Monday, September 24, 2007

The Beauty and Power of Congregational Song

I want to tell you about Darryl Tippens' booklet "That's Why We Sing," subtitled, "Reclaiming the Wonder of Congregational Singing" (Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2007).

There aren't many items I might put on a list of required reading for elders, preachers, and worship leaders among the Churches of Christ. But this is one of them. Tippens starts out with these words:

"When I think of my most memorable moments in church, the times I have felt closest to God, almost always they involve hymns. When I was a small boy, I recall my mother going forward to receive Christ in baptism, as we sang:

Trust and obey,
For there's no other way
To be happy in Jesus
But to trust and obey.

Whether it was through exuberant gospel songs in Sunday worship, devotional songs around a campfire, or Christmas carols sung heartily with family and friends--the joy of divine love and the wonder of forgiveness reached my head and my heart largely through music." (p. 5)

Following a short, rousing introduction, Tippens talks about his purposes:

"In the pages that follow, I wish to do two things: first, to recall some of the main reasons why singing is central in the life of the church; and, second, to offer some suggestions for its preservation and renewal." (p. 8) He accomplishes those goals so very well, it's hard to imagine how it might be done better. A few more quotes.

On the capacity of singing to connect us to God:

In the free church tradition, of which Churches of Christ are a part, a suspicion of sacrament and mystery is common. We have tended to emphasize knowing the right things (doctrine) and doing the right things (ethics and conduct). As one wit has put it, we're good at doing worship 'from the neck up.' Thinking, doctrine, and ethics are very important, of course; but we must admit the obvious; they alone are not sufficient to sustain our faith. One can know the right things, but falter. Our hearts cry out for more, a divine encounter. We want to enter Bethel (the house of God) and shout, 'Surely the Lord is in this place!' (Genesis 28:16). We don't just want memories of a God who once touched his creation; we want communion with him today. (p. 9)

On the power of singing to teach:

Hymns . . . rehearse the stories of Scripture. In word and melody we experience Gethsemane, the cross, and the resurrection. We remember our sinfulness, our need for redemption, our duty to our neighbor, and the promise of eternal life. In a time when people have a diminished capacity to absorb long sermons, hymns stand ready to offer important inspirational and didactic service to the church, as they have done for millennia. (p. 15)

On accentuating the positive:

Many of us reared in Churches of Christ have heard a number of arguments for a cappella singing that seem to carry far less weight than they once did. It is perhaps time to consider other ways of approaching the subject. Many of the old arguments were negative in nature--why instrumental accompaniment is wrong. I suggest that we would receive a better reception if we offered positive arguments for unaccompanied singing. (p. 19)

On congregations learning new songs:

Unfortunately, some song leaders alienate segments of the congregation because they fail to consider that many do not know the new songs. Many older members appreciate the new hymns, but they sometimes feel left out since no one took time to teach the new songs before making them a part of the worship service. (Compounding the problem, often there is no musical notation to give struggling worshippers any help.) The resulting alienation is unnecessary. In singing there is an intimate intertwining of the minds, hearts, and spirits of the worshipers. Singing is not only for God, it is for one another; but when a segment of the worshipers cannot participate because of basic unfamiliarity, the possibility of joyous transcendence is blocked. Worship would greatly benefit from a simple commitment to introduce new songs as a part of the church's teaching program (p. 24).

Preachers and teachers, before your next sermon or lesson called "Sing His Praise!" or "Our Worship in Song" etc., you'll want to read this fine little work. With stories and quotations from Augustine and Karl Barth all the way to Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamont, "That's Why We Sing" will both inspire and inform you. Above all, Churches of Christ should take to heart and put into practice its message.


Deb said...

Frank, I have truly enjoyed getting acquainted with your blog through several of your posts.

Thanks for your thoughts and your writing!

Frank Bellizzi said...

Thank you, Deb. I appreciate the encouragement.

I've spent a little time over at your blog. Looks interesting. I'll be sure to go back. Many blessings.



I enjoyed this post. I love singing and grew up singing songs sitting next to my mom. When I was small I thought everyone sang alto.

Some of my greatest memories are singing the "classics" in church services.

The last point in the post struck a nerve. I love singing "the classics" that everyone knows, but I get frustrated singing only the older songs. We need a good mix of old and new. I'm also a believer in singing the songs that make sense. I can't imagine the frustration of a new Christian or a young person trying to make sense of some of the terminology and words from the old songs.

Just my thoughts ...

Frank Bellizzi said...


I couldn't agree more. I think churches benefit from a good mix of classics and solid new music. I especially like the effect of singing a newer song and then going straight into an older hymn. For example, "Step By Step" followed by "Purer in Heart." I don't think those two are written in the same key; but they're close enough.

People who don't like any of the newer songs should be reminded: all of the classics were once new.

I have to say that I'm sympathetic to the complaint that many of the newer songs are thin on theology and long on mere repetition. But they're not ALL bad. We should see to it that the songs that are theologically-sound, musically-appropriate and "singable" are learned and sung in our congregations. One of Tippens' themes is that what I've described doesn't just happen. It requires some attention and effort.

Arlene Kasselman said...

While some may have a deep appreciation for Accapella music as a heritage marker that we need to keep, for others of us it is just not so. It is so disconnected from all the other sphere's of our life and worship. It limits our ability to fully participate in the arts as worship. And often it narrows our vision and prevents us from drawing on the traditions of the ancient. It also becomes clumsy in the attempt for unity with the larger body of Christ.

In this discussion it is often noted that many who worship with instruments often comment on how beautiful it is to hear our singing. Anything different is engaging for a while. It is also interesting that few if any of those people are giving up their style to embrace ours.

My dream is for our worship to be conceived in such a way that the most appropriate elements are used to bring the most glory. Sometimes that may mean silence, sometimes that may mean chant, sometimes that may mean jamming out on the drums. Sometimes it may mean 728b.

I get tired thinking about the energy that is spent on issues like this that only matter to us - when the larger body of Christ looks at us in amazement and the unbelievers of the world need Christ.

I love Dr. Tippens but I think this book is very "modern" and institutional. Will it serve the next wave of leaders who are more post-modern in their makeup? I am not so sure.

Frank Bellizzi said...


Thanks for chiming in. I appreciate the input, different take, etc. A few thoughts in response.

Unless Tippens doesn't know himself, he's not arguing for congregational singing because he wants to maintain a heritage marker. I know, that may be exactly the motivation for others. But I really don't think so with him.

Isn't "what brings the most glory" highly subjective? I mean, what if one person thinks that it's silence when someone else is ready for worship on the drums? Also, I think that one could dispense with drums, silence, etc. in a way that one couldn't dispense with singing. I don't see them as being in the same categories.

Arlene Kasselman said...

Frank, I see what you are saying. I think your read on Tippens is correct. I just really wonder in a movement that's corporate worship experience is so defined by accapella congregatinal singing if we can seperate out singing and other worship elements. Or, should we?
This is interesting for me to wrestle with in my head because so many of my peers have had a negative response to this book.

Jason Campbell said...

Frank, I appreciate your comments here on your blog. I'm preparing a talk for a short seminar up here in Portland, OR centered on some of the themes in Tippens' book. I'm a church planter in Salem and I'll be sharing some of our experiences in this area with thoroughly unchurched people (which, incidentally, don't really care one way or the other about instrumental vs. a cappella music; they are so weirded out by everything we do at church, this one hardly adds to the cultural shift). Good stuff, I appreciate the summaries.