My grandfather was a strong influence in my life.  I spent many summertime hours riding with him in his pickup truck going back and forth to his farms, driving to the farmers co-op to pick up feed, or just bumping around the pasture either checking on the herd of cattle, or hauling hay.  Grandpa liked to fill those moments with either telling me stories from his life, making me laugh with his jokes, or singing.  When his choice was the later I never knew whether the song would be a nonsensical song he learned in his childhood, or if it would be a favorite hymn.  I usually had no warning.  We might be driving along for an hour with no words spoken, and suddenly the hum of the road noise would be broken by Grandpa bursting into one of these recitations, whether poetry or song.  I recall that his hymns would sometimes fool me as I would expect to hear the melody all the way through, but since Grandpa was a tenor he may well float on up to the tenor part.  That effect only became musically satisfying as I grew a little older and realized I could provide the melody and we would be rolling across Missouri’s highway 63, windows down, proclaiming our faith through a duet.

On rare occasions Grandpa would stumble on a word in a song, and would say, “Maybe I better stick to the songs I know by heart.”  He would also ask me from time to time if I knew a particular hymn “by heart.”  I knew then, and certainly know now that he was referring to whether or not I could sing the song from memory.  He would sometimes commend a certain song to me by saying, “you might want to learn to sing that one ‘by heart.”  That phrase that we might consider old fashioned presents an important challenge to our worship singing.  In our day of words on screens, delivered in six to eight word bites, it concerns me that there may be very few songs that our congregations can sing together “by heart.”  There is an obvious duplicate meaning in that phrase that should capture our attention as well.  An important question for worship leaders in music selection, as well as in how music is sung in worship might be, “Can we sing this song by heart?”  The duplicate meaning, of course, implies on the one hand whether we have the song memorized, such that we can sing it without the lyrics on the screen or use of a hymnal, and on the other hand, whether we can mean the song from our hearts.

In some ways these ideas may be complimentary.  In our age of entertainment obsession, novelty is far too often a high value that spills into our worship planning.  I often hear a similar complaint from two sides of the so called worship wars.  One side says, “we are tired of singing the same old hymns over and over.”  The other side says, “we do not want to sing those ‘seven-eleven’ songs over and over again.”  The fact is that an important aspect of our worship is repetition.  We are, in fact, repeating God’s story over and over again every week.  The Gospel must be central to our weekly gatherings.  Repetition of scripture, prayer, and yes, song, are only meaningless if we do not mean them.  I am convinced that we need enough repetition of songs to be able to sing them into meaning.  I am sometimes frustrated by how quickly a song goes by when its message is deeply profound and needs some unpacking.  Recently our Tennessee Mens Chorale sang a song that was new to many of the singers, “Come, People of the Risen King,” by Keith & Kristyn Getty.  Our rehearsal time was just enough to get the flavor and general sense of this great admonishment to “let every tongue rejoice!”  It did not provide us enough time to dig deeply into what it means to call “young and old from every land, men and women of the faith” to a time of rejoicing as “one heart, one voice.”  Yet even in our first presentations of this “new” song I could anticipate that this will be a song we will want to repeat in numerous worship times.  I know our group enough to know that we will sing into its meaning more and more over numerous repetitions.  I cannot believe that, like grandpa’s admonition, this will be one of those songs “you might want to learn to sing by heart.”

Are you giving your congregation and choir songs to sing by heart?  Are you challenging teenagers to grow into singing ancient hymns and gospel songs by heart?  Are you challenging your senior adults to engage in the repetition of choruses by using them to express their meaning by heart?  Are you committed to lead your congregation to know songs at a much deeper level than the drone mantras that far too often serve only as a utility of flow or transition for bored consumers.  Do you recognize your responsibility to select music that is worth learning to sing by heart?  I am convinced that music chosen simply to get from one mood to the other has no place in sacred worship.  Music worth learning to sing by heart should help speak the process of authentic worship that confesses our sin, cries our prayers, lifts our praise, proclaims the Truth, and engages the spirit in concert with the Holy Spirit.

The coming season of Advent and Christmas is a wonderful time to purposefully lead your congregation and choir to sing by heart, meaning by memory and with depth of meaning.  Far too many children, teens, and young adults cannot sing the great carols without printed words.  Teaching about the Incarnation during this season we celebrate our God who came to “dwell among us” could help us recognize His presence at the same time we memorize songs to sing repeatedly every year.  Wouldn’t it be great if all believers could join voices to proclaim, “Joy to the World! The Lord is come!” and if we could all do it by heart?


Explore posts in the same categories: Singing Worship

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