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Voices, hearts, lungs as spiritual instruments

Multiple forces conspire against the venerable practice of a cappella singing in worship. The challenge is partly external, the consequence of a changing culture. Group singing of all kinds — whether in schools, homes or churches — is in danger of extinction in America.
As financially strapped schools cut arts programs, denying children the opportunity to sing; as Americans become a passive, listening culture, accustomed to highly produced professional recordings; as more churches rely increasingly on amplified bands, whether vocal or instrumental, the net effect is the marginalization of the voices of ordinary people.
Where in today’s culture are people socialized to sing often, naturally, in groups? Pete Seeger observed,
“Once upon a time wasn’t singing a part of everyday life, as much as talking, physical exercise, going to church? Our distant ancestors … sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes or walking long journeys.” Those days are over. While older Christians may cherish fond memories of robust singing, we cannot assume the young will enjoy the same memories. Will the next generation continue to sing? Perhaps so, but we have much to do.
It is easy to blame external forces that diminish singing, but to rail against instrumental music does nothing to cause one to love a cappella music. A strong argument for a cappella singing is to experience it in its full power. If one never experiences the soul-stirring power of human voices joyously united in song, theological argument alone will scarcely sustain the tradition. If we are honest, we will admit that our own inattention and poor choices work against the survival of a cappella singing.
If we want to preserve congregational singing, we will devote much more positive attention to it, developing talented song leaders who are devoted to excellent music and able to teach old and new songs in fresh ways.
With excellent leading, old hymns can be made new. We will devote special attention to children’s singing. Children naturally love to sing. If they no longer love to sing when they reach adulthood, church leaders must ask: What might we be doing wrong?
We must scour the earth to identify the finest, truly “singable” songs. Most congregations rely on too narrow a repertoire. Fine hymns are being written by believers around the globe. Why shouldn’t some of these enter our worship services? Some fellowships, such as the Mennonites, have done an impressive job of building a repertoire of hymns from around the world — folk, Asian, African, old American hymnody, new American hymnody, old Psalms and new, gospel, Taizé and spirituals. Our congregations could learn much about hymnody from our neighbors.
If we are truly serious about preserving congregational singing, we will invest in music instruction for all the church, just as we invest in preaching and teaching. We will argue about it less; we will practice it more. We will build or remodel our buildings so that they enhance, rather than mute, the bold, harmonious voice of the people. How sad it is that many church buildings today inhibit congregational singing.
Very importantly, we will reframe the reasons why we sing. For some, singing is important only because it serves as a mark of the true church, a legal requirement, which does little to inspire the love of singing.
What if singing is less a sectarian marker and more the sacrifice of sincere praise? What if we understood our voices, hearts, and lungs as spiritual instruments, played by the very Spirit of God? What if every singer saw hymns as “magnificent structures” which “every participant helps build in mid-air, built out of air, out of the spirit and breath God gave us,” which “we offer back to him in love,” as Frederica Mathewes-Green maintains? What if we were to sing, not because we had to, but because it is a rare privilege, the sacrifice of one’s self to the very One who gives us breath?
Will congregational singing survive? Yes, because it is true to the Word of God. Yes, because in song God’s people encounter their Creator. Yes, because God is enthroned on the praises of Israel (Psalm 22:3). Yes, because we mortals cannot resist the God-given urge to express our greatest joys and deepest longings through song.
However, if we want singing to thrive, not merely survive, then we must restore the joy of singing. Singing must be a powerful, transformative, experiential element in our lives. Old and young alike must be taught to sing, to sing well. They must be invited to sing the best that has been composed — the best lyrics, the best music.
The great Mennonite hymnologist Mary Oyer has written, “We have a wonderful heritage. I think we will keep it only if we sing. We have to sing much more. We have to practice by doing it. Sing more. Keep singing. Sing. Sing. Sing. Sing before church. Sing during church. Sing after church. Just do it.”
DARRYL TIPPENS is provost of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and organizer of The Ascending Voice II, a symposium of sacred a cappella music set for May 12-15 at Pepperdine.

