You would, in the twenty-first century, think of congregational singing as one of the hallmarks of a Christian gathering.

I have had the occasional friend suggest that it would be perfectly possible to have a church meeting without singing. The really essential components of the gathering of believers are the prayerful opening of the Word of God and the breaking of bread together.

And yet: we sing.

Words that we sing become living words. We don’t simply recite them, we express them. We identify with them. They start to shape us. We more easily remember them.

It wasn’t always like this. Music has pretty much always been a part of Christian services, but the idea of singing together was largely forgotten in the centuries before the Reformation in the 1500s. We do of course hear about the disciples and Jesus singing together before Jesus’s arrest (Matt 26:30) and Paul and Silas singing together in prison (Acts 16:25); and the sharing of a hymn is part of the congregational setting that Paul describes in 1 Cor 14:26.

Something of the purpose of singing together is expressed in two very similar verses, Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 – it is a means by which the gospel itself can inhabit our common life. Listen to Paul in Colossians 3:16:

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

What we miss in the English translation is that the “you” in this verse is really “yous”, or “y’all”, as the Americans would say. The gospel of Jesus Christ lives in us as we sing to one another, and to God, with thankfulness.

Singing has that power. Words that we sing become living words. We don’t simply recite them, we express them. We identify with them. They start to shape us. We more easily remember them.

While it is not true, as is commonly said, that Luther adapted drinking songs, it is true that he took musical inspiration from folk music, Gregorian chant, and other musical forms. The key for him was singability: it had to be enjoyable.

The power of congregational singing was something that the leaders of the Reformation actively harnessed. They wanted their congregations to hear the preaching of the gospel in their own languages, to believe it and to respond to it. And they thought that here was such unbelievably good news that it was certainly worth singing about.

Martin Luther, who wrote a number of hymns including the famous A Safe Stronghold Our God is Still, once said:

“God has made our hearts and spirits happy through His ideal Son, whom He has delivered up that we might be redeemed from sin, death, and the devil. He who believes this sincerely and earnestly cannot help but be happy; he must cheerfully sing and talk about this, that others might hear it and come to Christ.”

While it is not true, as is commonly said, that Luther adapted drinking songs, it is true that he took musical inspiration from folk music, Gregorian chant, and other musical forms.

The key for him was singability: it had to be enjoyable. He introduced part-singing, writing that:

“These songs were arranged in four parts to give the young – who should at any rate be trained in music and other fine arts – something to wean them away from love ballads and carnal songs and to teach them something of value in their place, thus combining the good with the pleasing, as is proper for youth.”

Luther wasn’t simply conceding to the popular style. He was advocating a move away from sentimentality and debasement in the music that captivates the young to something finer, but no less enjoyable.

In Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli, who was a very skilful musician and played several instruments, was much more cautious. He actually had music-less services, because he was afraid that music would distract from the Word of God and lead to emotionalism. Indeed, he had the organ in the People’s Church in Zurich destroyed.

Nevertheless, he wrote several hymns, and wasn’t opposed to the use of music as a vehicle for teaching the Word of God. Chiefly, he was opposed to the chanting and priestly droning of the medieval church.

So, music is a powerful instrument for good, but it needs to be used carefully because of its potential to move our hearts.

John Calvin in Geneva was not as enthusiastic as Martin Luther about singing in multiple parts (“polyphony”), but still saw congregational singing as vital to Christian gatherings. Calvin wanted the singing of God’s people to be of God’s Word itself, and so he saw a special place for the singing of the Psalms. He saw singing as a form of corporate prayer.

He wrote:

“There is scarcely in the world anything which is more able to turn or bend this way and that the morals of men … And in fact, we find by experience that it has a sacred and almost incredible power to move hearts in one way or another. Therefore we ought to be even more diligent in regulating it in such a way that it shall be useful to us and in no way pernicious.’’

So, music is a powerful instrument for good, but it needs to be used carefully because of its potential to move our hearts.

As the Reformation spread around Europe, it produced many collections of hymns, enabled (as always) by the power of the printing press. One of these was the Hymnbook of the Bohemian Brethren, the first German language hymnbook.

The woman who wrote the preface to this hymnbook when it was republished in Strasbourg was one of the Reformation’s most interesting characters – Katharina Schütz Zell. Schütz Zell was married to a priest in 1523 – itself a radical act at the time. She was from the start a prominent voice advocating for the Reformation in the city, publishing a defence of her marriage in the face of stern criticism. She was hospitable to refugees and wrote powerful letters to other Protestant women encouraging them to stay true to the gospel.

By publishing the hymnbook, Schütz Zell hoped to do exactly what Colossians 3:16 urges – to make the Word of Christ dwell in the people of God richly. She wrote in her preface:

“I found such an understanding of the works of God in this songbook that I want all people to understand it. Indeed, I ought much rather to call it a teaching, prayer, and praise book than a songbook, although the little word ‘song’ is well and properly spoken, for the greatest praise of God is expressed in song.”

Like the other Reformers, she saw in Christian singing an antidote to the way in which other songs embed in people the wrong kinds of loves. I just have to share her brilliant words:

“Since, however, so many scandalous songs are now sung by men and women and also children throughout the world, songs in which all slander, coquetry, and other scandalous things are spread through the world by young and old (and the world likes to have things sung), it seems to me that a very good and useful thing to do … is to convey the whole business of Christ and our salvation in song, so that the people may thus enthusiastically and with clear voices be exhorted regarding their salvation, and the devil with his songs may not have any place in them.”

You do not need a priest to sing to God on your behalf. You, the ordinary Christian, can turn your voice in praise and thanksgiving to him, and thus find your heart turned.

She goes on:

“Therefore, dear Christian, whoever you are, since you have until now allowed your children and relatives to sing false scandalous songs at the country dances and elsewhere … so now (in response to this clear call which God makes to the world) encourage your children and relatives to sing godly songs in which they are exhorted to seek knowledge of their salvation.

“And teach them to know that they do not serve human beings but God, when they faithfully (in faith) keep house, obey, cook, wash dishes, wipe up, tend children, and similar work that serves human life, and that (while doing this very work) they can also turn to God with the voice of song. And teach them that in doing this, they please God much better than any priest, monk, or nun with their incomprehensible song in the choir … a poor mother would so gladly sleep, but at midnight she must rock the wailing baby and sing it a song about godly things. That is called, and indeed it is, the right lullaby.”

This is an inspiring vision of the role of song in the Christian life. It can accompany the ordinary things of life, and bless these chores. You do not need a priest to sing to God on your behalf. You, the ordinary Christian, can turn your voice in praise and thanksgiving to him, and thus find your heart turned. You can be filled with the holy desire to love God, and the things of God.

Think of the way in which the world today uses music. It is then as now: music inflames lust, and sells things. Advertising jingles speak to the longings of our hearts about products that are for sale.

But what if we had a different song to sing – a song not about consumer goods, but about the God who is love who freely gives of grace?

More than ever before, we need the ministry of song, because the people of God need their hearts, and not simply their minds, tuned to the Word of God.

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Sydney and the author of several books.

Email Icon

Email This Story

Why not send this to a friend?

Share

Comments

More