About Our Singing
By Warren E. Berkley
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord,” Colossians 3:16
I have a special affection for vocal music, where words of faith are affirmed and celebrated. There are two secondary reasons for this. I grew up in a home where “Daddy sang bass and Momma sang tenor.” And in my teenage years into my army years, I was a musician.
The primary reason for my affection for spiritual songs is the teaching of the Scriptures. From the Mount of Olives to the prison in Philippi to the letters of Paul to churches, I have discovered singing as a God-given means to teach, admonish, encourage and help us express our praise to God. Music has this power to take our thoughts and emotions in the direction of the lyrics. When our songs express our common faith, there is an element of harmony we enjoy, far beyond alto and tenor.
Singing spiritual songs is something we can do by ourselves, or with a few others – even one other. James 5:13, “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms,” can be applied by an individual just like the first phrase in that verse, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” In the prison in Philippi, Paul and Silas “were praying and singing hymns to God,” (Acts 16:25). I am thankful God gave me this means of praising Him and cleansing my mind. It is something I can do virtually anywhere, without accompaniment, audience or perfect pitch.
It is not about talent! The precise four-part harmony of our practice is relatively modern. While it may be argued that one should do his best at anything done before God, there is no rating, grade or ranking applied by God to our singing (as to musical sound). I understand the need to do something well, but I cannot find anything in the Scriptures requiring a certain level of talent or “sounding good” that is a demand. Some of the best singers I’ve known didn’t “sound good” relative to our typical musical judgments. But their sense of joy, reverence and sincerity made them good singers to me.
It may help to keep in mind, music appreciation & style is not an objective standard, but strongly related to culture and taste. What sounds good to Americans who were raised in the 1930’s rural communities, may sound strange to children of the 70’s raised in suburban communities. Song writers have a challenging task, to find common ground for singers who may be very different in their talent, taste and musical knowledge. Today there are Christians all over the world, singing the same truths we sing, without instrumental accompaniment, but with styles and sounds they are comfortable and familiar within their culture (which often does not involve four-part harmony).
Our singing will never fulfill its’ purpose, if we are ignorant of the God we are singing to. Singing really begins when God is in your heart. You cannot properly and reverently extol and praise a Being you do not personally know. We ought to have this acquaintance with God: “I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me,” (Psa. 3:4,5, ESV). This is the heart of a good singer, and this is the heart we can have, by the activity of our faith in Christ.
Song Leaders are not performers or competitors. In the 1950’s, I went to “Singing School” under teachers like M. Roy Stevens and Will Slater. In teaching boys how to learn to be song leaders, they always put lyrics, spirituality and sincerity at the highest place. These men taught potential song leaders about the dignity of worship, the exuberance that must be conveyed; but likewise, the humility of one’s service to God in voice. Just as the good preacher must get out of the way and let people see the Cross. The good song leader must get out of the way and let people sing to God.
The human voice is a wondrous product of God’s perfect creative wisdom. When the voice God gave us is combined with the good heart we can have by the activity of our faith in Christ, the results sound good to God. May we never allow a man-made instrument to intrude into this pure process, nor a contemporary thirst for audience pleasure to corrupt it.
“He leadeth me! O blessed thought! O words with heavenly comfort fraught! What-e’er I do, where-e’er I be, still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.” (Joseph H. Gillmore)
By The Way . . .
Layman Coleman (Noted Presbyterian author and scholar): “It is generally admitted that primitive Christians employed no instrumental music in their religious worship.”
Charles H. Spurgeon (A Baptist preacher, preached for twenty years in the great Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle in London, England. Twenty thousand persons heard him every Sunday): “Instruments of music were never used in his tabernacle.”
John Calvin (Founder of Presbyterianism): “Musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, and the restoration of other shadows of the law.”
Adam Clarke (Methodist Commentator): “I am an old man, and an old minister; and I here declare that I never knew them (i.e. musical instruments) productive of any good in the worship of God; and have had reason to believe that they were productive of much evil. Music, as a science, I esteem and admire; but instruments of music in the house of God I abominate and abhor.”