by Andy Robison
In regard to congregational singing, oft is offered the quip, “Well, the words are all that matter, anyway.” This is a comfort to tone-deaf worshipers, but, the secular, well-intentioned proverb may be employed too far.
If the words were, indeed, all that mattered, perhaps God would have said something like, “Recite to one another in poems, rhymes and spiritual verse.” Could it be that the musical setting (a cappella) has more importance than often acknowledged?
Music is an emotional thing. Composers of purely instrumental music (from symphonies and operas to punk rock and country) work to construct the chord progression, melodies and harmonies to create a mood, often mirroring some occasion or historic event. A fanfare for Olympic Games is an upbeat call to competition and potential triumph – a memorable melodic line punctuated with quick punches of harmonic brass. A mournful dirge, by contrast, might employ low strings in slow, solemn movements.
In authorized a cappella singing for congregations, the music generally fits the words. “Nearer My God, to Thee” would never be set to a driving rhythm (as in “Ring Out the Message”). The thrill of “The New Song” is best with its buoyant beat and majestic chorus; it wouldn’t work with a contemplative chant-like, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” feel. The musical composers seek to amplify the impact of the wording.
Singing might be viewed as the divinely authorized outlet for human emotion. Many sectarian groups take emotionalism to unscriptural levels – mistaking shaking and rolling, hand-waving and moaning for being Spirit-filled. An orderly (1 Corinthians 14:40) God actually thought this through, and He gave an avenue for us to express how we feel toward Him (and even others) at particular moments. This is why some of the deepest emotions of grief, sorrow, bitterness, joy, victory and praise appealing to all generations are found in the book of… you guessed it… Psalms. They were originally sung. Further, perhaps this is one reason (it is certainly at least a result) that singing was chosen as the authorized use of music in worship. Instrumental music can make one feel a certain way without an intellectual reason as to why. With singing, the intellect is employed first and foremost. One knows he is surveying the scene of the wondrous cross. Then, the music helps amplify the thought.
It behooves brethren, then, to work on singing to the best of their abilities. God bless the monotone worshiper who “lets ‘er fly” upon the song leader’s cue. Yet, those who excuse themselves flippantly from ever trying to understand pitch, tone, phrasing, harmony and all the things that make singing more meaningful are missing a great opportunity in the service of God. In order to “consider one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25) in the worship setting, shouldn’t we all aim at improvement in every aspect of worship – from attention in study to expression in song?
Words matter. Without the words, there wouldn’t be any teaching or admonishing. However, remember that without the music (a cappella), there wouldn’t be any singing or song.
Andy Robison is the Director of the West Virginia School of Preaching (www.wvsop.com). He is a recipient of a B.A. from Harding (where he received the L.O. Sanderson scholarship for hymn-writers), with a double major in Bible and Vocal Music. He has written a number of songs and helped produce several CDs of a cappella singing to benefit West Virginia Christian Youth Camp, where he serves on the Board of Directors. He is the Editor of the songbooks Teaching & Admonishing and 100 Songs to the Glory of God. Many of his original songs can be accessed at www.churchofchristsongs.com. He and his wife Marsha have two children, Hannah and Andrew.