I’m still not over this jet lag thing. It’s the worst case I’ve ever had. On the one hand, I’m up early in the morning and finding those hours spiritually fruitful, but on the other hand rising at 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. every day is probably going to be a problem long term. I nearly fell asleep on the way to Bible study last night–and it’s a short walk down a flight of stairs from my office study to our meeting place! Pray for a brother!
But the early morning has allowed me opportunity to continue reflecting on the Lord’s grace in our time in New Zealand, Australia, and Zambia. This morning He has turned my mind to the singing we enjoyed while visiting the saints abroad. I’m no “music guy,” but I know great congregational singing when I hear it. And we heard a lot of great congregational singing.
Singing with the Saints on the Other Side of the World
In New Zealand, we spent our time with the saints at Howick Baptist Church and fellow believers from about fifty congregations who attended the Stand for the Gospel Conference. Our time at the church and conference featured a variety of arrangements led by different members of the church all with an emphasis on the congregational voice as the main instrument. We had accompaniment by strings, brass, wood winds (I think) and probably some other things I’m not recalling now. But all of it was accompaniment; it went along with the singing to aid and encourage the singing. Different leaders provided useful comments along the way and helpful focus so that we sang with understanding and with emphasis. They even provided brief footnotes on the slides to teach and improve knowledge of what we were singing. The result was a congregation of people–Maore, Kiwi, Afrikaans, Nigerian, American, and many more!–singing together and with joyful zeal great truths about out God. We even learned to look at one another and sing to one another as we worshiped.
Zambia provided a really different and equally edifying experience. In Zambia there was hardly any musical accompaniment at all. Whether we were in rural Chirundu worshiping under a tree or in the major city of Lusaka singing at the beautiful Lusaka Baptist Church building, the emphasis was almost entirely on the human voice. The role of the individual leader was more pronounced. No praise teams up front, just a lone elder announcing the hymns. Usually a sister in the congregation sounded the opening words and set the tune, then the congregation joined in. Time was often kept with energetic clapping, especially in the rural gatherings. But, oh, the voices! Sometimes in Bembe or Nyanga, sometimes in English, but always ringing out with joy to the Lord. We were swept up in the rushing sound. And when the congregation did not stand and deliver, the worship leader set things to right. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen a leader stop the congregation mid-verse, rebuke them for lackluster effort, and re-start the hymn from the top. But one young brother did exactly that. And the amazing thing to us is that we thought they were singing beautifully already!
Some Lessons from Those Who Sing
As I return to this side of the planet, I’m left musing on a few things we could learn from our siblings on the other side of the world.
Turn the volume down. Please. The decibel level sometimes hearing impairment zones in our gatherings and conferences. We don’t need that much amplification in order to render praise to God. He can hear our whispers and even our quiet thoughts. We won’t be heard for our much speaking or our loud instruments.
Put the instruments in the background. Whether you use various arrangements as our friends did in New Zealand or little accompaniment beyond hand clapping as our friends in Zambia, the instruments should play the background. They should assist, not dominate. They should help with rhythm, tone, enjoyment and beauty, but apart from some transitions or meditative moments in the service, they should not be the main attraction. They should play the background.
Emphasize the voice. If it’s not the case already, it might be good for the church’s leadership and congregation to answer a question along the lines of, “What should be the major sound of Christian corporate worship?” For my part, I think it should be the human voice. I still stagger sometimes at the reality that God speaks and He has given us the same capacity. Our words are always extraordinary. No other creature in existence has the gift of language. We image forth our Creator in a unique way when we use words and when we sing. I think the voice will be the main sound of glory since Heaven will resound with the voices of the redeemed and the angelic host. How marvelous that nearly all believers walk into the gathered service with a divinely designed musical instrument–the voice. We should emphasize it.
Teach the people to sing. Of course, if our services are dominated by instruments turned up so loudly we can’t hear ourselves sing, we’re likely to find that most people in our gathering don’t sing and don’t know how to sing. Here’s where the leader makes a huge difference. What he says upfront and how he instructs people can make all the difference in the congregation’s participation, understanding and ability to sing. He can point out the mood of the song, guide people to meditate on the main theme, single out a refrain or verse particularly relevant to the morning’s text, call people to sing a chorus again for emphasis, or simply read a text of scripture that connects the song to God’s inspired truth so people know our worship is rooted in revelation. In these and countless other ways, the worship leader should actually lead. He should teach. Perhaps he’ll offer free voice lessons to the saints. Or maybe he’ll use slides a little differently. Or… brace yourself… perhaps he’ll use hymnals (gasp… remember those?) and help people learn to read music as they sing. There are countless ways to crack this nut. But the point is the guys up front during worship should be teaching the people to sing. Even though each saint walks into the service with a God-given instrument (the voice), we don’t automatically know how to use them well or how to use them together. We need to be taught.
Leaders are not performers. We don’t need flashy or dazzling. We don’t need to be wowed by someone’s wizardry with instruments. We don’t need fog machines and light shows. We need people up front who worship! That’s it. They lift their hearts to God and help others do the same. I know people can and do worship with fog machines and light shows and so on. But we don’t need those things, and if we do, we might want to think about the maturity of our thinking as leaders and the maturity of our congregation when it comes to the public praise of God. Such dependence might be a kind of idolatry. At the least it’s an over-reliance on performance technology. And wherever that occurs, it’s probably accompanied by to little emphasis on helping people prepare their hearts and minds for the gathered worship. Rather then readying themselves through communion with God before the meeting, we may be relying on a performance to “ready” them once they arrive. And that impoverishes our gathered praise far more than we know.
It doesn’t take much. In none of the meetings did we sing a ton of songs. Even in the conference settings there was no concert feel. In most cases we sang about four songs total. But because the songs were so well introduced and congregations so well led, those four songs edified as much or more as an hour of singing. Sometimes we may be guilty of attempting to achieve good spiritual effects via quantity rather than quality. I know there are folks who are happy with both quality and quantity. But sometimes less really is more–especially if the “less” is less volume, less instrumentation dominance and less repetition of weak choruses. Give a church gathering a collection of fewer songs, rich in gospel and biblical truth, introduced and led well, where people are called on to actually sing with understanding, and I think you’ll see more happen to the heart of the people week in and week out than if they were spending hours at really good concerts.
Some cultural diversity won’t kill us. Actually, it’ll likely help us. The more I travel the more it seems people everywhere sing the same stuff. The sound is the same. I love the Gettys, Sovereign Grace, Stuart Townend and the like. But have the culturally distinct forms of worship disappeared altogether? Part of what I enjoyed in Zambia was that even something as simple as clapping can communicate some appropriate cultural distinctiveness. The rhythm, syncopation and variance of hand claps said that another ethnic group had been brought under the Lordship of Christ. So did the occasional song lifted up in Bembe or Nyanga. So does singing widely enjoyed hymns and songs in a culturally distinctive way. Those diverse cultural elements beautify the congregational praise and exalt the Savior. We need more of that.
On the whole, I left New Zealand and Zambia (I don’t mention Australia because none of our meetings with pastors featured singing) with a sense that we need a revival in congregational singing. Plenty of people have sounded this note before. I want to add my hearty, “Amen!” Let the redeemed of the Lord say so–in song!