Monday, October 29, 2012

Once more with feeling, only please don't sing

I lost count of the number of people who asked me yesterday evening whether I'd watched Songs of Praise. I hadn't. I don't. One conversation morphed into a more general chat about singing in church. It's given rise to these preliminary reflections on music in church.

Now I'm writing as one who leads music in church. More importantly, I write as a lover of music (of a certain kind, of course - isn't that true of all of us? As I write this I'm listen to the blistering new Neil Young album). So I am aware that I might sound slightly hypocritical in what follows. So be it.

One of the people I was talking to last night said that they thought that Christians always want to get together and sing. I was gently disagreeing with him. I can think of a number of Christians who hate singing with others and avoid it wherever possible; and I can think of a range of new emerging church groups where singing is not the focus of what they do.

During the conversation I found myself wondering why I think this matters. Part of the reason is undoubtedly that almost everything we sing in church is on a spectrum from mediocre to truly ghastly. But this has been tackled by better minds than mine - read the books by Pete Ward and Nick Page for chapter and verse on this. The title of Nick's book nails this part of the issue succinctly. It's called And Now Let's Move into a Time of Nonsense: Why Worship Songs are failing the church.

But for me, it's not just that what we sing is sub-Cold Play and lyrically vacuous, it's that the very act of singing imposes a structure on our gathering that distorts the purpose for our being there. Events are put together round music - whether our service is a hymn-prayer sandwich or loose flow of songs punctuated by prayer and scripture. The whole thing is an exercise in passivity on the part of everyone there - except the musician(s) and person leading the service (be that a minister or worship leader). No one else is allowed to contribute to the structure; they just join in (or not) when invited.

And, of course, this act of passivity leads up to a single individual speaking for half an hour with no interruptions and rarely an opportunity to ask questions, let alone suggest alternative insights.

I wonder whether this has given rise to a church of those who sit and watch (and occasionally, stand and sing), a church where only a single voice is heard and where a form of the Christian life that is lived by experts and delivered to everyone else is modelled. It's little wonder that so many people are in church on a Sunday who have so little 'Christian' to contribute in their work places and homes during the week. We do not learn to be disciples by being passive learners in the hope that we'll be active doers when we're on our own in the world.

I wonder if, just as mission gives rise to the church (and never vice versa), so relationships should give rise to organisation (and not vice versa). We so often put organisation - making sure everything we do is well-planned and led, ticks all the boxes - so far ahead of relationships that it's no surprise that people come and go from our services without really connecting with anyone else beyond the blandly superficial.

If we put relationships first and allowed how we organise ourselves to grow out of them, then maybe we would sing - when someone found a song that expressed something that builds our relationships with God and one another - or maybe someone would sing to us - because a song best expressed what they want to communicate. But singing would not determine the shape of our gathering.

And perhaps that would help us to discover what church actually is and how we can be it rather more effectively than we are at the moment. It would, of course, bring us closer to what happened in the gatherings of the Jesus movement in its first 150 years but that's possibly the subject for a future reflection.


Malc Halliday said...

O thank you, thank you , thank you.
If for nothing else for the reassurance that it is not just me.
When I think of all that the word "worship" could entail and regularly see it reduced to a few (repeated) songs I could weep.
Apart from the Quakers is there a Christian gathering in the land who would dare to we are just going to be quiet.

Anonymous said...

Worship is worship....whether in praise of speech, song or other ways in which Our Lord of the Universe delights to read what is truly on our hearts. As one who regularly receives a closer connection with The Lord by singing, I am aware that we all have various gifts in the One Body of Jesus, Our Saviour. If we worship in Spirit and Truth - and we need to pray for this in our daily and Sunday lives - does it matter in what form? I feel more concern that the lack of tolerance between the many different " hymn sheets" is to blame for unbelieving people being so confused about the believing folk. Thank you for allowing me to pass some comment on such a useful message.

Ray Vincent said...

My mind goes back to the old style Welsh prayer meeting (perhaps found in other places too), when people said prayers as they felt led, and sometimes someone would sing a well-known verse and the others might join in or not,as they felt led. Of course, even that needs some self-discipline to ensure that it is the Holy Spirit leading and not just habit.

Unknown said...

Leading for change or maintaining the status quo:

Why do so many church leaders arrange the chairs facing forward so that the congregation can see the leader but not each other?

Why do we often praise people who "fit in" more than those who "speak out"?

Any change often causes people to leave. Is that acceptable or should we seek to please everyone all the time?

PS I will gladly help rearrange the chairs in your church so that members can see each other. Not revolutionary, but it is a step.