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.