Over Christmas I was in conversation with a friend who leads worship at another church and he made the interesting comment that in their worship band they like to play loud enough so that each congregant does not hear the person standing next to them. The idea was that they are not “put off” by their out-of-tune brother and sister to the left and right and that they are in their own special “worship bubble”. The ultimate version of this was in a church I attended about a year ago when the bass guitar signal came through the floorboards with such ferocity that my whole body was vibrating, and in the song all I was aware of was the vocal line from the mike and the persistent, driving bass line. The trouble is, I had always believed this to be an unthinking, unforeseen consequence of worship leaders wanting to crank up the volume to maximum so that God would hear nice and clearly and that the Holy Spirit would come.
But obviously not. Far from being accidental, it is by design, it seems, at least in my friend’s church. My beef with it is fairly fundamentally theological, as well as being musical.
The musical issue first. When we sing, it is good to create beauty in that singing, whether by a sense of enjoyable unison, as Bonhoeffer advocated in Life Together, or as a rich harmonic music, such as that practised in Orthodox churches or in more contemporary charismatic settings. It is a representation of the idea that we are “more than the sum of our parts”. We sing to and with each other because in that there is the opportunity to create beauty together, and we are contributing to the overall effect of the singing. We have lost the tradition, which I remember as a schoolboy in the UK and which is still practised widely in German churches, of having hymnbooks with the melody lines of each hymn printed in them. This was always a good stimulus to harmonisation, particularly in those harmonies which were more widely known in the church. Sunday morning, in Bradwell Church, I sang And can it be? for the first time for ages, and the last line harmonies were lovely, even in a small congregation, satisfying and causing us to rely on each other for musical support and timing. This musical awareness and variety is part of what makes it so satisfying to worship God in song – and this can only be done together. It is part of our worship together and part of being created, musical beings together.
It is noticeable, at least by me on a large number of occasions at a variety of churches where the worship band dominates the soundscape, that many congregants simply stop singing when the music is too loud. Some put their hands over their ears and others have to leave or sit down and tend to their growing medical condition! It is a sad thing to see a bunch of people knowing that their singing will mot make the slightest dent on the wall of sound emanating from the house speakers at the front. The best fun I have at school is leading and listening to the fantastic sound children make when they sing, encouraging them to listen to one another, and to sing to each other or in parts. All of this is made possible a capella or with just a piano or guitar, acoustically.
But there is a deeper theological issue here. We spend the week in comparative isolation from our Christian sisters and brothers, learning from what we have been given on Sunday on how to live our Christian lives, sustained by the daily rites we use – to ensure we pray, read the bible, sing – often on our own. We do not in general articulate this distinction properly to our congregations, and in churches that don’t consider the corporate sense of being (the majority, I think) there is a tendency to isolation even within the gathered meeting. It has been a while since I was in a church where people came in, affirmed each other as worshippers, asked after the progress of their Christian discipleship and then set about singing with spirit and strength, delighting in the sound they made together to God. I think that Methodists used to have this as a feature of their common life; whether it is still prevalent I do not know. When we come to church, we come to corporate worship. There is all sorts of instruction about what we do when we come together in the New Testament, about how in our relationships we submit to each other, about how we forgive each other, and how we look to the common good in all we do. The whole tenor of the church was corporate from the word go – see the passages in the back end of Acts 2 and Acts 4 about having everything in common, about submitting together to the apostles’ teaching about the sharing of bread in the Eucharist; we cannot ignore this strong thrust of mutual encouragement, edification and admonition. Colossians 3 sums it up well:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Col 3: 12-16)
When did all this happen? Mostly, we have to presume, when they were all in one place – as the gathered congregation.
The New Testament uses the plural form of you for the vast majority of the time. Jesus spoke to “you” the disciples in the plural, Paul’s letters are addressed to “you” as a gathered church community in a city of town or (even) a region. When we pray “give us this day our daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer, this stretches across the world so that persecuted brothers and sisters in Iraq or Brunei or Eritrea are included. We are the global body far more than we realise, and there is a grace to consider, in the singing of hymns especially, who has sung this before? Where else this morning has this song been sung, and in how many languages?
But there is a further practical issue flowing from New Testament teaching. In Ephesians 5, Paul writes:
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Eph 5:18-21)
Again, this is not something you can easily do by yourself, so we must presume that this is an instruction for the gathered community, and if so, it is clear that the musical worship and praxis here is not simply God-ward, but also directed to one another. Where this is implicit in the Colossians passage, it is explicit here, and has a strongly inferred link to the sort of church life that Paul taught about in 1 Corinthians 14. It seems that we are not just to listen to each other in worship but also speak and sing to one another. If this is the case, it is unavoidable that the musical accompaniment facilitates that. We are not, therefore, at rock-concert decibel levels, the sort of noise that precludes shouted conversation, never mind spoken worship to one another. No wonder then that certain more conservative muscial traditions have decided to do without musical instrumentation altogether, as did the early church until about 650 AD (the term a capella should give us at least a clue here!)
As a lover of loud music of a wide variety of genres, I accept therefore that music is a handmaiden of the worshipping and gathered community, not its mistress.
There are some big implications here for any church life – the content of our conversation, the design of our liturgy, the role of instruction in the gathered assembly, and the purpose and words of the songs we sing – but to begin with, let’s just listen to the lovely sound we make when we sing together, brothers and sisters.