Several months ago, a well-known Christian author created a stir in cyberspace by detailing his lack of connectedness with much of what transpires in corporate worship in American churches these days. He confessed that he doesn’t attend church all that often, and, when he does, he doesn’t connect to God very well via singing to Him.
The predictable backlash came on quickly and furiously, and, as is often the case in cyberspace debates among Christians, some good content was lost in the midst of unhelpful style. As one who did a doctoral thesis on the importance of and value in congregational singing, I certainly disagreed with the author’s implied thesis (that congregational singing isn’t important for all Christians), but I also thought some of the responses to his blog post missed out on an important point. Sometimes, in corporate worship, it is, in fact, OK not to sing. Here are four cases when this is true:
1) In corporate worship, it’s OK not to sing if the theology embedded in the text is erroneous. There are a couple of familiar hymns and choruses that, in my opinion, have suspect theology. For me, they are easy to reject—but, truthfully, these examples are few and far between. More difficult are songs that, at one level, express truth but do so in a manner that takes our focus off of God and His goodness. A few years ago a popular song said the following of God: “You make everything glorious, and I am Yours! What does that make me?” Yes, it’s good that we declare God’s creation glorious (Ps. 19:1), and humankind is part of that glorious creation, but in a culture that is already alarmingly narcissistic, to sing lyrics that draw such strong attention to self (“Look at me! I’m glorious!”) seems ill-advised at best.
2) In corporate worship, it’s OK not to sing if you are moved momentarily by the message or the music. Most of us have probably experienced this dynamic at one time or another. At the conclusion of the memorial service for Dr. Edward Thompson, the longtime choir director at Judson College and a mentor for hundreds of us Judson grads, the entire congregation (led by an alumni choir) sang Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. Well, most of us sang. I got about 12 measures into it, and spent the rest of the song blubbering like a baby. But those tears were my act of worship; I couldn’t have sung that afternoon if my life had depended on it, but it was OK not to sing at that time.
3) In corporate worship, it’s OK not to sing if you are convicted temporarily by the song’s lyrics. I often stop singing during the chorus of the popular hymn “I Surrender All.” It’s not that I don’t believe in the message of the song; it’s just that I can’t sing those lyrics with much integrity most of the time. I don’t, in fact, surrender all to Jesus, much more often than I would care to admit. Realizing that in the midst of the singing, I have two choices: I can sing anyway, pretending that I really mean it this time, or I can stop singing. I often choose the latter, and I spend that time in quiet reflection and/or prayer, asking God to help me get to the point where I can sing those lyrics with authenticity more regularly. (Worship leaders, we can, in our transitional commentary, help our congregations sing with more integrity songs that speak of total, 100% commitment by introducing them as our humble prayers instead of as our bold declarations.)
4) In corporate worship, it’s OK not to sing if you are unfamiliar with the song . . . but this only applies for the first time through that song. Most of what we sing in church these days will be familiar enough that by the second time around, folks should be able to engage, even if with hesitation, for the rest of the song. If a song is really tricky, all of us can still at least mouth the words.
May the Lord bless our efforts to sing–and, occasionally, not to sing–for His glory. The Lord be with you!