  • Feedback
    The phrases “to rail against instrumental music” & “less a sectarian marker” shows indifference to those who stand for truth. Who makes acapella singing a “sectarian marker”? Is it those who desire to worship Him in humble obedience according to Col 3:16-17? OR, is it those who are more interested in appeasement, and sacrificing truth, for better relations with denominations? “Doing all in the name of the Lord Jesus” includes singing in worship. Where is the authority from Jesus to sing with instruments? We improve singing to improve worship to God, and to help us grow in knowledge, love, and in spirit, in Christ Eph 4:12-18. As in all things, we should also work to grow in singing. Strive to sing with the spirit, heart,and love.
    Ed Carmona
    The church of Christ that meets in in Montgomery
    Houston, TX
    September, 7 2012

    Singing hymns and spiritual songs
    as our worship to God Almighty is
    mandated in the Scriptures. Let us be true worshipers as God wants us
    to do. The pattern must be followed in our worship. Our whole being must follow the will of God.
    Felix A. Bravo
    Tarlac City Church of Christ
    Tarlac City, Tarlac province
    May, 15 2010

    I appreciate the article on singing. I agree that leaders should take part in creating opportunities for teens to learn songs, etc., however, once again we want to take the responsibilities of spiritual growth away from where God placed it first (Eph. 6:4). That includes teaching them about songs to our God. Thanks for the article.
    robert brooks
    forest pk ga
    east point, ga
    April, 13 2010

    For most in this culture worship is an empty practice anyway because it’s not from the heart it’s merely an activity. Singing with or without an instrument is hardly the issue, although many make it so. The issue isn’t about “what I’m doing” it’s “WHY I’m doing it.” If more of us would grasp the truth of that reality then our worship would truly be transformative in every moment of our life.
    Daren Mitchell
    New Hope Christian Church
    marshalltown, iowa
    April, 12 2010

    Well said! I have been talking about this for years, but never this eloquently. Thank you for putting it into words I can now share with others.
    Lane England
    Cold Harbor Road Church of Christ
    Mechanicsville, VA
    United States
    April, 12 2010

    How often do you really hear Christians singing WITH THE SPIRIT and with understanding also. I believe it would raise the roof!
    Betty Shinsato
    McDermott Rd. church of Christ
    Plano, TX
    April, 10 2010

    What a great and timely article.
    When’s the last time you’ve seen
    a lectureship with anything on it
    concerning singing?(other than
    condemning the instrument). In the
    congregation I grew up in, the teens were the best singers. We
    sat on the 2-4 rows. In many congregations it is said,
    “Well, our teens don’t like to sing.” If they don’t, then the elders,youth minister,or whoever needs to get busy and start having singing emphasis regularly. Bring back the singing schools and workshops.
    Gail Russell
    Sylvan Hills church of Christ
    Jacksonville, Arkansas
    April, 9 2010

    Fine article. My encouragement is to for us get a pitch pipe in the hand of any young one who is interested in furthering his/her understanding of a cappella four-part singing. Then teach them how to use it.
    Getting the right pitch is the KEY .
    Kenneth Perkins
    North Oaks Church of Christ
    Canyon Country , CA
    United States
    April, 9 2010

    The best case for a cappella singing is a cappella singing at its best. One cannot argue that a cappella only singing is superior to all other forms of praise if said singing is wretched.
    Victor Knowles
    Joplin, MO
    Peace on Earth Ministries
    April, 9 2010

    I live in Germany and grew up with a strong singing tradition – we would sing in church, we would sing in our homes, we would sing in youth group, all night at camp, in fact we have won new members because they loved the singing! I am a music teacher in school and find the same: People do not sing anymore, kids don´t know songs, but in the church is it different. Just recently I spent 2 weeks in the States and was very disappointed – instead of everybody singing everything together a worship group did that most of the times! I felt left out of worship because I could not share the singing, or the beamers only showed the words but not the music.The unity of the brotherhood used to be shown in singing, but not any more!
    Irene Reinhardt
    Hildesheim Church of Christ
    Wunstorf, Lower Saxony
    April, 9 2010

    I am one of those very fortunate people who was raised in the church. Both my parents were faithful Christians as were both sets of my grandparents. We all attended the same congregation when I was growing up. Singing praise to my Creator has always been a big part of my life. It helps when I am stressed.
    Cecelia Boles
    Gorman Church of Christ
    Cisco, Texas
    April, 9 2010

    The Elders of my congregation have allowed singing/song practice to take the place our our regularly scheduled Wednesday night Bible class on two occassions for a month at a time. We learned new songs and perfected old ones. A particular song leader used scripture to demonstrate why singing was a necessary part of worship and how we are to approach it. It was well received and beneficial to our congregation.
    Monique White
    Wyoming Avenue Church of Christ (Detroit, MI)
    Southfield, MI
    April, 9 2010

    that is a wonderful article. I grow up in the church and I can remember hearing my parents singing while they went about a day. My dad to me once, “singing makes your work more relaxing” and I have proven that to be true. I thank God for allowing us to use our voices to worship Him.
    Neriah LeBlanc
    COC Tortola British Virgin Islands
    Road Town, British Virgin Islands
    Tortola British Virgin Islands
    April, 9 2010

