As our churches begin to consider the implications for leaving lockdown and the gradual return of gathered worship, one part of the government guidance requires examination:
Activities such as singing and/or playing instruments should be avoided, with the exception of organists who are able to use buildings for practice with appropriate social distancing. The government is continuing to work on scientific and medical advice around how such activities can best be managed safely and further guidance will follow on this shortly.[i]
Acknowledging the transmission implications of singing, this guidance begs the question of whether singing is actually a necessary part of church life. Does it matter if we can sing or not? To answer we must ask firstly, is singing and making music important?
Research conducted by Microsoft search engine Bing revealed that in 2017 the average Briton listened to over 3500 songs per year.[ii] That roughly equates to an album a day. When you figure in advertising jingles, TV theme songs, and the muzak played in shopping centres, this might be a conservative estimate. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin proposes:
‘Music is not simply a distraction or a pastime, but a core element of our identity as a species’[iii]
The bible gives us an insight into the truth of this statement. Genesis tells us that we are made in the image of a creating, communicating, relational and responsive God. And consequently, we reflect our maker by singing and making our own music. And whilst this is generally true for all of mankind, it is particularly true of God’s people who have historically responded to God and his works with songs of praise – think the songs of Moses and Miriam in Exodus, the psalms, Luke’s infancy canticles. John Piper explains why this is the case:
‘the realities of God and Christ, creation and salvation, heaven and hell are so great that when they are known truly and felt duly, they demand more than discussion and analysis and description; they demand poetry and song and music.’[iv]
Songs effectively articulate our feelings and emotions, which is why we always need to think carefully about what we are singing and why. But never-the-less, as Piper says, when we are captivated by the glory of the gospel of Jesus our hearts are compelled to sing his praise and worship.
Whilst our worship is certainly more than simply singing songs, it is not less than that. Singing allows us to connect with God’s word and to emotionally respond to the grace and goodness found within. Bob Kauflin of Sovereign Grace Ministries, defines this sung worship as:
‘Magnifying the greatness of God, in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, skilfully combining God’s word with music, thereby motivating the gathered church to proclaim the gospel, to cherish God’s presence and to live for God’s glory.’[v]
In other words, singing in church is not simply a time filler or brief respite from the proper business of preaching and teaching, it is itself a word ministry. Paul highlights this function of singing in Colossians chapter 3 verse 16:
‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.’
In Paul’s mind, singing one of the ways that the word dwells in us richly, both individually and corporately. And notice, incidentally, that Paul expects the songs we sing to be eclectic – hymns and songs, ancient and modern, pop and profound. We are to use a whole range of musical expression to communicate the truths of the gospel and to rightly emotionally respond to the gospel.
In conclusion if we care about the word of God, and how we respond to it fully, then we must care about singing in our churches. This, hopefully, temporary stilling of voices may be a time to reflect on how we might more effectively and purposefully use music ministry to glorify Jesus in our churches. But whilst this may be a period of silence for us, it is good to remember that God himself never stays quiet. Zephaniah chapter 3 verse 17:
‘The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.’
Ultimately singing is important to the church because we serve a singing God.
[iii] The World in Six Songs – Daniel Levitin
[v] Worship Matters – Bob Kauflin