I had to escape the suffocating heat of the second-story church we temporarily called home, so I descended the flight of stairs and pushed out the front door to the cement walkway that wrapped its way around to the side of the building. The cool breeze felt amazing and the sun was descending below the tree line. There was a group of teens gathered there, hanging out, exchanging light conversation. I had nowhere else to go, so I stretched myself out on the concrete beside them. With one ear, I listened to the amusing teenage banter. But mostly I was blocking out the world, resting from a long, hot day of labor.

This was no ordinary group of teens. They were members of a high school youth group who had willingly sacrificed a week of their summer to provide the physical labor to build a house for an impoverished Mexican family. They had suffered through an overnight ride in a crowded school bus with no air conditioning, and had just completed Day Two of a four-day build project. They had been roused from sleep over 13 hours earlier, but showed very little sign of exhaustion. Rather, they were drawing energy from each other and relishing in the moment.

They were passing around a guitar, a few of them taking turns strumming and singing ad hoc choruses. The music was pleasant and I drifted off into my thoughts.

Then suddenly they began singing familiar songs of worship to God. First it was just a few small voices, but soon others joined in and the rich mixture echoed through the courtyard. I recognized the songs, and though I didn’t presume to belong to this group, I felt an inner compelling to add my voice to the mix.

Great are You, Lord…

It’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise, we pour out our praise

It’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise to You only

There is an indescribable joy that engulfs the human soul when all focus, all emotion is yielded in rapturous praise to the Lord God. It is especially pleasant when that praise is joined in unity with like-minded brothers and sisters. External barriers of age, race, or sex instantly give way to a sense of community and belonging that can only be experienced by people of God. It stirs the heart and excites the soul.

Occasionally, my corrupt mind noticed the way one kid raised his voice higher than the others. Disdainful thoughts polluted the solemn state of my mind. But subtle nudges from the Spirit reminded me these people are but youths, and entreated me to embrace the vitality, to enjoy the diversity. I shooed the thoughts away and focused on the lyrics.

The impromptu worship session went on through several choruses. Then, as suddenly as it began, it ended with the arrival of the 9:30 evening curfew. The kids dispersed and settled in for the night. I slept a little more soundly that night, the melodies still playing in my heart.

And it got me thinking about worship.

Nothing is more divisive in the contemporary church than worship style, the selection of songs and the manner and tempo at which they are sung. We can’t seem to get our arms around an effective way to bridge older and younger generations in a worship style that satisfies everyone. What makes a good worship service? Should we gauge the effectiveness of our worship by the number of hands raised in the air, by the decibels of sound we generate? If by our worship many are energized but some feel alienated, have we succeeded? Should we strive just to satisfy a high percentage of the congregation with our worship style? Is 70% good enough? How about 80%? This starts sounding ridiculously cold and business-like, but sometimes I think this is the way we define successful worship.

Recently I read Life Together, a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in which the author shares his mind on how a community of Christians should carry out their fellowship on a day to day basis. He is very rigid in his prescription, and the rigidity can be a turn-off to our free-thinking Western culture. But Bonhoeffer’s insight speaks to many of the conflicts we see today, including worship. In his book, Bonhoeffer masterfully unpacks scriptures and highlights key principles for worship that are entirely relevant, and worthy of our consideration and application.

Unison Singing

Bonhoeffer first points to the words of Paul in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3.

“Let the Word dwell in you richly…with all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God…” (Colossians 3:16)

“…be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs…singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:18-19)

Why do Christians sing when they are together? We sing because in singing it is possible to speak to the same Word to one another at the same time. Our spoken words are inadequate to express what we want to say, but our song goes far beyond all human words and enable us to holistically express words of praise, thanksgiving, confession, and prayer. We sing these words together for mutual instruction, conviction, correction, and encouragement as only the Word of God can do. With hearts surrendered to the Spirit, we join into a beautiful reality Bonhoeffer refers to as unison singing where the full attention of every member is focused on the Word of God and Christ. Christians joined in unison singing experience exhilarating joy unlike anything this world can offer. Christians partaking in unison singing find relief in desperation, healing in confession, hope in surrender, and admiration in reflection. The key tenets of unison singing are the songs we sing and the heart of the singer.

