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Why Do We Sing in Church?

By Adam Lefever Hughes, Pianist, Chapel in the Pines

August 2012


Maybe you've never thought about it before. Maybe you already have a concrete idea. Maybe it is a question you've always kept to yourself, fearful of others' scoffing remarks.  Why DO we sing in church?  First let's explore what makes a hymn a hymn. 

A hymn is a poem set to music.  Of course, that's putting it quite simply, but this dual nature of text and tune will become a helpful metaphor for a later discussion.  A hymn by its very nature has a duality.  The text and tune are oftentimes so inextricably linked to one another that suggesting a different tune for a well-known hymn text can be likened to blasphemy in some places.  For example, try singing the words for Amazing Grace to the tune Antioch (we know the text "Joy to the World" to this tune more readily).  Go ahead, try it.  Here are the words in case you need them:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Was blind, but now I see.
Was blind, was blind, but now I see.

How did that feel?  Might you think about this text in a new way after having sung it with this tune?  When you saw the text the first time, did you think about the more familiar tune?  This brings us to one of our first realizations about why we sing in church.  Singing a text helps us remember it.  Music is a marvelous memory aid.  Don't believe me? Ask a child to recite their ABCs and you'll be greeted with a song!  We sing because we want to remember; we sing because the memory of a song may stay with us long enough to bring us comfort when we are most in need.  Such a practical reason for singing shouldn't be scoffed at, but what about the theological reasons?  What happens when we sing?

By raising our voices collectively in song, we are taking an opportunity to communally proclaim our faith. Each of our voices melds with the others around us, and together we proclaim the grace-filled words of God's covenant to one another. We proclaim this faith for so many reasons: because the news of God's grace is so amazing we simply cannot contain it; because we must remind one another of the saving grace of God; because we ourselves must be reminded of this grace.

In the same way a hymn expresses its duality by marrying together a text and tune, the action of singing a hymn presents another duality. In a worship service there is constant juxtaposition.  Spoken word is set next to song, the voice of one next to the voice of many, the word of God next to the word of the gathered assembly.  This constant dual nature allows a gathered group of people to proclaim the saving grace of God in a multitude of ways.  I like to think of it the same way we think about teaching.  Not all are visual learners, not all are aural learners, not all are spatial learners. However, by combining symbol, spoken word, and liturgical action we create a space where all may encounter the Gospel message.  We sing to express the story in a new way; we sing to hear the story in a new way.

You may have noticed the usage of the first person plural nouns throughout this article.  This is extremely important.  When we sing together, we become the body of Christ. This is of vital importance to who we are as a community.  We do not point to ourselves; it is Christ whom we adore.  It is Christ who has formed us into a community of faith, and it is Christ who speaks the words of grace around us.  The Good News we hear coming from the mouths of the people around us isn't actually coming from them.  The words come from God, via the Spirit, through the body of Christ!  We, the assembly, at any given service, then, are the primary musical instrument.  We, the assembly, have become the mouth, lips, tongue, vocal chords, resonating passages, and lungs of the God of the covenant who has promised to save us.  We sing because we are called to; we sing because we are the body of Christ.

So, we have explored in brief a few answers to the question: "Why do we sing in church?"

We sing because we want to remember.
We sing to hear and proclaim the story in a new way.
We sing because we are called to.
We sing because we are the body of Christ.

May our singing be enlivened by the God who calls us, Christ who redeems us, and the Spirit who sustains us.

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We worship at 10:30 AM every Sunday at 314 Great Ridge Parkway, Chapel Hill, NC, off Mann's Chapel Road. Here is a map to the church.

Childcare is provided during worship.

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