Within worshiping communities we develop certain spiritual practices—prayer, praise, listening for God’s word, lament, gratitude, faithful living, kindness, reconciliation, forgiveness, and love. Some of these are explicit in our worship (such as praying the Lord’s Prayer together); others are more often implicit (passing the peace as a sign of hospitality and reconciliation).
Christians developed the spiritual practice of singing together to involve themselves more deeply in prayer; to express praise, gratitude, and lament; to teach the language of faith; and to express unity. Yet, congregations have not always entered into singing as fully as we might, preferring to be passive, entertained, and silent or overshadowed by instruments and microphones. How do we recapture the imperatives of the psalmists and the writer to the Ephesians (5.19) to “Sing a new song!” “Praise the Lord!” and to “Sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”?
Perhaps it is time to consider singing in congregational worship as a communal spiritual practice. Spiritual practices are patterns of behavior which open us up for relationship with God, form us as Christian disciples, focus us on what is important, and teach us a language of faith and prayer. Communal spiritual practices teach us what we cannot learn on our own, an bring the encouragement and support of the community to our practice, while drawing us closer to God also draw us closer to each other (Mark 14.28-31), and give us a place to practice the holy living to which God call us.
As we sing the songs passed down to us through scriptures and tradition, as we learn new truths and affirm those we hold dear, as texts and music become part of us, giving us the language of faith, of prayer, and of witness we are shaped as Christian disciples. Together as communities of faith we teach our children and those new to the faith who we are as God’s people and practice the ways God is calling us in this time for the needs of this world.
Singing together in worship means following some simple guidelines. John Wesley wrote “Directions for Singing” for the fledgling Methodist movement in 1761 and they can be found in many hymnals still today:
- See that you join with the congregation
- Sing lustily and with good courage.
- Strive to unite your voices together
- Sing in time
- Above all, sing spiritually
The first is a direction of encouragement, but also a reminder that spiritual disciplines are to be practiced. We don’t gain musical skill or athletic prowess without embodied practice. So it is with the spiritual life. This practice may require courage as we immediately feel vulnerable, too quickly judging our own abilities and contribution to the whole. It may feel easier to not sing, to not use the energy needed to breathe and make sound, to not open our mouths and hearts. Yet Wesley goes on in this direction to say, “If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.” Through singing with others, many have experienced a sense of God’s nearness, being uplifted or re-energized to lead a life of Christian discipleship.
The second direction is followed by Wesley’s reminder to “Beware of singing as if you were half dead or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.” The psalmist reminds us that we are simply asked to make a “joyful noise.” To sing with good courage requires us to take deep breaths, to breathe in to inspire the Holy Spirit.
Uniting our voices and singing in time requires us to listen to each other, to start and stop together. Here is where communal practice can shape us as the body of Christ, as we practice deep attention to each other as children of God (1 Corinthians 12), breathing together and finding a common rhythm. Blending our voice with others means also listening to ourselves as a part of the whole, finding our voice in the midst of Christ’s body.
“Above all, sing spiritually.” When we truly experience ourselves as children of God, blessed in the midst of life’s trials, our thanks and praise and hopes flow out in song. The congregation whose worship is focused on God, who knows themselves as forgiven and redeemed, who finds themselves then caring about their neighbors far and near, is a congregation who has learned to sing spiritually.
So, how do we begin singing as a communal spiritual practice? Begin with what you know—familiar songs, perhaps even refrains or single verses known by heart. Don’t rush through singing as though it were only an item on the worship “check-off list.” Find leaders with pleasant voices and engaging personalities who can gently encourage others and who understand communal spiritual practice.
Approach the congregation with the understanding of singing as a communal spiritual discipline. Encourage the congregation to sit more closely together, as singing “in isolation” is more difficult. Try singing things you know without accompaniment (though a starting pitch is often a good idea), or with a gentle rhythm instrument or bass line. Take time to “practice” singing together. Spread a hymn throughout the service, using several stanzas at one point and the remaining at another (making sure that textual and liturgical flow makes sense).
Give introits, prayer responses and benediction responses back to the congregation with simple stanzas; check your hymnal’s index for “service music.” Let accompanying instruments drop out for a stanza of a familiar song. Build a repertoire of tunes and discover how to use the same tune for a variety of texts. Practice singing together often, to begin meetings, at potluck suppers, while working on a mission project. Singing as a communal spiritual practice can deepen your worship, strengthen your relationship with God, and energize your congregation.
This article is excerpted from Worshiping in the Small Membership Church by Robin Knowles Wallace.