wish the whole melody of sweet music which is used to David’s Psalter, banished from my ears, and the Church’s too; and that mode seems to me safer, which I remember to have been often told me of Athanasius Bishop of Alexandria, who made the reader of the psalm utter it with so slight inflection of voice that it was nearer speaking than singing. Yet again, when I remember the tears I shed at the Psalmody of Thy Church, in the beginning of my recovered faith; and how at this time, I am moved, not with the singing, but with the things sung, when they are sung with a clear voice and modulation most suitable, I acknowledge the great use of this institution. Thus I fluctuate between peril of pleasure and approved wholesomeness; inclined the rather (though not as pronouncing an irrevocable opinion) to approve of the usage of singing in the church; that so by the delight of the ears, the weaker minds may rise to the feeling of devotion. Yet when it befalls me to be more moved with the voice than the words sung, I confess to have sinned penally, and then had rather not hear music. See now my state; weep with me, and weep for me, ye, who so regulate your feelings within, as that good action ensues. For you who do not act, these things touch not you. But, Thou, O Lord my God, hearken; behold, and see, and have mercy, and heal me, Thou, in whose presence I have become a problem to myself; and that is my infirmity.

    Saint Augustine, Confessions of S. Augustine, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1907, trans. E.B. Pusey, pp. 234-236.

  2. Zac,

    I didn’t know that this section of Wesley’s words on worship were so widespread! I stumbled across them in a Methodist hymnal from my alma mater (Syracuse University) which way back used to be a Methodist school/seminary. I found his words terribly convicting and useful. Some thoughts of mine having been a worship leader for ~2 years…

    – 5-10% Wow! I think that this would be unprecedented for the congregation that I lead worship at. Mainly in the fact that I would estimate a much larger percent did not sing. This always broke my heart mildly (especially as my theology of corporate worship was informed by helpful sources) to see friends and strangers standing there, perhaps with arms crossed, during times of song. If I had to put a number on it, maybe 30-40% did not sing.

    – Regarding the different objections for not singing:
    *Certain style: Broaden your musical tastes. Put effort forth to exploring how different styles can be enjoyed. Pray about it!
    *Don’t know the song: Listen for a verse and a chorus to catch the melody and then join in the next time around!
    *Song is too hard to sing: Point may be well taken. Some songs can be arranged in a painful key to sing in. Sing down the octave if you can or maybe even ask the worship leader to take these kind of things into consideration!
    *Dislike congregational singing: Hmm, I would have to say repent of this. Read the psalms and see how much it notes about singing "in the congregation" or "with the peoples" etc.
    *Bad voice: This may be true…for human ears. I am certain God loves a heart that sings full of emotion. Seems to be more of a fear of man issue perhaps?

    "If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing."
    I would reckon that most people singing (and not singing) in churches today have never heard this exhortation. I think they would likely respond well to it or oppose it in an individualistic way like you talked about in the post.

    Singing can be hard, but oh what a blessing it truly is when we realize who we sing to and who he is. : )

    Looking forward to the next post Zac!

  3. A more readable translation of my previous post:

    CHAPTER XXXIII

    49. The delights of the ear drew and held me much more powerfully, but
    thou didst unbind and liberate me. In those melodies which thy words
    inspire when sung with a sweet and trained voice, I still find repose;
    yet not so as to cling to them, but always so as to be able to free
    myself as I wish. But it is because of the words which are their life
    that they gain entry into me and strive for a place of proper honor in
    my heart; and I can hardly assign them a fitting one. Sometimes, I seem
    to myself to give them more respect than is fitting, when I see that
    our minds are more devoutly and earnestly inflamed in piety by the holy
    words when they are sung than when they are not. And I recognize that
    all the diverse affections of our spirits have their appropriate
    measures in the voice and song, to which they are stimulated by I know
    not what secret correlation. But the pleasures of my flesh–to which
    the mind ought never to be surrendered nor by them enervated–often
    beguile me while physical sense does not attend on reason, to follow
    her patiently, but having once gained entry to help the reason, it
    strives to run on before her and be her leader. Thus in these things I
    sin unknowingly, but I come to know it afterward.

    50. On the other hand, when I avoid very earnestly this kind of
    deception, I err out of too great austerity. Sometimes I go to the
    point of wishing that all the melodies of the pleasant songs to which
    David’s Psalter is adapted should be banished both from my ears and
    from those of the Church itself. In this mood, the safer way seemed to
    me the one I remember was once related to me concerning Athanasius,
    bishop of Alexandria, who required the readers of the psalm to use so
    slight an inflection of the voice that it was more like speaking than
    singing.

    However, when I call to mind the tears I shed at the songs of thy
    Church at the outset of my recovered faith, and how even now I am
    moved, not by the singing but by what is sung (when they are sung with
    a clear and skillfully modulated voice), I then come to acknowledge the
    great utility of this custom. Thus I vacillate between dangerous
    pleasure and healthful exercise. I am inclined–though I pronounce no
    irrevocable opinion on the subject–to approve of the use of singing in
    the church, so that by the delights of the ear the weaker minds may be
    stimulated to a devotional mood. [371] Yet when it happens that I am
    more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to
    have sinned wickedly, and then I would rather not have heard the
    singing. See now what a condition I am in! Weep with me, and weep for
    me, those of you who can so control your inward feelings that good
    results always come forth. As for you who do not act this way at all,
    such things do not concern you. But do thou, O Lord, my God, give ear;
    look and see, and have mercy upon me; and heal me–thou, in whose sight
    I am become an enigma to myself; this itself is my weakness.

    Confessions of S. Augustine

  4. I was trying to be generous with my 5-10%, but you’re right, Trevor. I am too optimistic. 🙂

  5. I figure the non singers (for whatever reasons of their own) are in the 30 – 40% range. Which challenges me to do what I'm doing in a way that encourages them to listen actively, not just wait 'til it's over. If they're not singing because they're afraid to, or they're just too hurt, then the freedom to listen can be a gift and a balm. As long as the worship leader is singing well and passionately, and from a place of genuineness. As long as we're giving them scriptures and readings that mean something. That's our job. Not to make people sing. That may come – with time, with knowing that they're accepted in the congregation, with healing, with learning.

  6. GREAT thoughts, Ruth. Very wise. I've seen listening-as-a-balm in action before, and you're right!

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