Stories Told

A cappella

Yesterday’s post about Sacred Harp singing made me want to share again a couple posts from the archive about my experiences singing in harmony. I loved to do it and I miss it.

A long time 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 – and 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 as I had in school choir many years before. Elated to sing this way 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.

I 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.

Unfortunately, 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. Today, I consider this to be a real theological stretch. But back then I 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 Restoration Movement churches to split for more than a hundred years. When I attended this little Church of Christ, an enormous 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 my hometown 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 were familiar to me. But that church featured a piano, a drum kit, and a guitar on the stage, and all of them got vigorous use during Sunday-morning worship.

It took me months to feel comfortable with the instruments, as I broke free from Church of Christ orthodoxy. I finally realized that because I was where God led me, that He knew what he has asked me to do, and that He was in control. So finally I became able to sing freely. Unfortunately, the congregation sang like timid Methodists. I came to miss the powerful congregational singing that helped me feel so connected to God and His people.

Originally shared in December, 2007. Tomorrow, a memory of singing in the school choir.

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5 thoughts on “A cappella

  1. Jim, I very much enjoyed yesterday’s article about shape note singing. I enjoy Sacred Harp from a listener’s perspective, you understand. I still have a shape note songbook.

    Your comments here regarding doctrine and practice interest me, too. Personally, I think it matters little whether praise is rendered with instruments or a capella, but I know it has been an issue for some Christians. A close childhood friend of mine was Free Methodist, and that in the day prior to widespread acceptance of the instrument in that denomination. Yet by the time I went to college, at a school under the auspices of the FM Church, the department of music was highly focussed on preparing students for use of music in ministry, and instrumental music had been adopted in most congregations.

    • When I was in the Church of Christ, I heard more than one sermon a year about why instrumental music in worship was not authorized and therefore sinful. While some CoC congregations still hold to this doctrine, I sense considerable softening on this position in the mainline. Most mainline CoC congregations still sing a cappella, but most of those call it tradition now rather than doctrine. Some “liberal” CoC congregations have adopted instruments. I’m glad to see this shift away from a rigid authoritarian reading of the Bible.

      On the other hand, I lament how so many churches – and now I’m talking outside the CoC – have created elaborate bands that play so loud that it’s impossible to hear the singing. I don’t want to condemn this practice; perhaps it helps those congregants grow closer to God. It just doesn’t work for me, and there is something lost when one voice blends with a whole congregation’s to rise up to the Lord.

      • The loud band on the platform doesn’t work for me, either. But perhaps that is a function of my personal “tradition.” Or simply that I am an old man. I suppose the Lord can hear each voice raised in praise. :o)

      • I’ve been a member of the Church of Christ for over 9 years, and can confirm that most churches strive to incorporate some musical accompaniment into the worship service. From full on bands to a simple acoustic guitar, I’ve sung along to all of it, in addition to many songs sans instruments.

        I’m sorry that instruments were incorrectly preached against back then. There is nothing scriptural to back up the claim that the use of musical instruments during worship is sinful. This is an example of eisegesis in the place of exegesis.

        Are you no longer a part of the CoC?

        • I should clarify that I’m speaking from my experience in central Indiana, and that experience will probably differ in other parts of the country!

          I left the CoC in 2004, and have since been in the related (Restoration Movement) Christian Church.

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