Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Liturgical Function of Congregational Singing

The liturgical function of congregational singing is prayer. It is our response to God's words to us in the context of Christ's service to us in Word and Meal.

When people pray in church, most of the time they almost instinctively use "we," "us" and "our" language, not "I," "me" and "my" language. We should follow this same practice in congregational singing, simply because congregational singing functions as our prayer response to our triune God and his Word and grace.

In the Gospel narratives, there are examples of characters who use "I," "me" and "my" language, showing their true state. For example, the devil's language is filled with "I," "me" and "my" language in Luke 4 as he tempts the Lord to worship him. The rich farmer in Luke 12, who is not rich toward God, also exalts himself and exposes his heart with his use of "I," "me" and "my" language. These negative examples, and others, should give us pause before singing the song of self in church. When we sing about our praise or devotion in "I," "me" and "my" language one has to wonder if our self-referential language is not a giveaway to our soul's condition.

In response to this criticism, people often point to the Psalms. The Psalms, they say, are filled with "I," "me" and "my" language, so doesn't this give us license to use "I," "me" and "my" language however we like? The answer is no, for a couple of reasons. First, the Psalms were sometimes individual prayers, and not all the Psalms were used in a corporate setting. But, second, and more importantly, the true speaker of the Psalms is Jesus Christ, who speaks as our representative. Jesus Christ our King, fully man and fully God, represents us before the Father and the Psalms are a record of his prayers, praises, instruction and laments. He is the true worshiper in whom our worship is accepted.

"I," "me" and "my" language is not the only problem with congregational singing in Evangelical churches today. There is also the problem of unbiblical and false theology in so many of our contemporary praise songs. It used to be that at least the "I," "me" and "my" language was followed by sound theology from the pens of people like Watts, Wesley or Crosby, but this is no longer the case, and one of the reasons we don't see it is that most people learn their theology, not from the Bible, but from congregational singing, which has been faulty for a few decades now. Frankly, we have just gotten used to bad theology when we sing, and the only cure for our blindness is a Berean attitude that checks our lyrics/prayers against Scripture.

Not everyone will agree with my assessment of the sad state of congregational singing in Evangelical churches. Some will criticize me for being unloving, legalistic and judgmental. But for those who think that Jesus should guide us when we pray/sing in church ("When you (plural) pray, say, "our" Father...give "us" this day...lead "us" not into temptation...deliver "us" from evil," --- not a single "I," "me" and "my"), then, what should we do, given this situation we cannot avoid? 

My own answer is to do one of three things when I am in church, and I would recommend these steps if you hold the same position as me:

1) If the "I," "me" and "my" language is accompanied by sound theology, sometimes I will sing along.

2) Sometimes I will sing and replace the "I," "me" and "my" with "we," "us" and "our."

3) Sometimes, especially if the "I," "me" and "my" is accompanied by faulty theology, I will just use the time to read a Psalm or bow my head to pray individually. But, you say, in reading or praying individually, aren't you doing the very thing you criticize? In the case of reading Scripture, we read so little of it these days in church that it is probably what we should be doing in greater measure! In the case of praying, I am not against an inner dialogue to accompany the corporate dialogue of worship. Besides, what other choice do I have if the self-language is accompanied by bad theology? Should one lie in the presence of Christ as he dwells among his people?

May the Lord Jesus take note of one poor sinner's lament for a more biblical worship. If it be his will, in mercy may he grant the return of congregational singing to its proper liturgical function.

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