Faith, Music

A cappella

Ten years ago my wife and I visited a little Church of Christ in a plain building that stood on an empty highway in a rural corner of the city. The warm and friendly members eagerly accepted us as guests. The service began simply with a welcome and a prayer. Then a man walked to the lectern and asked us to open our hymnals. We saw no instruments; I wondered if music was played on tape. No. He sang “sol,” raised a hand, swung it down – hpj3.jpgand then everyone exploded into song, belting out Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah, without accompaniment, in four-part harmony, at the tops of their lungs.

Unprepared, I raised my hands as if to cover my ears. We stood there stunned, eyes wide, mouths open. We had been Methodists, timid singers the lot. In this building, even the tone-deaf sang out, the strong, resonant voices around them carrying everyone’s voices through the rafters and straight up to the Lord.

I loved singing, and had I missed singing in harmony after I quit the school choir when my voice changed. Elated to sing in harmony again, I turned to my hymnal and its shaped notes and tried to keep up with the congregation in this song I didn’t know.

In time I learned it, and many others, in joy that came from feeling a special bond with God and connection with my fellow Christians. I offered the Lord my best voice, singing directly to Him. But the congregation’s cooperative singing offered God something of much greater beauty than I could create alone. Our singing helped me not only acknowledge and praise God, but also transcend myself to remember everyone else in the room who also sought the Lord. I even considered Christians in other a cappella congregations singing unabashedly just like us. I felt in touch with the whole body of Christ.

sofap.jpgI found comfort in my travels by identifying with Christians through a cappella singing. When away on business on a Sunday or a Wednesday evening, I usually found a congregation and went to worship with them. I noticed many times that singing the bass part of songs with them was a way others recognized me as a member of the church.

A cappella singing was no less than a doctrine. The Church of Christ was born from the Restoration Movement in the 1800s, which sought to restore Christian practices to patterns found in the New Testament. The movement’s churches sought Biblical authority for all of its practices. Because the Bible does not mention using instruments of music in worship, the logic goes, instruments are therefore not authorized. I’ve heard some preachers say that congregations that use instruments in worship are sinning and face hell unless they repent, and that a cappella Christians should not associate with instrumental Christians because to do so implies acceptance of their practices.

Sadly, arguments over instrumental music have caused churches to split for more than a hundred years. When I attended this little Church of Christ, a vast Christian Church sat about a mile down the road. The two churches were one until they split in 1894, and I’m told that instrumental music was one of the reasons. I know a former Church of Christ in South Bend that lost many members in the past decade as it underwent a spiritual transformation, a portion of which included adding instruments to worship.

When I left that little congregation, I turned to God for guidance. I expected to be led to another Church of Christ, but He directed me to a particular Christian Church. This and many other independent Christian Churches have Restoration Movement roots, and so its beliefs and practices are familiar to me. As I’ve written before, however, we have a piano, a drum kit, and a guitar on the stage, and all of them get vigorous use during Sunday-morning worship.

It took me months to feel comfortable with the instruments. At first, I worried a lot about my participation in singing because of the instruments playing. I have since realized that because I am where God led me, that He knows what he has asked me to do, and that He is in control. So today, I sing there without worry. Unfortunately, the congregation sings like timid Methodists, and so I miss the powerful congregational singing that helped me feel so connected to God and His people. I hope that one day God’s path for me leads to a loving a cappella congregation.

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12 thoughts on “A cappella

  1. Hi. I enjoyed your thoughtful posting on singing and music in church. Thanks for taking the time to write out your thoughts. I’ve been United Methodist all my life, and I’m often dismayed at the lack of energy that a congregation puts into the music. Once upon a time, our predecessors were referred to as “singing Methodists” because of the vitality in the praise and singing they did. And our musical heritage is among the strongest of all denominations. So it’s too bad so many Methodists sing timidly, like you say. Not all do, but too many.

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  2. I know a Methodist pastor in northern Indiana who has done a lot to revitalize the music in worship in his congregations by using his skill on the guitar and hammer dulcimer. When I last visited his church, he had added a more contemporary service that featured his twelve-string guitar and songs you might call “contemporary Christian’s greatest hits.” It was gratifying to hear the worshippers really singing — not at the tops of their voices, but still with greater power and real joy. I left feeling like those worshippers had really offered something to the Lord that morning.

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  3. A life-long member of the Churches of Christ, I got here by way of your comment over at Mike Cope’s place.

    Thanks for these memories. They bring to mind some of my own. About that little Church of Christ were you heard the great singing, my guess is that the building was very simple. More recently my people have built large plush buildings that absorb sound. The result is that the singing doesn’t reverberate so well. This, among other things, is contributing to a sharp decline in the quality of singing in Churches of Christ. It’s a shame.

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  4. Leo says:

    Jim mentioned: “The campus radio station at my alma mater used to have an hour of Gregorian chant every Sunday night. I’m not sure why.”

    Perhaps to appease a large contingent of Catholic listeners?

    All joking aside, if you want to hear really AWFUL congregational singing, just visit most any Catholic church some Sunday! One Catholic scholar even wrote a book on the topic (“Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste” by Thomas Day). Unfortunately, his “solution” was to make Gregorian Chant the norm for congregational singing. I suppose that chant is charming (in a Sominex sort of way), but it just isn’t my style.

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