    As I read your reminder of the joy of singing praise to God, I was reminded of the stirring worship in a small home church in Wollongong, Australia a few weeks ago. We sang until it felt like we were at the throne of God singing, “How great is our God, Sing with me, How Great is our God, and all will see how great, how great is our God!” It is an experience I will always remember.
    Jerita Southern Whaley
    Southern Hills Church of Christ
    Abilene, Texas
    April, 8 2010

    I am for investing in singing because it is commanded, edifying and beautiful. I am against using instruments in accompaniment of our worshiping in song because God has not authorized it. I believe that singing is a mark of the church. I believe that God requires it because he commanded us to do it. In spite of the fact that I am not a good singer by any worldly standard I love worshiping God in song. I do not find any of my convictions to be contradictory – instead I find them to be complementary.
    David White
    North Penn Church of Christ
    Lansdale, PA
    April, 8 2010

    Wonderful thoughts, but I would add one, slight, corrective. Some Mennonites may have done better than we have done at collecting and using songs from around the world, but, in my experience, most churches of Christ, when compared to most denominations, have better hymnals and sing a wider variety of hymns than others are singing. I attended a seminary run by a church of about the same size as churches of Christ. They have only two hymnals to choose from, and the songs selected for these hymnals are comparatively narrow — theologically and musically. Let’s not kick ourselves too hard. We could and should improve, but we have a lot for which to be thankful.
    Thayer Salisbury
    Flanders Road Church of Christ
    Toledo, Ohio
    April, 8 2010

    I think a better reason for the non-use of the instrument is that
    it drowns out the message given in the song. The reason we give- that the bible condemns it- I do not think to be true.
    Beulah Wall
    Norman, Okla.
    April, 8 2010

    What a gret article! I commend Tippens for this, as well as his book, “Why We Sing.” Over the past few years I’ve attended churches of Christ where, if one did not know otherwise, they would think they were in a rock concert: the instruments are so loud that vocal participation is simply impossible. The same can be said about some praise teams–they’re overwhelming. Thanks again,
    Anita Hassey
    Gulf Coast Church of Christ
    Ft. Myers, Florida
    April, 8 2010

    Wonderful thoughts & great reasoning. A problem also exists with older congragations rebelling against new songs and good song leaders who can lead the old ones differently. Wonder what ever happened to singing schools and Sunday afternoon gatherings of young people’s singing groups?
    Michael Newby
    Canton church of Christ
    Canton, Texas
    April, 8 2010

    Actually I don’t believe that singing or listening to professionally produced singing is an issue at all. In the 1800’s the church was divided again and again by brethren opting to use the organ in the worship (Search for the Ancient Order vol 1 & 2) This was long before any of these reasons were in vogue. The problem with the church today is the same it was then. Brothers and Sisters don’t want to follow the law of God.
    Terry Clayton
    Loma Rica church of Christ
    Marysville, CA
    April, 8 2010

    Great analysis of what we need – we need worship leaders! Not song leaders. We need to emphasise the worship through song, not merely the singing! Thanks Darryl!
    Buckingham Rd CoC
    Garland, TX
    April, 8 2010

    Darryl is absolutely right when he mentions that the motivation that many use for acappella singing is just to fulfill a command. Most sermons on singing focus on “why we don’t use mechanical music.” (Certainly an important lesson.) But it is a shame that we don’t have lessons on why we sing … not just the command but the blessings of encouragement, instruction, example, expressing joy and praise to God, expressing prayer in song, etc. Darryl’s little booklet “That’s Why We Sing” makes a good resource for such a study.
    Larry Fitzgerald
    Plainview Church of Christ of Colorado City, Texas
    Abilene, Texas
    April, 8 2010

    I could not agree with Darryl more! As a song leader for over 35 years, I am thrilled to see some new songs being introduced. Some of them, however, are not only nearly impossible to sing congregationally, they are simply repetitious and, more importantly, not scripturally sound! Darryl’s point about devoting more attention to developing talented song leaders is right on. Thanks for this inspirational article!
    Dee Carter
    Fairmont Park Church of Christ
    Midland, Texas
    April, 8 2010

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