Singing as a Spiritual Discipline (Sean Palmer)

By Sean Palmer

Singing As Spiritual Discipline

How important is singing to your own spirituality? How important is singing to your church’s worship time? [I’m using “worship” here as it is often used.]

There’s nothing the church does so wonderfully and terribly as singing. Some folks even make their ecclesial decisions based on whether or not they “connect to God” through singing.

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 5.14.37 PMIf you’ve spent more than 10-minutes inside an American worship service, you already know how important singing is. Regardless of the worship style of your congregation, the music is important, and usually done well. Music has power. It transforms moments and has the power to embed memories and stir emotions. We are moved by the singing and music in ways little else can or does. For most of us, the music and singing of our congregation is one of the major reasons we picked it.

And that’s the problem.

In the mid-20th century, some traveling and nationally know preachers decided that a “personal Savior” was the carrot-and-stick that would motivate non-believers to come to faith. It worked. For the last 50 years, the sales pitch for faith in Jesus has been a personal one. “If YOU were to die today, where would you spend eternity? If YOU ask Jesus into YOUR heart….If YOU accept Jesus as your personal Savior” and all of that. A measure of individualistic focus is right and good. After all, I live in a world where I cannot make faith decisions for other people. And as a good Anabaptist I would choose not to even if I could. Nevertheless, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that such a singular focus could result in much other than a self-centered faith. After all, we got into this for personal reasons.

And that’s where singing comes in.

Our corporate/common singing, regardless of the musical style of our congregation, is still viewed by too many as an individual pursuit. This is odd, because we can’t do corporate singing alone. We just wished the songs were picked and sang as if corporate singing existed for us alone.

Don’t believe me? Do you know anyone who left their church because of a change in “worship?” In truth, these changes are barely changes in worship. Most churches still celebrate the Eucharist, engage sermons, sing, pray, and – sadly – have announcements. What changes is the singing! And the reason people leave over “worship” is because they no longer “like” the singing…personally.

Of course, we rarely say that out loud. We say, “It’s not what I grew up with. This music doesn’t speak to me. I’m not being fed by this,” or we evaluate the musicality and lyrical content of the music. Don’t get me wrong. It hardly ever matters what style of music you prefer – hymns, CCM, instrumental, Gregorian, a cappella, classical, jazz – all of us do the same thing. And most us are so musically uneducated that our grumblings about musicality are mostly broadcasting our musical ignorance.

Our problem is that we enjoy, celebrate, bemoan, criticize, celebrate, and judge church life based on what we like. We are deciding on the basis of what we like because we’ve bought into the lie that our corporate singing should be personal. Personal worship for a personal savior, right?

But what would church look like if we reframed corporate singing, not in the ever-narrowing category of “worship,” but as a spiritual discipline?

If corporate singing were a spiritual discipline… 

  1. We Wouldn’t Expect Immediate Results. No faithful practitioner of spiritual disciplines expects to walk in, practice a discipline for an hour, and leave humming a tune and tapping their toes. In the realm of spiritual practices we know that the blessing is found in the practice itself. You could practice contemplative prayer for years without any tangible outcome, uplifting feeling, or goosebumps, but you come to love and enjoy practicing the presence of God.
  1. We Could Sing On Behalf Of Others. There are songs I hate, like “Amazing Grace.” I’ve never liked it, but I know “Amazing Grace” is tremendously meaningful for others. A friend recently shared with me the place of the song “Amazing Grace” in the recovery movement. The song means a great deal for members of AA and other recovery groups. Those folks are in my church. As a spiritual discipline, I can sing that song – though I despise it – on their behalf. I sing, therefore, not because it’s efficacious for me, but those around me.
  1. We Could Be Less Manipulative. I hate to be the one to tell you, but many worship experiences are designed to manipulate your feelings. That’s not all bad. Church leaders should want you to do something at the end of a service, and music is frequently used to disarm congregants toward that end. Christian musician, Rich Mullins, was once approached by a fan. The fan said, “I was really moved during the song, going into the third verse. I felt The Spirit.” Mullins responded, “That wasn’t The Spirit. That was just when the kick-drum came in.” Perhaps, as a spiritual practice, all of us would be more open to simply allowing God to move in our midst rather than modulating up the last chorus, jumping around, turning up the volume, and hosts of other tricks we invent to gin up the congregation?
  1. We Could Hear The God of The Desert. Perhaps God doesn’t want us to sing the songs we love. Might it be possible that some of us have come to praise our worship and worship our praise and the call of God for us is to go into the desert; to experience emptiness in an area of life we have come to overly depend? If so, could all of the church-hopping and in-fighting over music over the last 20-years been our avoidance of entering the space in which God wants to lead us. Could it be possible that one of the reason we are not experiencing greater engagement with God is because we have abandoned His voice and chosen a tune we like. We must never forget, before Jesus begins His life of impact, He goes into the desert.
  1. We Could Actually Praise God. We have to ask ourselves serious questions about the nature of who we worship for when we walk out of common worship upset with God-directed music and lyrics, regardless of whether or not the praise team was “singing our tune.” If corporate singing were a spiritual discipline God would be at the center of it and in God’s presence, humankind has always simply bowed.

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 5.14.47 PMI am coming to the belief that reframing common worship as a spiritual discipline is the only way to rescue the church from never-ending and bloody worship battles that maintain the unity of the church. What ideas do you have?

Sean Palmer is Lead Minister at The Vine Church in Temple, TX. He is a sought-after speaker and teacher. You can read more from Sean at www.thepalmerperspective.com and follow him at him on Twitter, @seanpalmer.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.