The Songs

The songs we sing ought to be centered and founded on the Word of God. Their content ought to be as closely aligned with scripture as possible, leaving little room for man’s clever lines wrought from his cunning intuition or observation. We must remember man’s heart is corrupt and deceptive and his mind limited. As creative and euphoric as they may be, the song derived from man’s words does not automatically enable the power of unison singing.

Unlike any fluffy words of man, the Word of God brings conviction, awareness, and penetration of a cold, hard heart. The Word is Christ Himself (John 1:1). The more closely aligned our lyrics are to the Word, the more powerful they will be.

The “songs, hymns and spiritual songs” to which Paul refers are part of the new song, the song of God that is entirely unfamiliar to the world. God established it at the creation of the world (Job 38:7) to declare His glory. It is made up of inexpressible words that no man may speak (II Corinthians 12:4). It will only be fully known at the conclusion of the world (Revelation 5:9, 14:3, 15:3). In this life, we can only partake in the new song as as it is revealed to us in the Word and in Christ. This song can only be sung under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. We sing it as men constrained by the flesh, desperate pilgrims and wanderers.

Time and time again, we are instructed by the psalmist to sing the new song (Psalm 33:3, 40:3, 96:1, 98:1, 149:1). The new song directs praise and thanksgiving to God after undeniable acts of divine intervention, like the victory song of Miriam at the Red Sea or Mary’s Magnificat at the glorious annunciation. Like the song of Paul & Silas shackled and imprisoned, the new song can be sung regardless of the circumstance, bringing hope and joy in the darkest hour. By focusing on the words of the new song, the submitted singer can lift his mind from the morass of despairing circumstances, like Jehoshaphat at the Wilderness of Tekoa (II Chronicles 20:21-22). Only the songs that are centered and focused on the Word of God and sung from hearts surrendered to the Spirit accomplish these miraculous ends and achieve the objective of partaking in the new song.

It is from this platform that Bonhoeffer gives his commentary on the nature of songs we sing in church, and how we accomplish unison singing. His thoughts are not easy for us to bear, but given the chaotic state of our congregations on the subject of worship, we ought to give them consideration.

Bonhoeffer advises that our songs ought to be pure, unaffected by alien motives of musical technique, and unspoiled by attempts to give musical art an autonomy of its own apart from the Word. They ought to be simple in nature, known for their frugality and warmth, so simple that even the unmusical can take part. They should be familiar so that they can be sung freely from memory. The fancy, well-rehearsed methods we introduce with key changes, bridges, downbeats, and such may sound pleasant to the ear, but if they are losing members, if they are not uniting the body in the focus on the Word, they are not accomplishing unison singing.

I think the meaty hymns of old did this better than many contemporary worship songs. The chorus of Great is Thy Faithfulness is taken directly from Lamentations 3:22-23. The singing of this hymn unifies the body by praising God for attributes He ascribes to Himself. There is little room for human adulteration in such a song. Modern worship songs don’t often draw their lines from scripture as they should, but many are close or speak to powerful themes of the new song and help us focus on the truths of God. One such song is Oceans, which reminds me of Paul’s use of an ocean metaphor in Ephesians 3:18 to explain the height, depth, width, and breadth of God’s love. Great Are You Lord is the song those teens sang in Mexico. This song’s reminder that the very breath in my lungs is from God quickens my mind to a state of humble dependence and gratefulness. In my mind, it’s a good song.

