Other sermons in this series
WHAT’S WITH THE MUSIC?!
In my experience, singing and music at church is one of the most controversial and divisive topics.
Everyone seems to have an opinion about it – some people think that we should have more singing at church; others wish that we didn’t have to sing at all; some wish we could sing certain types of songs; some people might even arrive to church after the singing; while others may wish they could just sneak out and leave church when the singing is done.
It’s a controversial issue.
This morning, I want us to focus on some of the basics when it comes to this topic of singing: I want to look at what singing actually is; how it works and what it does. And I want us to spend a bit of time reflecting on our attitude when it comes to singing together.
But before we get there, I thought it would be good to think about some of the examples that are still around today of group singing outside of church. And I want us to look at these, because I think it’ll actually help us when we come to looking at singing in the Scriptures.
First example was to do with international sport. You know when the athlete steps up on the podium – they’ve won gold – and the national anthem starts playing. Or when you watch a game like the Bledisloe Cup at the start of the match you’ll have the anthem sung – there’s great excitement; everyone stands; and sings; and belt out the words as loud as they possibly can – it gives you goose-bumps just being there – because everyone is doing it and you’re part of something bigger.
I’m a massive AFL Swans fan – and I’m excited about the finals next week. But the second example I remember the last time they won the Grand Final – and they showed footage of the locker room after the game: arm in arm, a whole team of fully grown men, singing the team song at the top of their lungs – it was a spectacular scene.
Third example – is the tune that you hear undoubtedly whenever you’re out somewhere – ‘Happy Birthday’. It’s such a ridiculous song – but it’s something that we all do. You sing it whether you’ve got perfect pitch or far from it.
Singing together with a group of people is not as unusual as you might first think. It’s not just reserved for choirs or church.
And I think for most of us we’d love to part of these experiences – there’s no embarrassment; no weirdness about it – singing just comes naturally.
So what makes these experiences so good? Is it the quality of the musicians? The quality of the singers?
Well, not really! What makes these experiences so good, is that the people singing love being together! They love who they are! Whether it’s being a nation; a football team; or a family gathering.
So what then does the music do?
It does at least two things:
It stirs the heart and emotions. It stirs up this sense of patriotic pride in being Australian; or your delight in victory; or your love for the group or family you belong to. The music inherently does something in us! It stirs us up!
And the second thing it does is it expresses unity! It acts like social glue – creates the sense of unity in being Australian; or unity in a team; or unity in a family. And music strengthens that unity!
There’s lots of different situations where communal singing is a natural activity. And singing is acting like this soul stirring, social glue that holds groups together.
SINGING IN THE BIBLE
But what does the Bible have to say about singing together?
Singing can be found everywhere in the Bible. It’s an assumed activity: like walking, breathing, or eating – singing is seen as something that everyone does – it’s just assumed!
And throughout the Bible, people are invited to sing about a whole lot of different things.
And if you read through the Old Testament you see people breaking into song again and again! It’s a bit like a musical – people sporadically break into song.
And it seems to do two things:
Firstly, it’s a vehicle to express the emotions – particularly the emotion of joy!
In the book of James we read:
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise!
And through the psalms, music is also attached with joy – if you’re joyful, you sing! Joy is expressed naturally through the vehicle of song.
In Zephaniah, the Old Testament prophet describes the joy of Israel, and even of God himself, as expressed through singing.
Zephaniah says this:
Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!
And later in verse 17, God sings:
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.
Secondly singing also acts as a social glue. It acts in the Bible as a way of binding God’s people together.
Most of the Psalms were intended to be sung together by the nation of Israel in the temple as they met together. It was kind of like Israel’s corporate Hymn book.
It’s not just about reciting words, but it’s singing together – that’s important. The words and the music working together.
Have a look on the screen at these words from Revelation 14, which is a picture of where everything is heading – and you’ll see that it’s all about singing.
Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.
It’s symbolic language – but the overall image is clear: There’s this huge number of people, who are described as the redeemed, and they sing before the throne of God.
And they sing a song that no one else can learn. Because in singing this song, they are marked out as being the people of God!
In the Bible singing does two things – it’s associated with this expression of joy and the emotions and the heart.
