I grew up singing and leading song in my church from the early days of the “Contemporary Christian Music” movement (dating myself – this was the 1970’s), mostly in the Catholic Church folk mass. We were young high schoolers, relegated to the newly available 5:00 PM Saturday Mass. But our group was enthusiastic and we helped to build a similar group across town at the Protestant Church, with the two groups often combining to lead music at both churches. And when our music struck a chord with the teens of our community, there was loud and joyous praise going on, even in our traditional Catholic setting.
We had a lot of people interested in joining us, and we never turned anyone down because of any lack of musicality. There were a few who joined us to sing, who truly were “off the key” most of the time, but they sang with enthusiasm, and sang with spirit. My wife was one of those who joined the group. Maybe it was to sing, maybe it was to be together more often during our dating days in high school. She has a beautiful voice, but tends toward self-criticism, which to this day inhibits her singing when in groups. Now, several decades later, I get so much joy in those moments when I will hear her singing upstairs, unaware that I am listening, and I try my best to let her know how much I enjoy hearing her.
This inhibition can be a hinderance to the spiritual dynamic in a church and keep a congregation from raising its song to the highest level in praise of our Savior. As I travel around (mostly between Pennsylvania and West Virginia), I have noticed that there is a certain expectation in the more high-tech communities, and maybe the reason that the music is loudly amplified is so that the congregation can listen to the performance, rather than be expected to contribute to the musical praise. The stage setting, headset microphones, amplified electronic instruments, and speakers blasting the sound, can have a tendency to intimidate rather than invite one to join in the worship. Not that his is always the case. I have been in churches where the level of praise grows with the sound, and the entire congregation will be on its feet, singing, shouting, lifting hands and voices in chorus with (and often contrasting) the music on the stage. But in many cases, people will enjoy the experience passively and read along with the big-screen projected lyrics to the songs, close their eyes, raise their hands, and soak it all in.
Not that there is anything wrong with that.
Then I go to a Bible study or worship service at a small congregation in a town like Gassaway, WV, or Gaithersburg, MD and a group of fifteen or twenty people can raise the roof with just the accompaniment of an old, out of tune piano. Maybe it’s the material, maybe it’s the setting. But in many cases, I think it is the attitude.
Do too many of us worry about how we sound? Or whether we can sing “in-tune”? Or are our voices too raspy, thin, weak, or soft? Do we worry about what others will think of our voice?
This morning, I came across a passage in a biography of Charles Ives (an important American composer) from his “Memos”. It was a quote attributed by Ives to his father, George.
Once a nice young man (his musical sense having been limited by three years’ intensive study at the Boston Conservatory) said to Father, “How can you stand it to hear old John Bell (the best stone-mason in town) sing?” (as he used to at Camp Meetings). Father said, “He is a supreme musician.” The young man (nice and educated) was horrified – “Why, he sings off the key, the wrong notes and everything – and that horrible, raucous voice – and he bellows out the hits notes no one else does – it’s awful!” Father said, “Watch him closely and reverently, look into his face and hear the music of the ages, Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds – for if you do, you may miss the music.”
Like any aspect of our faith, we are often affected by what we think others will think, and we look and judge others by standards set by man, not by God. So if we hear the person next to us, and think “Wow, are they out of key!”, then it will be natural for us to think “If I sing that out of key, maybe I better keep it inside and just lip-synch.” A vicious cycle.
But when we stand next to our brothers and sisters, and only think about praising God together, we are all singing “on the key, right notes and everything”. And He is pleased. So sing; often, loud, prayerfully, with hands in the air, on your feet, on you knees, in the sanctuary, or in the shower, just sing – for Him. He loves to listen…
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.
May my meditation be sweet to Him;
I will be glad in the Lord. (Psalm 104:33-34 NKJV)