Maybe you’ve never thought about it before. Maybe you already have a concrete idea. Maybe it is a question you’ve always kept to yourself. Why do we sing in church?
Singing a text helps us remember it. Ask a child to recite their ABCs and they’ll greet you with a song. We sing because often the words of a hymn can carry us through trying times, help us celebrate when we’re feeling joyful, or open our eyes to realities within our world. The words we sing are poems set to music and the two are oftentimes so inextricably linked that trying to separate them is comical. For example, try singing the words for Amazing Grace to the tune for “Joy to the World.” Here are the words in case you need them:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Was blind, but now I see.
Was blind, was blind, but now I see.
Alternatively, those of a certain age will remember the TV show Gilligan’s Island. You can sing the first five lines above to the tune of that show’s theme song. Words set to music is obviously a powerful memory tool; one that we use to hand down the Christian story. So, we sing songs to remember important words for important times. We should not scoff at such a practical reason for singing, but what about the liturgical/theological reasons for why we sing? What happens when we sing?
By raising our voices collectively in song, we communally proclaim our faith.
Each of our voices melds with the others around us, and together as the assembled people of God we proclaim the God’s word of grace to each other and to the world. Such communal action is in direct contrast to a culture that idolizes the efforts of the individual. We proclaim this faith together because we must remind one another of the saving grace of God and, in the process, others remind us of this grace.
Also, you may have noticed that in our worship services, the spoken word and song are consistently juxtaposed. The next time you’re in church, notice how we say and sing, say and sing. I like to think of it the same way we think about teaching. Not all are visual learners, not all are aural learners, not all are spatial learners. However, by combining symbol (communion, baptism), spoken word (readings, sermon), music (hymns, liturgical music) and liturgical action (coming up for communion, passing the peace) we create a space where all may encounter the message of Jesus saving death on the cross.
Finally, when we sing together, we become the body of Christ. This is of vital importance to who we are as a community. We do not point to ourselves; it is Christ whom we adore. It is Christ who forms us into a community of faith, and it is Christ who speaks the words of grace around us. As we sing, the good news we hear coming from the mouths of the people around us becomes the word from God, via the Spirit, through the body of Christ! Thus, during worship we who have gathered are the primary musical instrument, having become the mouth, lips, tongue, vocal chords, resonating passages, and lungs of the God of the covenant who has promised to save us.
May the God who calls us, the Christ who redeems us, and the Spirit who sustains us enliven our singing.