And it’s a vehicle that unites people!
Now at this point, we need to ask the question…
- Is it singing – itself – that makes people joyful?
- Or is it music that unites people?
- Or is it something bigger?
Now certainly community choirs exist to sing – that’s what unites them; the exercise of singing.
But for Christians, the source of their joy; the source of their unity comes not from a tune but comes from a person and the word.
God binds his people together with his word, through Jesus Christ.
There is something very, very special about Christian singing. And what is distinctive is not the tune, but the words!
And so we actually have a third purpose for singing: singing is a vehicle to proclaim words.
Christians are people who have always claimed to have the very words of God – and this is an incredible claim – the words of the Bible are God’s very words about his Son, Jesus.
Ultimately Christians are people who claim they have the final and definitive word of God in his son.
And these are the words that Christians have treasured for over 2000 years!
This is what fills the lyrics of our songs.
We have very special lyrics to sing; very precious words to sing.
Just think about that for a moment – God has given all humanity the ability to sing (some better then others). This blessing; this profound device that somehow facilitates and allows people to feel united. Football teams; nations; families.
Stirs the hearts and naturally expresses a whole variety of emotions.
But when Christians get together, they sing about Jesus Christ. We don’t sing about Swans in red and white. We sing about Jesus Christ!
The songs Christians sing, unites us around something that transcends football, family, and even national pride.
The songs we sing express the joy of being one of the redeemed – it marks us out as people who have been saved by Jesus.
And so singing is one of the examples of God’s incredible kindness. When we sing we express our joy and demonstrate our unity with one another. And the words we sing about – that is we sing about Jesus – is the very reason for our unity and it’s in him that we find immense joy!
The Apostle Paul puts it like this in Colossians 3:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
It’s the word of God that governs the Christian community, and singing is perfectly at home in this community!
And did you notice at the end in verse 17 – we are told to do all things in the name of Jesus, and to give thanks to God!
That includes singing! So when you sing – don’t feel like you need to have the perfect voice or pitch – and don’t sing begrudgingly as if someone’s forcing you to do something you don’t want to do.
Sing joyfully; have a thankful heart! Because we’re directing our song to God in thanks for who he is and what he’s done; and we’re singing to each other, teaching one another.
THE DANGERS OF BAD SINGING
Well that’s a brief explanation of why we sing, but I want us think briefly about what bad singing looks like.
And it’s not 80s country music!
Bad singing comes when start to distort these three marks of good singing from the Bible.
And I think we’ve all fallen for at least one of these distortions. So as we go through these maybe have a think about what your attitude to singing is.
The first distortion comes when only emotions matter!
This is where we only want to sing songs that’ll make us feel a particular way.
We become more obsessed with the sensation of joy; the sensation of warmth; than the source of that joy.
And so we want to sing the songs that do it for us!
Sometimes they’re the songs you leant in your childhood, or that you sang in a previous church
You want to sing those kind of songs because they make you feel good.
But when we do this we’re actually putting the cart before the horse – it can be really subtle.
It’s when the word of God no longer the source of joy – it becomes something else.
And often it results in us wanting to sing in particular settings; or only sing those songs that stir the emotions in you.
We begin to forget who we’re singing with; we stop focussing on the words we’re singing.
God no longer becomes our source of joy, but something else – an emotion.
But our joy must firstly come from the words that we’re singing, rather than the tune itself.
The second distortion is when we begin to think that music at church is the only way to worship God.
It’s when we begin to over value the music; assume that it’s only when we feel the emotions of singing together that we’re connecting with God.
The problem is that we begin to focus too much on ourselves and how the music makes us feel, instead of how we can be worshiping God in the way we serve others; not only on a Sunday but during the rest of the week.
Music is a fantastic gift from God, but it’s not the definition of worship. Worship is how Christians serve and rejoice in God.
Paul puts it like this in Romans:
present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Living sacrificially as you serve God, day by day, that’s the essence of worship.
When we emphasise music as the only form of worship we tend to compartmentalize worship. What we do on Sunday together becomes disconnected from the way we live the rest of our lives.
Music and singing is a great gift from God that lets us praise God together, but we need to see it as one part of our worship. Which is every day. And sacrificially. And costly.
