Why it Hurts When We Can’t Sing

In the last year, we have felt the loss of simple things we might have once taken for granted—whether sitting in our favourite coffee shop, having friends over for dinner, or taking an overseas holiday. But what has surprised many are the feelings of grief over not being able to sing with others in church.

From my experience, singing can often feature fairly low down the list of what is important in personal and corporate faith. I’m not at all saying we don’t enjoy the music in our church services. It’s just that, in the conservative evangelical world, the focus is generally on the ‘greater gifts’. However, a regular frustration I have observed on social media over the past year has concerned the restrictions on singing in church—with many questioning why the loss of our corporate voice feels so painful.

In the conservative evangelical world, the focus is generally on the ‘greater gifts’ … many are questioning why the loss of our corporate voice feels so painful.

From an anthropological perspective, the modern world’s relationship to music is unique. Most of us now engage with music passively—that is, we listen to it, rather than actually playing or singing with others. Streaming services now dominate the way we consume music and have even begun to shape the way music is written. When every stream provides 0.002 precious cents for artists and songwriters, then songs become shorter; and a strong hook in the introduction is more important than the verse or chorus. Streaming feeds and fosters a culture of instant (but passive) musical gratification.

But that’s not how music has been for most of human history. Music (until recently) has been participatory. And musical participation has never required virtuosic ability on an instrument or voice. Sure, music has always been performed to others by gifted artists, but what we have lost in recent years is the informal day-to-day making of music throughout life: in the fields, on ships, in schools, at protests, in the kitchen, and in the church. One of the unique social characteristics of the early evangelical movement (from which we continue to benefit) was the popular-led demand for hymn singing—where the making of music in church shifted from the choir stalls to the congregation. Corporate singing is in the evangelical DNA.

Most of us now engage with music passively … that’s not how music has been for most of human history.

None of this should surprise us if we look at what the Bible says about singing, which very much assumes corporate participation. Israel responded to God’s big acts of redemption—and the events of everyday life—with joyful celebration, sorrowful laments, and songs of hope and expectation. Jesus sang hymns with his disciples; Paul sang in prison; the Corinthians sang in their gatherings.

Nor was singing simply a lovely feature of biblical culture. It also had a theological purpose. In Colossians 3:16 we see what is important in Christian singing—that it is primarily God’s ministry of his word:

  • to the church;
  • to each other, and
  • returned to God in praise.

But the context is equally important—the context of our union with Christ. Teaching and singing the word to another are marks of who we are in Christ and express what it means for Christ to dwell in us. We sing because in Christ we died, and have been raised and made alive—‘participating’ in his perfect worship. And we sing because he dwells in the hearts of his people, inspiring our adoration and thanksgiving.

There is so much more one could say just about this! But the big point is that the church singing together is critically tied to its identity in Christ—so that when you take that away it’s going to hurt—even if just a little bit, if not a lot. If you are trying to make sense of why restrictions on singing have been painful, then it may not just be about missing the cool hook of your favourite song (or even the spiritual encouragement of being fed by God’s word) but because our singing together is a fundamental expression of who we are as a people united in Christ. Musical participation might not be a big part of the world in which we live, but it has never stopped being at the core of Christian identity and our corporate expression of faith, hope and love.

With a number of these ideas in mind, Alanna Glover and I recently wrote a song called Sorrow Fades picking up the images in Isaiah and Hebrews of God bringing his redeemed people back to a city filled with joy and thanksgiving and singing.

This article first appeared on The Gospel Coalition (Australia) 15/04/2021.