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That’s Why We Sing: We can revitalize a cappella worship

Further, a significant number of our own young people — high school, college — are asking for more traditional hymns and a more formalized (read: liturgical) service.
Part of our problem in Churches of Christ has been a scarcity of historical knowledge as it affects our worship practices. Far too many of our members believe that they know church music when, in fact, they only know Church of Christ music, and that often means Church of Christ music of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. This lack of historical perspective has kept many misconceptions alive for generations. An example would be demanding that our hymnals be typeset in shaped notes. The fact is that less than 2 percent of our members have even a rudimentary grounding in shaped notes (no new convert reads shaped notes), and virtually nobody younger than 40 understands what the phrase “shaped note” means.
Which brings me to Darryl Tippens’ new publication. It’s a smallish tome, only 28 pages of text, but it has the missionary fervor of a gospel preacher shouting down a mob of sinners. That’s Why We Sing is a reworking and augmenting of a chapter he wrote for a book titled Pilgrim Heart (Leafwood, 2006. ISBN 0-9748441-7-9; $13.99; 220 pages).
In this new printed incarnation, Tippens moves beyond our traditional defense of unaccompanied singing (commonly called a cappella, meaning “as in chapel,” meaning the Sistine Chapel where all music was to be vocal only). In his booklet he gives a listing of things that congregational music can do for us (change us, inspire our faith, proclaim the good news, et al). Good stuff, albeit occasionally a bit intellectualized for the average pew-sitter. To be truthful, some of the writing is a trifle over the metaphorical edge. For instance, Augustine’s mystical explanation of the tambourine and lyre mentioned in Psalm 149 is not all that helpful: “On a tambourine you have skin stretched out, and in a stringed instrument you have catgut stretched out. So in both instruments ordinary flesh is ‘crucified.’” What?
That slight quibble aside, it is in the questions asked and the suggestions made that the booklet makes its substantial mark. The whole booklet has the “voice” of a true believer calling half-believers to a more glorious method of worshiping.
For example, Tippens asks, “Where are the regional and national meetings devoted to enhancing congregational singing? How many Bible lectureships give special attention to teaching new hymns? Where is the Christian university willing to establish a Center for A Cappella Worship? Where do worship leaders meet to share their knowledge of hymns, their methods for teaching new songs and old? Who is helping to revitalize the singing in old churches, small churches?”
Tippens even takes on our ill-conceived church architecture, which emphasizes dead acoustics, thereby exalting the sermon and killing the singing.
Amen, brother! Preach it!
Such questions are not purely theoretical for Tippens. He has also organized a new four-day lectureship-like meeting at Pepperdine University called The Ascending Voice that will feature lectures and concerts exalting the power of gathered a cappella voices. The stunning power of congregated voices has been barely tapped. Tippens wants our congregations to get back in the game. Among others, he mentions the conversion of the writers Anne Lamott and Kathleen Norris strictly through the power of overheard congregational singing.
In my own congregation we have given up using special music — quartet, small chorus — for funerals and gone back to congregational singing. We realize that everyone singing a few familiar hymns in honor of a dead friend is a comforting catharsis for both the congregation at large and the bereaved family in particular.
Many of our congregations are still a long distance from the ideal worship environment. Tippens’ small work, That’s Why We Sing, is a worthy attempt to bridge that gulf.

JACK BOYD is professor of music emeritus at Abilene Christian University in Texas.
This article includes material used by permission from his Leading the Lord’s Praise (Praise Press, 2005). Contact him at [email protected].

Filed under: Reviews Staff Reports

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