The third distortion can come when participation matters more than the words.
And that is when you think the most important thing is that everyone is singing together – and so we make sure that every song that we sing is one that every one knows.
So you may have been singing Crown Him With Many Crowns for 30, 40, 50 years – but never known what half the words actually meant – I never knew what ‘potentate of time’ actually meant for ages – I just blindly sang it.
I don’t think Crown Him With Many Crowns is a bad song – it’s fantastic. But there is a place to explain what certain lyrics mean because we need to understand what we’re saying and confessing together when we sing.
You could be singing a song that Christians throughout the world sing – but when you actually take notice to the lyrics and break down what the words actually mean – they may not line-up with what we believe as Christians.
You see when participation becomes the ultimate the words are no longer precious, are they? And often they mean very little, even if every one knows them.
The words are important.
SINGING ABOUT JESUS
So as we finish up, what are the implications for us here at MPC?
For those who dislike singing – if you don’t like singing at all, or just singing at church – you might have a legitimate reason for that: you might have a headache; you might have lost your voice.
But there’s a sense in which your attitude to singing can be a diagnosis of your attitude to the people around you.
Now am I telling you to sing? No, of course I’m not telling you that you have to sing!
Commanding Christians to sing is like commanding players to participate in the team song in the dressing room after winning the grand final.
It’s ridiculous that you’d have to convince players to join in. The Grand final has been won, the gruelling work of playing the game is over – why would you want to sit down, when you have the opportunity to stand and sing with your team mates and rejoice in the victory!
For those of you who love singing, can I continue encouraging you to do just that! – love singing.
But can I also encourage you to love your Christian brothers and sisters more than you love singing!
If you come here only for the singing – then you’ll eventually get frustrated and most likely leave and go somewhere else where you love the singing more!
You’ll abandon the people around you when the singing or the music doesn’t do it for you anymore.
And that’s tragic because singing has become more important to you than people.
And I think there is a really increased danger of this because we live in a time when we are being encouraged to more and more to have personal preferences when it comes to music. iPods; iTunes; Spotify – it’s pushing us to customize our particular tastes in music. And makes singing together harder and harder to do.
And churches can set themselves up as a brand of singing, rather than being more concerned about what they’re really on about.
But we need to work really hard at abandoning our personal preferences for the sake of being together.
I had a friend of mine who was into everything indi – into every artists that no one else had heard of – and when he became a Christian and starting coming to church he found it really hard that we had to sing songs that sounded like Bryan Adams songs from the 80s.
But after being at church for a few years – started to love it because the songs were no longer about his personal preferences, but about what he did with other Christians.
That’s what we want at church.
Don’t mishear me – there is a place to raise your concerns about singing if you think the songs are alienating people, or if they are too difficult to sing; or if you don’t know what any of the words mean.
There’s a place for constantly improving the quality of our music, particularly for the guests who come and visit – so that they’re not excluded.
But we must remember that singing serves the main thing! It’s not itself the main thing.
If you remember the three examples that we spoke about at the start, you can probably see that singing was actually not the main thing.
The main thing was the football, or the nation, or the family you’re a part of.
But singing actually supports the main thing in a really powerful way – and I think if it wasn’t there, it would be really noticeable.
Can you imagine how discouraging it would be if the Swans won the grand final next week (because I’m sure they will win), if they then got together in the dressing room and began arguing over why they didn’t like the team song;
Or maybe they went into the other team’s dressing room and sang their team song because they didn’t like how Barry is always out of tune – and they just can’t sing with him any more.
It just wouldn’t happen!
You see when the song becomes the focus – the team loses and the family fractures, as individual preferences move to the centre.
Friends – the main thing we are on about here at MPC is the good news of Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection that has brought us life!
That’s a great truth! That’s worth singing about!
We have been given new hearts to sing and new people to sing with!
Singing can do this very well, but can only do this very well when the top priority is not personal preferences.
So when we sing do so joyfully, directing your praise to our great God, and encourage each other with the truth of the words!
If we really want to be here; if we really love what we’re on about – singing will happen naturally! Personal preferences will fade and the Word of God will dwell richly in its place.
Let me finish with Colossians 3 again:
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 word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.