Yes, today is Wednesday. It’s hump day, it’s already the middle of the week, and I’ve neglected to post the traditional first-day-of-school pictures that have always marked the beginning of another education cycle at Stanglin Manor. The tradition is that I wake them up five minutes before their alarms are set to ring with several loud and very off key singings of “School Bells.” And, right before we head out the door, the taking of the pictures. Here they are: Valerie, our “little middle,” a junior now at Amarillo High; and Carley, our “tiny bear,” entering 8th grade at Bonham.
I’d like to spend today and tomorrow considering a piece authored by Sean Palmer, a very talented preacher of the Word down in Temple, Texas. This short article was forwarded to me a couple of weeks ago by our worship minister here at Central, Kevin Schaffer. I love the article and want to share it and explore it in this space for two reasons: 1) I agree with it entirely; it says everything I’ve been preaching and teaching about corporate singing for many years, and 2) it says it so much better than I ever have.
With Sean’s forgiveness (he has to forgive me; he’s a Christian!), I’m just going to paste the first half of the article right here:
There’s nothing the church does so wonderfully and terribly as singing. If you’ve spent more than 10-minutes inside an American worship service, you already know how important singing is. Regardless of the worship style of your congregation, the music is important and usually done well. Music has power. It transforms moments and has the power to embed memories and stir emotions. We are moved by the singing and music in ways little else can or does. For most of us, the music and singing of our congregation is one of the major reasons we picked it.
And that’s the problem. In the mid-20th century, some traveling and nationally known preachers decided that a “personal Savior” was the carrot-and-stick that would motivate non-believers to come to faith. It worked. For the last 50-years, the sales pitch for faith in Jesus has been a personal one. “If YOU were to die today, where would you spend eternity? If YOU ask Jesus into your heart… If YOU accept Jesus as your personal Savior…” A measure of individualistic focus is right and good. After all, I live in a world where I cannot make faith decisions for other people. And as a good Anabaptist, I would choose not to even if I could. Nevertheless, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that such a singular focus could result in much other than a self-centered faith. After all, we got into this for personal reasons.
And that’s where the singing comes in.
Our corporate/common singing, regardless of the musical style of our congregation, is still viewed by too many as an individual pursuit. This is odd, because we can’t do corporate singing alone. We just wish the songs were picked and sang as if corporate worship existed for us alone. Don’t believe me? Do you know anyone who left their church because of a change in “worship?” In truth, these changes are barely changes in worship. Most churches still celebrate the Eucharist, engage sermons, sing, pray, and — sadly — have announcements. What changes is the singing! And the reason people leave over “worship” is because they no longer “like” the singing… personally.
Of course, we rarely say that out loud. We say, “It’s not what I grew up with. This music doesn’t speak to me. I’m not being fed by this.” Or we evaluate the musicality and lyrical content of the music. Don’t get me wrong. It hardly ever matters what style of music you prefer — hymns, CCM, instrumental, Gregorian, a cappella, classical, jazz — all of us do the same thing.
Our problem is that we enjoy, celebrate, bemoan, criticize, and judge church life based on what we like. We are deciding on the basis of what we like because we’ve bought into the lie that our corporate singing should be personal. Personal worship for a personal Savior, right? But what would church look like if we reframed corporate singing, not in the ever-narrowing category of “worship,” but as a spiritual discipline?
If corporate singing were a spiritual discipline…
Allright, let’s stop right here for the day. I’ll post the second half of the article, all five of Palmer’s reasons for viewing congregational singing as a spiritual discipline, tomorrow. For now, let’s consider his premise that most of the people in our churches — including, if we don’t guard against it, our church leaders — view their salvation in Jesus Christ as a personal thing.
In our increasingly individualistic and highly specialized society, our default is to see what God has done through Christ on the cross and what the Spirit did at the garden tomb was for me. Christ died for me. God loves me. Jesus gives me eternal life. I am saved. I am a Christian. I worship God. He answers my prayers. Me, me, me!
Contemporary praise songs support this individualistic view of our salvation and relationship with God. Most church songs written in the U.S.A. in the last quarter-century use many more singular personal pronouns than plural. O Lord, Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary. A Shield About Me. My God is Mighty to Save. I will Call Upon the Lord. I stand to praise you, but I fall on my knees. O God, you are my God, and I will ever praise you. My Life is in You, Lord. Holy Lord, most holy Lord, you alone are worthy of my praise. On Bended Knee I Come. Nobody Fills My Heart Like Jesus. He Has Made Me Glad. I Worship You, Almighty God. Make Me a Servant. The joy of the Lord will be my strength, I will not falter, I will not faint. You Are My All and All. Jesus, you’re my firm foundation, I know I can stand secure. Lord, I Lift Your Name on High. I Sing Praises to Your Name. I could go on and on. But this is enough to make the point.
They’re not all like this. Some of the songs we sing together speak as or to the corporate body of Christ. But for every We Bring the Sacrifice of Praise or We Shall Assemble on the Mountain, there are a dozen or more songs like There’s a stirring deep within me and Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that you’re my God.
Those of you who are members of churches who use an abundance of technology during corporate worship, have you noticed how all the pictures and backgrounds are mainly of one person worshiping God? You probably haven’t noticed it or paid attention to it because it’s so prevalent in our society and, consequently now, in our churches. Look at it this Sunday. One man standing on a mountain with his hands raised to God. One woman in a field, bowing down in prayer to God. It’s in our PowerPoints and Easy Worships, on our bulletins and websites, our art and our language foster and support this idea of an individualistic salvation. Kevin tells me all the time it’s next to impossible to find worship images for our use in assemblies that depict more than one person adoring God.
Naturally, and unfortunately, this shapes us into a people who expect the songs on Sunday mornings to be our personal favorite songs, the songs we personally enjoy, the songs that speak to us personally, the songs that personally move us or have special meaning for us. Personally. Of course, no one is saved alone. Not one person is saved by him or herself. God saves us together, with one another, belonging to one another, in a faith community. Together. The overwhelming majority of the pronouns in Scripture are plural. The Bible was written for the collection of God’s people. God so loved the whole world that he gave Jesus who came and died for the whole world. We are made more like Christ together. We grow in the Spirit as a group. We watch and pray, sacrifice and serve, as a body. Worship in our Scriptures is never an individual or a personal thing. But we’re all programmed to view it that way. As long as we do, we’ll keep having “worship wars” and we’ll keep judging the worth of a church assembly based on our own personal preferences.