One of the real privileges I’ve had over the past few years is experiencing and participating in worship services at quite a variety of churches. These churches have spanned a few different continents, at least four or five different countries, and a host of denominations and traditions. They have ranged from congregations with hundreds or even a thousand members all the way down to churches with just a handful of faithful Christians.
Yesterday I found myself reflecting on many of these churches and I realized something that surprised me: I am drawn toward a church that sings poorly and am a little suspicious of a church that sings really well. Let me explain.
A few years ago I worshiped at a church that had been established decades ago. This was quite a large congregation where three or four generations were worshiping together and where God’s Word had been faithfully proclaimed for many, many years. It was faithfully proclaimed the day I was there. The congregation has a distinct but unusual style of singing, one established many years in the past and carried on to our day.
These people know how to sing. They sing loudly. They sing skillfully. They sing beautifully. They sing in parts and with minimal instrumentation so that together they raise one voice to the Lord.
But one reason they sing so well is that there are very few among them who are new to the faith; there are very few among them who have not been raised to hear those songs week by week from their youngest days. By their own admission, they are poor evangelists and their church is not attractive to outsiders because it is so bound in a distinct culture foreign to those around them. They sing so well because they evangelize so poorly.
And then I think to another church I visited in the not-so-distant past. This is a church where the singing is, well, not quite as beautiful. Though there are some in the church who know the songs and who know how to sing a hymn or a contemporary worship song, there are many more who simply do not. As the music rises and falls, many of those voices fall and rise. As the songs progress, many in the church can do little more than mumble along and hope to hit at least a few of the notes.
These people do not know how to sing. Most of them sing quietly. They sing without a lot of skill. They depend upon instrumentation to help carry them. But the reason they sing so poorly is that there are so few among them who are mature in the faith; there are so few among them who have been raised to hear those songs week by week from their youngest days. This is a church where the gospel is being preached in the worship services and where the people are taking that gospel to those who live nearby. The gospel is doing its work, many are being saved, and they are coming to those Sunday services to pour out their praises to God. This church sings so poorly because they evangelize so well.
Many churches in this position will compensate—over-compensate—by cranking the volume to drown out the voices. But not this church. They know that the best and purest instrument of all is the human voice and they allow that instrument to dominate. And there is beauty in it, if you listen closely.
There are exceptions, of course. It is not a hard and fast rule. And yet I think there is something to it. We who have been Christians for many years are tempted to judge a church by the quality of its singing. But as I reflect on those two churches, and many like them, I wonder if we have it all backwards.