Once my dad asked me, “Tommy, when are you gonna start a band and be a rockstar?” Which was weird for me because, confession time, I have no desire to be a rockstar. The full extent of my musical ambition is sitting around the piano with my closest loved ones singing carols and hymns, maybe some American Standard or a Beatles tunes. Ain’t I just so very humble and Norman Rockwell-y?
In high school I was in a music class and another student said to the teacher, “One of the things I really hate seeing is old guys playing songs at open mics. If you haven’t made it by the time you’re 30 you should quit and work in real estate.”
In contempoary society we’ve relegated music to the professionals, to the people who have made it. Music making is for the rock stars, the unprofessional’s job is to listen and purchase. Which is a pretty recent development in history with the advent of new recording and broadcasting technologies. Just a couple of generations ago – and still in many non-western cultures – it is an alien idea that music is for professional performance and communal consumption.
Unfortunately, the idea of making music together is becoming more and more foreign. The following statements are common when I talk about singing in groups to individuals:
- “The music is too difficult/loud/unfamiliar to sing along, I just like to listen.”
- “I don’t like those songs so I change the words/sing my own song.”
- “I’m tone deaf, I can’t carry a tune, the person next to me wouldn’t want to sing.”
I am most grieved when I hear, “The music is too difficult/loud/unfamiliar to sing along.” I must confess, though I said earlier that I don’t want to be a rockstar I do have a performance impulse. I’m an artist and sometimes my personal preference gets in the way of my pastoral responsibility to help us sing the gospel together. Sometimes I’m more excited about the sweet jam the band came up with, or the new hip song I’ve been listening to, or the entertaining emotional experience we’re creating.
These things are not bad in and of themselves but the goal of every worship leader shouldn’t be these cool arrangements, or hip song choices, or entertaining shows. The goal of every worship leader must be all of us singing the gospel together. Let me explain what I mean when I say “all of us singing the gospel together.”
In Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, the Apostle Paul details how the individual Christian life should look, and then he moves through the chapters to talk about how Christian community should look. In the middle of these almost identical chapters there is a shift from the individual to the community:
Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:18b-20
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:16-17
Paul’s foundation of how Christian community is supposed to begin is not listening to a good concert and lecture, but “one another” singing “among you” the gospel through all sorts of styles of songs. We don’t become better husbands, wives, parents, employees, or more Christlike by simply practicing 7 Easy Steps, we become better by starting with thankful singing.
Marketing agencies and the Bible agree that music is one of the best ways to teach people. Most if not all of the commercials we see are accompanied with music. This is because music goes deeper than any catchphrase ever could. We create mental, emotional, and spiritual bonds to the songs we hear – even more so to the songs we sing. The ad-men want you to be emotionally bonded to their product so that you’ll give them your money.
The Rugged Individualism that would change the words being sung by the congregation, or whole songs, to fit personal preferences is counterproductive to the New Testament goal of singing as an exercise in community buildling.
But far and above the first two comments the most common reason for not singing is also the most untrue. Because music making has been professionalized the myth of being unable to carry a tune or being tone deaf has gained prominence. But carrying a tune, like throwing a curveball, is a learnable skill not an inherrent talent given at birth to Music Geeks and Rock Stars.
When Alyssa and I found out that we were having an Atticus and not a girl* I was terrified that he might grow up and want to play ball. If that day comes I will be able to ask any number of ball throwing people in my life to show me how. I will be able to learn, despite my reservations and the embarrassment of learning a new skill. We’re not unable to carry a tune, we’re just out of practice.
“No, Tommy, I’m tone deaf!”
To that I ask: “Are you able to distinquish melody, harmony, rhythm when listening to the radio or does music sound like static to you?” If music sounds like cacophonous nonsense when you listen you may be tone deaf but if you can distinguish music from noise then you’re unfortunately not tone deaf.
When we gather together on Sundays it is to proclaim the glory of God, to confess to one another, to be assured of God’s great grace for us in Jesus Christ, and to proclaim that message to those far from God. We sing together and the message of Christ burrows deep into our minds and hearts. On Monday when we’re prone to wander the Spirit sings those songs to our desperate hearts.
Sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made his salvation known
and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
He has remembered his love
and his faithfulness to Israel;
all the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp,
with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the Lord,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.
*Daughters are just as capable of wanting to go throw the ball around with Dad as sons.