Singing Together in Corporate Worship
Worship is a serious, joyful, frightening, rejuvenating, restful, humbling, sober, celebration that in some odd way also happens to be the focus of my vocation. As the Chief Musician and liturgical planner for our church, my focus and concentration from week to week is the Service of Worship and the assisting of the saints in their response to God’s Call to come into His presence. I am blessed and humbled to be able to serve in this way.
Our service of worship is such that the sung elements as well as the passages from the Word and the responsive readings all convey a single theme—the main points from the sermon. This integrated whole serves to reinforce, encourage, and exhort the congregation from the very first Call to the final Benediction along a particular concept, doctrine, or teaching.
Music choices, song presentation and arrangements, sung ranges, printing of vocal parts, singability, suitability of text to music, instrumental selection, philosophy of sound and audio, etc. all figure in to the process of making decisions about the multiple pieces we sing each week. The corporate worship of God is the goal and this necessitates making different aesthetic choices for that purpose.
For example, how one plays guitar for a coffee house should be different than how it is played for corporate worship. How one plays for an organ recital and how one leads corporate singing with an organ should be notably distinct. The purpose and aesthetic of worship is not the same as the purpose and aesthetic of a concert stage, campfire, writer’s night, recital, or jazz club. Those are all valid and important musical venues to celebrate in the musical life of the corporate body (and should be done so more), but the intent and objectives are not the same as Lord’s Day corporate worship.
Not everyone are singers, but all can sing.
The corporate singing of God’s people serves to bind them together as a community. We often talk about “the music of a generation” and of the Beetles, Elvis, Simon and Garfunkel, or Michael Jackson serving as an identity and marker in the cultural memory. The Psalms served this role in the life of the people of Israel—from the Psalms of Moses and David, the sons of Korah, and the Psalms of Ascent sung on the way to Jerusalem. Having a collective body of sung texts weaves together individuals into a corporate entity.
Not everyone are singers, but all can sing, and part of the beauty of congregational singing is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We rely upon each other to sing together—utilizing various abilities such that the bass needs the melody and the strong reader needs the warm tones of his neighbor—each according to their gift for the building up of the Body. Unfortunately, sometimes our worship spaces fight against this by being so acoustically dry that you cannot hear the person next to you and your voice dims lest you stick out or because the leading of the music is so loud (be it via sound system or brass, choir and organ) that the contribution of the average person feels superfluous.
We become like what we worship, and I would venture to say how we worship.
So, by the very nature of singing together and by virtue of what we sing together, the singing church reflects the Body of Christ knit together. We become like what we worship, and I would venture to say how we worship. In the same manner that we as Christians struggle with proclivities towards being overly emotional or rational, or individualistic, or trying to earn our salvation by works, or being of this world, our music in worship can also fall prey to overwrought emotional manipulation, esoteric musical expression, personal preference and lyrics focused on self, dated music (whether from the 1780’s or the 1980’s), or music lacking in fortitude.
One antidote is to include the singing of the Psalms—historically a hymnbook of the church. As H.T. Hanna wrote:
Of how many heroic characters have these old temple songs been the inspiration! Jewish saints and patriots chanted them in the synagogue and on the battlefield; apostles and evangelists sung them among perils of the wilderness, as they traversed the rugged paths of Syria and Galatia, and Macedonia; martyrs in Rome softly hummed them when the lions near at hand were crouching for their prey; in German forests, in Highland Glen, Lutherans and Covenanters breathed their lives out through their cadences; in every land penitent souls have found in them words to tell the story of their sorrow, and victorious souls the voices of their triumph; mothers watching their babes by night have cheered the vigil by singing them, mourners walking in lonely ways have been lighted by the great hopes that shine through them; and pilgrims going down into the valley of the shadow of death have found in their firm assurances a strong staff to lean upon.
In 2010 I was privileged to work with Ligonier Ministries in creating the CD My Cry Ascends: New Parish Psalms and to record original compositions of Psalms and hymns for corporate worship. In late 2012, I released a second volume, Christ is Our Cornerstone. The aim was to present Psalms, hymns and service music composed in the environs of a local church for her specific use and needs in the hopes that it could be useful elsewhere. These thirty-plus songs were written for congregational singing with the desire that they be both accessible and musically excellent and have a timelessness that supports the singing of timeless truth.
The joy of these projects is the opportunity to reflect on the slow and ever deepening interweaving of God’s Word into the hearts and minds of our congregation—especially the children. Purposefully, deliberately, by incremental design, the Lord is shaping and molding His Church and worship is one more indicator of His grace in our midst. We have much to sing about.
Gregory Wilbur serves at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Franklin, TN in the areas of Worship and Discipleship. My Cry Ascends is available from the Ligonier Store and Christ is Our Cornerstone and print music for both recordings are available at Greyfriars Press.