Prelude: Why Sing?
Why is it that we sing hymns? Why is it that Christians as well as people from many other faiths sing hymns, spiritual songs, and contemporary music in their churches today?
There are so many references in the Bible regarding singing. David, the writer of the psalms, intended the poetry of the psalms to be sung. David recognized the power of music and understood its message and mission as a gift from God. He used music not only to praise God but also to express deep sorrow and to soothe the soul.
In the gospels, Matthew and Mark mention that a hymn was sung by Jesus and his disciples at the end of the meal in the upper room. In Colossians, Paul advises two churches to “teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and…sing psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).
In some Old Testament passages, music is used to soothe and heal. These are just a few places where the Bible mentions singing. So perhaps this biblical instruction is one of the reasons that we sing our praises to God. It is a way to pray and praise as a corporate body.
A great deal of theology has been firmly established in the consciousness of congregations through the hymns they come to know and love. We know that it is easier to learn a text if it is set to music and that the text stays with us longer. How many of you have witnessed an elderly person who is able to sing several verses of many hymns completely by memory? Why do they remember it? Maybe they first heard it at an important occasion. Maybe they learned it in Sunday school or for their confirmation. Maybe it was one of the hymns that they sang on Sunday evenings with their family and friends gathered around the piano. Chances are it still evokes powerful memories for them. But just as importantly, favourite hymns helped shape their theology. Often, hymns were tied to traditions, to family members, or to important life events.
So what makes a hymn a good hymn or a poor hymn? A well-written hymn refers to the way theology, language, melody, and harmony are used in its construction. This is the reason that some hymns and songs have lasted over the centuries while many have not. Think of the hundreds of hymns written by famous hymn writers like Martin Luther or Charles Wesley. Not all their hymns have survived. We know that many of the hymns written just 50 or 60 years ago haven’t made it into our newer hymn books Voices United and More Voices, and hymns that are even more recent won’t make it into Then Let Us Sing! If a song is evaluated on theology, language, and music, and one of those three facets is very weak, the hymn will not last.
Hymns provide the congregation with an opportunity to express their beliefs about faith and doctrine and the experiences of the Christian life. To be an authentic expression of faith, the beliefs embodied in the hymns and songs must be meaningful, must have a basis in theology, and should be in keeping with the accepted doctrines of the church.
We know that music, especially music that is sung, stimulates both hemispheres of our brain. St. Augustine is reported to have said, “Who sings, prays twice.” When we sing, logic is linked to affect, visual to linguistic, and imagination to reason, and this is what has such a profound effect on our memory. In “‘Who Sings, Prays Twice’: Reflections on Music and Spirituality,” Walter Deller, who was Principal and Professor of Old Testament and Congregational Life at the College of Emmanuel and St. Chad in Saskatoon, said, “to sing really is to pray twice because it transforms the words into an act which draws together body, spirit, and imagination and lifts it toward God” (AngliCan Arts, Epiphany 1998). For our singing to be a vital part of worship, we must create a balanced diet, and we should have some variety in our diet. On a personal level, we may not like certain kinds of hymns or enjoy that much variety, but after all, as a congregation, we are what we eat, or should I say, we are what we sing.
For more inspiration on this topic of singing and music, turn to Voices United and read over the text of “When in our music God is glorified” (533) by Fred Pratt Green. I am looking forward to glorifying God through more new hymns with Then Let Us Sing!
And in the Latin words that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote on so many of his compositions: “Soli deo Gloria.” Glory to God alone. Amen.