I read a lot of publications that speak to musical expressions of worship. Some, from sources I respect and learn a great deal from; while others make me cringe, as they extol everything from a viewpoint exactly contrary to what I believe is a Biblical understanding of worship. I learn from them, but sometimes their biggest benefit is that they drive me to my knees in prayer. However, one thing I hear from both sides is that hymnbooks are on the way out of the pew (if pews still even exist). Some rejoice over this, saying that the church is progressing, while others lament what has happened in the last 20-30 years to music in the church.
There’s been a disconnect that has taken place in many churches, where people show up to church and can sip their lattes throughout the “worship” portion, maybe mumble along to a song they’ve heard on the local radio station, and then get ready for the “real” part of the church service – the sermon (which, if it wasn’t for that latte, they’d probably fall asleep during). The music simply serves as a pep rally for the main attraction. There’s no need to mentally engage or be intellectually stimulated during the music; but rather, some come with the attitude that “I can mentally check out and simply sing from the heart, while I enjoy my warm, venti, skinny hazelnut macchiato, with sugar-free syrup, an extra shot of espresso, and no whip.”
We have several generations in the church now that have grown up never seeing a hymnbook; they’ve only ever seen words projected on a screen. In regards to their knowledge of music in worship, these believers have become like the humans depicted in Disney’s Wall-E, who are morbidly obese after centuries of the effects of microgravity and relying on the ship’s automated systems for their every need. They never learned to walk, because something else did all the legwork for them. Believers in many churches are guilty of worship lethargy and often can’t read a lick of music, because they have never been exposed to it. They are spoon fed their Sunday morning worship, without the necessity of engaging the minds in this way. Reading music is not a sign of spiritual maturity, but I would argue that if all you’re willing to do is “get by” in your worship of Yahweh, that’s a thermometer on your spiritual maturity.
A couple weeks ago, we tried something I’ve never seen done before in our church. I was a approached by my Senior Pastor early in the week about a crazy idea he had concocted. He would be preaching a sermon about God’s directions for corporate worship as prescribed by Colossians 3:16 and wanted to put the sermon into action—right then and there. The goal was not to be novel and gimmicky, but to call the congregation to engage their minds in an act of worship, and create beautiful music to our Lord. I was nervous to see if it would be a successful endeavor, but I was quickly sold on his idea, and we began to put the plan into action. So what did we do?
Our church does not have hymnals… yet! (We’re still a fairly young congregation and as soon as our friends in the Grace Community Church music department finish their monumental hymnal project, we will be making a purchase.) So I created a hymn sheet to be put in our bulletin for the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy.” When the sermon was nearly finished I was invited up to the pulpit, and instead of going directly to a closing prayer, I asked the congregation to take out their hymn sheets. What happened next has become an exciting moment in the life of our church.
For the next 10 minutes, I gave a very short lesson on how to read the fundamentals of music. In essence, we had a mini-choir rehearsal. For example, I told the congregation that if you have:
a high female voice = soprano, and you read the dots above the words and furthest away. a low female voice = alto, and you read the dots above the words that are closest.
a high male voice = tenor, and you watch the notes that are below the words, but closest.
a low male voice = bass, and you read the notes below the words and furthest away.
It was basic, but everyone knew where they should be looking. Then I explained if the note moves up, your voice goes up, if the note moves down, your voice goes down. It was simple as that. Probably one of the fastest music theory lessons ever taught.
After everyone knew which part they should look at, I, and a corresponding member of the worship team, sang through the individual parts while a piano and keyboard played along. When we finished singing each part individually, we made some duets. The tenors and basses were first, and sang with tremendous power—it was mesmerizing. The women didn’t want to let the men have the last word though and followed by a singing a beautiful soprano/alto duet. Because there was lots of repetition of the parts, and I pointed out that the first line “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” was almost identical to the 3rd line “Holy, Holy, Holy, Merciful and Mighty”, the congregation learned to sing in full 4-part harmony in less than 10 minutes.
It was now time to put it all together, and it sounded amazing! The congregation had turned from a bunch of independent soloists, into a choir. They were engaged with the hymn in both its lyrical and theological depth regarding the Trinity, but also in the beauty of its musical composition. They saw the Church working as one body, but with many members working in different ways (1 Corinthians 12:12-31), and how beautiful that becomes.
When the service was dismissed there was a lot of excitement over what took place. I heard multiple times how much people appreciated engaging their minds in worship. All of the sudden Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37 took on a fresh perspective “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Others said they finally learned what all those dots were doing on the page and it made sense, while others said they wanted to learn more. We’ve sung “Holy, Holy, Holy” multiple times since then and it gives my heart joy to see people pulling out those hymn sheets that they’ve saved. Many have taken those hymn sheets home and incorporated them into their family and personal devotion time. People even ask me when we’re going to learn the next hymn.
Never settle for the lowest common denominator when it comes to worshiping the Lord through music. Never take for granted the awesome privilege it is to come before the Throne of God above. It took a lot of preparation, planning and prayer before the service to see this be successful, but it was worth it. Worship that engages the heart and mind should take work. Romans 12:1,2 reminds us of that.
So put down your latte and pick up a hymnal.