The church is one of the only places in our culture today where people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities gather together for one hour on Sunday mornings and sing as a group. Throughout the rest of the week, we mostly listen to soloists singing songs that highlight their skill as individuals, whether it’s pop, country, rock, even contemporary Christian radio, or we watch soloists compete on shows like The Voice; even if we go out to listen to live music, it’s all lead-singer driven.
This increasing cultural focus on the solo singer, and the pursuit of flashy, individual talent and show-offy singing to the exclusion of all else (e.g. the national anthem at ball games), is tragic inasmuch as it marks the demise of group song. Singing with a group is one of the most profoundly unifying activities in which we can engage. Singing together unified and empowered the Civil Rights Movement of the last century. Singing carols brought together the two sides of the Western Front during the cease-fire on Christmas Day in 1914. And lifting our voices together in worship unites the church in the same way: it is an essential practice that strengthens the community of the church in a way nothing else can, which is why from its very beginning, the church has sung together.
When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Mark 14:26)
John Wesley, like the other hymnists of the Great Awakening, realized the power of a singing church; from the beginning, the people called Methodists were known as “a singing people.” In his 1761 hymnal Select Hymns, Wesley included “Directions for Singing” to encourage congregational song, and these can still be found in the front of our hymnal today.
At first glance, these directions might seem a little archaic or pedantic (and okay, fair enough, perhaps they actually are slightly pedantic….), but if we look closer, we can still find so much wisdom in them, even for the church today.
I. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.
Our hymnal consists of a traditional core of hymns that belongs to the wider United Methodist people. The inclusion of new hymns and songs in our worship is essential to the growth of the church; and yet, the use of this hymnal as the core of our congregational singing unites us with the global United Methodist church in theology, doctrine, faith, and experience.
II. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.
We generally defer to the hymnal tunes because part of singing as a group is agreeing on the melody. If all United Methodists sing hymns the same way, we can come together and sing as one voice without disputes over the “right” way for the hymn to go.
III. Sing all. See that you join 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.
One of the most powerful worship experiences I’ve ever had was while singing a song I didn’t particularly like. I noticed a woman next to me who was so moved by the music that she had tears streaming down her face. In that moment, I realized that by getting past my personal preferences and singing a hymn despite not “feeling” it, one of my sisters in Christ was able to have a transformative faith experience through the music.
IV. Sing lustily and with 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 its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
Sometimes we can crank up the radio and sing along in the car by ourselves, but get shy when we get into church because other people can hear us. Remember, though: we’re not singing for others, but for God. Psalm 98 and 100 both tell us to “make a joyful noise to the Lord.” God hears us whenever we sing and is never ashamed at our voices, so why should we be? Lift up your voice and make a joyful noise to the Lord!
V. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one melodious sound.
And if you’re not ashamed of your singing voice, take care that you’re not showing off. This isn’t the time to audition for The Voice, or to make sure everyone around you hears how good you are; sing so that your voice blends with your neighbors. Help and encourage those around you with your singing leadership, so that the strength in your voice strengthens the church’s song, rather than highlighting your own talent.
VI. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
Sometimes we can think that being reverent means we have to be serious and stoic. There is definitely an appropriate time for seriousness in our worship, but there is also a time for joyousness and exuberance in our music! Sing with heart, with passion, and with energy.
VII. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
We are not singing for ourselves, but for God. We sing because it helps us engage in worship. We sing because it unites us as “a singing people”. We sing to come together as a community of Christ, committed in faith to God, to each other, and to all the world. We sing our faith, our experience of Christ, our praise of God, and our adoration of the Spirit. We sing our theology. We sing our love. We sing our joy, and we sing our pain. Through the songs of Holy Week, we sing our grief of the crucifixion; and on Easter morning, we sing the ecstasy of the resurrection. We sing because God’s people sing, and we are people of God.
I encourage you, as Christ’s church, to sing “with good courage” when we gather on Sunday mornings to worship God and to lift our voices in song!