Song and Spirit7:30 AM
Music pumping. A thousand voices singing. Hallelujahs ringing. Tears flowing. Hands waving.
Any person lost in a million-people crowd of Southern Baptists on Sunday morning can’t help but feel emotion coursing through his veins. As a ten-year-old, I remember walking into church every Sunday—always a minute late. I knew it was a minute, because Trade your heavy heart for a heart of joy / Celebrate what God has done! was already underway, the congregation clapping along, praisin’ the Lord. And we would Join the song of praise as we gather here / Celebrate the Lord of love, hustling in the little ones into the VIP (a.k.a. “parents of screaming children”) row that seemed reserved specially for us—in the very back.
I grasped the pew in front of me, face lifted to sing off the words on the projector screen miles above, belting out as loud as I could the songs trademark of morning worship. I was short, so a literal wall of tall people (anyone was tall to me) warbling off-key and putting their hands high in the air, eyes squeezed shut, boxed me into an emotional fuse. Just the sheer noise and power moved my heart to fluttering. I can remember just sitting in the pew, heart thump-thump-thumping during the invitation as sweet music convinced the called to move from their seat to the altar.
But in a small congregation, where there are no celebrity singers, no choirs, no full-scale orchestras—only normal people with normal voices (just as sincere, I might add)—that overstimulated trembling has no reason to kick in. We don’t clap along to the music—we don’t flicker the lights—we don’t add any show to the simplicity of sincerity. The theatrics of a morning service don’t move my heart to banging against my ribcage, calling me to five minutes of heartfelt dedication to the Lord.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either.
I mention this only because my mum got me thinking on the subject of music for worship sometime between a morning cup of grape juice and the Bolshevik revolution. (I love homeschooling.) As a church pianist whose turn to play fast approaches, I’m in charge of directing that service’s worship, basically—providing the accompaniment, planning the theme, picking out the songs.
We fell to talking about music and worship and the old hymns-versus-choruses argument. It highlighted a problem I’ve been having lately: focusing.
I come up to morning service from Sunday school laughing about being teased for my height or worrying over a friend who had a bad week. My brain is all over the place—my friends, my goofy little brother next to me, the new couple in the pew two behind me. The broken screw in the pew base. Sometimes I’ve had a miserable dry week where God seems distant, and raw, quivering emotion is the last thing driving my spiritual health.
Singing about the songwriters’ emotions towards God in the first person and pouring out a spiritual celebration that I just don’t feel turns me off. It doesn’t give me butterflies. It doesn’t draw me closer to God. It condemns me for a lack of gooey emotion.
So many songs focus on the I and Emotion—the response to worship so hard to capture with words that sometimes it really becomes just a repetition of “I love you, Lord.” I’ve been there.
But when we’re worshipping, we’re called to look to the Lord, to remember His deeds, to beseech His kindness and revel in our redemption—not look to our personal experience, present or past—to our fleeting feelings—to the amount of tears pricking our eyes or the intensity of tingling in the hand that we raise.
The rich hymns of rearranged psalms and Scripture, the proclamation of doctrine and timeless truth, the calls to war and victory, the remembrances of God’s mercies and grace—that’s where they come in. And yes, Keith and Kristyn Getty’s “In Christ Alone” counts just as much as “A Might Fortress Is Our God.” It’s not the time period in which they were written nor the label of “chorus” or “classic” that determines a hymn’s appropriateness for worship. It goes beyond a mere rut we make for ourselves or a list of authorized hymns.
It’s the truth carried on the music’s strains.
When faced with “the sacred head now wounded,” when realizing that we’re “standing on the promises of Christ our King,” when called to “rise up, O church of God”—when we’re given some concrete truth to meditate on and offer up as tribute to our amazing God—that’s when the butterflies start happening.
Hearts will not be changed by singing “I love you, Lord” over and over (and over) again. That’s the cry of a changed heart—perhaps after singing, “I know not why our Savior’s grace to me He has made known / Nor why unworthy Christ in love redeemed me for His own. / But I know whom I have believed … .”
Do I hear an amen, brother?
(But we can make one exception.)