Great are You, Lord…

It’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise, we pour out our praise

It’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise to You only

I admire and applaud those who compose their own praise songs.  I encourage these gifted men and women to keep close to scripture, to incorporate the living and powerful Word and apply it to your melody.  The church should be all about memorizing scripture, and what better way to do this than by putting it to song?  When I was in college, I attended a church with a talented, young worship leader who masterfully composed a hymn based on Psalm 103.  I can still hear the tune playing in my mind, and it calls my attention to the uplifting words, “bless the Lord, oh my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name…”

The Singer

For his part, the singer must be submitted in his heart to the Word, to the Spirit of Christ, and to the body in utter humility. This requires discipline, a concerted effort to sing in unison, blocking out all envy, vanity, and contempt.

“…singing and making melody in your heart to God.” Unison singing begins in the heart. The heart can sing when it is overflowing with Christ; when it has surrendered to the Word and become incorporated into community with great humility and discipline. Here the church must be especially careful, for the line between self-praise and God-praise is a fine one, and subtle, almost imperceptible. In the words of Bonhoeffer, any singing that does not come from the heart is a “dreadful medley of self-praise,” and the singing is not to the Lord, but “to the honor of self or the music”; a “song to idols.”

It is so easy for a church to stumble at this point. We refine our worship, polish the production, pack it into a 15-minute choral session with songs that are relevant to the sermon. And in the process, we bypass the heart and neglect the simple importance of submitting to the Word, the filling of the Holy Spirit, and the surrender to unison singing within the body.

Bonhoeffer takes a hard line on things he calls “destroyers of unison singing,” which he says must be rigorously eliminated. There is no place for vanity. It must not be required to have the “necessary background” as if the new song was somehow lacking. There is no place for the base or alto who sings an octave lower than the rest in order to call everybody’s attention to his astonishing range, or the trilling solo voice that drowns out everything else to the glory of its own fine organ. This is an area of weakness for me. My mother has a beautiful voice, and my father has a good set of pipes as well. I inherited a portion of their songbird qualities and love to hear my own singing, often bellowing out the tune to “bless” my neighbors. In my vanity, I detract from unison singing and spoil the beauty of the new song. When I catch myself doing this, I must submit myself, kill off the disruptive intent, and submit once again to the Word, the Spirit, and unison singing with the body. Some want worship to energize their emotions, to stir up the raising of hands and even dancing in the congregation. But we must bear in mind the unison singer is not ecstatic nor enraptured, but sober, grateful, reverent, and addressed to God’s Word.

These are difficult admonitions. They demonstrate the great chasm between contemporary worship and the simple concept of unison singing. This is why Bonhoeffer suggests that unison singing is less a musical effort than it is a spiritual matter. It requires discipline and discernment on behalf of the congregation.

The teen worship on that cool Mexican evening came from a heart absent of pretense. It spawned from a simple desire to praise, to escape the weariness of the moment and humbly come into the presence of God. For the most part, the members of this worship session had no ulterior motive, were not trying to impress each other. The result was a transcendent and refreshing experience of partaking in the new song.

Millennials and the New Song

In my mind, churches that wrangle over which worship style best accommodates the next generation are wrangling over the wrong issue. The question is not, “how we should cater our worship to millennials?”, but rather, “how do we encourage unison singing?” This is where I think “free will” mentality derails the church. Free will compels us to attract people, so we bend our worship style accordingly. In the process, we alienate some of our dearest members. The accessories we add to our worship detract from the new song, and divert us from unison singing.

Millennials do not own the heavens and the earth, so what makes them worthy of our catering? Our worship should embody the new song, ordained by the One who established it when He created the heavens and the earth. It should be sung with humble hearts surrendered to the Word and to the Spirit of Christ. Sometimes I wonder if millennials would rather experience unison singing than the contemporary, upbeat clatter we offer them. There is something about the convicting and healing power of unison singing sung by surrendered hearts that newcomers can’t resist.

The subject of worship is a difficult one, and it has taxed my faculties to try to make sense of it. I think I will just lay back and let the innocent praise of the youth group soothe my weary mind once again. Care to join us?

Great are You, Lord…

It’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise, we pour out our praise

It’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise to You only

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