Peter Marty: Elements of the Lord's Day: Moved to Sing

The greater delight is in pleasing God through our unity of voice

In 1900 most American households had at least one musical instrument. Sales of recorded music were negligible, even though the invention of the phonograph was already 20 years old. People bought sheet music. Families gathered around the piano at night.

One of the storied photos of my childhood has my family gathered around the upright piano in the living room. Dad is at the keyboard; we kids are the songsters. That mid-1960s photo was taken at the tail end of an era when households regularly engaged in the practice of making music. By the late 1950s, professional musicians were generating most of the nation's music.

The emergence of technological devices that play back recorded music did more to shrink peoples' confidence in singing than almost anything else. In many churches, singing has become something hired or gifted professionals do. Others consider singing the work of "performing" choirs. These shifts help make singing seem like an external option for our lives rather than an internal component of being human. Shrinking numbers of Christians view singing as an intrinsic part of a breathing faith - that expression of human emotion for which spoken words never seem to be enough. Singing is now "an extra."

So why should you sing in your congregation, especially if you are unsure of your voice? You could argue that singing in worship serves no practical purpose. No casserole for the homeless will be baked after the opening hymn this Sunday just because you opened your mouth in song. No sudden healing on the orthopedic wing of the nearby hospital will take place because you let loose on "Amazing Grace" during communion.

We sing, in part, because no sound is more sublime than the human voice. Some people sing because they are happy; others are happy because they sing. Singing breaks down boundaries and creates amazing solidarity. If diverse people can eagerly rise from their stadium seats during the seventh inning stretch to sing for the concept of baseball, one might think that standing in another venue to sing for the reality of God carries even more delight. Songs of faith often connect us with God more intimately than many sermons do.

If you come to worship wearing analytical eyes, you will convince yourself that you are not a strong singer. A ghost in your head will tell you that weak singing, whatever that is, has no place in God's house. Embarrassment is the one word that will keep resting on the tip of your tongue as you think about how much you struggle with pitch. On top of this self-consciousness, you find yourself thinking that worship is just plain peculiar. People stand up, face this large wall with a cross on it, and belt out words like "Precious Lord."

To defend your silence, you could always put up the argument that Jesus never played an instrument or sang in any choir. At least we have no record of him doing so. But that argument is not exactly productive, and it misses the point.

Maybe singing in worship isn't all about you, or about any one person for that matter. Maybe it is about what we do together - a "living together in harmony," to borrow words from the Apostle Paul.

German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted on this communal quality of song: "It is the voice of the church that is heard in singing together. It is not you that sings." We should all work to get over the idea that the principal aim of singing in worship is to please ourselves, or to focus on that lovely soprano. The greater delight is in pleasing God through our unity of voice. 

Theologian Eugene Peterson reflects on our different modes of human expression. "Song and dance," he said, "are the result of an excess of energy. When we are normal we talk, when we are dying we whisper, but when there is more in us than we can contain we sing."

So, regardless of the tempo of your organist, the typos on the screen or the timidity of your own inner voice, just sing. Free yourself from those hang-ups and that analysis. Burst with song because there is more life in you than you can contain.

Taken with permission from the September issue of The Lutheran magazine.