Come Let Us Sing: A Call to Musical Reformation
Robert S. Smith
LATIMER TRUST, 2020
Reformation. That’s a rather strong word isn’t it? Are things that bad in Australian Evangelical congregational singing that we need reformation? I suspect different readers will have different perspectives on this. Some churches have grabbed the ball and run with it in the last decade or so, seeing wonderful development of music ministries and young, gifted musicians engaging in this high-profile component of church life. Others have tended to take a more conservative approach, but have still worked to clarify their theological position with musicians and congregations, encouraging growth in music ministry where possible. Across the board though, what many churches have achieved is improvement in relation to the cringe factor. Where I visit, things seem to be better than they used to be in terms of how the music is led, how bands and small ensembles are being used, and how creativity is achieved in musical arrangements.
Still, having said all this, I am not surprised at Rob Smith’s call to reform. I feel that many Australian Evangelical churches may be missing the wood for the trees when it comes to congregational singing. I say this having worked full time as a music director in a large church for 12 years, seeing much growth in music in that time, but also an ever-growing need for growth in myself as a leader among the people of God. Ironically, we have grappled deeply with some aspects of the theology of gathering and singing, and yet, in a lot of churches, congregations still don’t seem to be singing. Or at least they don’t seem to want to be singing. The interesting qualification to this is, of course, that during the season of COVID, many evangelicals have deeply missed singing together (where it has not been possible) and have craved the days of opening our mouths together in song.
We’ve all heard congregational singing. When it happens, what you hear is a congregation singing. But I still find that it is the exception rather than the rule to hear the voices around me. Is it that we do not connect with music itself ? Or—perish the thought!—that the gospel doesn’t actually enthuse us? Is it that we do not want the person next to us hear our voice? (That’s going to kill it right there). Or do we just not know the songs? This is not a passing triviality according to the Bible. And it is not just the musicians’ fault for picking too many syncopated songs. Leaders, what does it mean for the Bible to call us to sing?
Rob Smith and I are good friends and have shared dozens of conversations about this topic over past decades. And I have to say I am absolutely delighted that he has written this book. I’m going to say it: I think this is an important book. Many great books have been written on the topic of worship, the gathering and the place of singing. But Rob brings a unique combination of theological and practical insights. He understands our local musical scene as well as anyone. On top of that, it is not common for authors to be able to articulate both the immense strengths of the Australian conservative evangelical contribution to this topic, as well as the rather idiosyncratic blind spots that we seem to have developed. Come, Let Us Sing seems to be a book for Aussie evangelicals.
Rob seeks to answer two questions: why do we gather? and: why do we sing? Of course, these could be dealt with in separate volumes. But he argues that the answer to the second question builds fundamentally on the answer to the first. We are not just talking about singing in the shower, we are singing the word of God in the presence of God, whom we encounter as we enter the New Covenant temple. As Jesus himself is that new temple, this is nothing to do with entering a church building but meeting with Christ himself, through the proclamation of his word through his people, Christ’s body. Therefore, our theology of singing depends heavily on our theology of the gathering.
Curious as it appears to many outside our circles, we find ourselves needing to tackle the question, do we meet in order to worship? The historical view, noted among the reformers and most evangelicals, has been that we do indeed gather to worship. But a revisionist approach has helpfully responded to a growing neglect of the horizontal aspects of church—the “one-anothering” that the New Testament expects not only of our relationships, but also of our gatherings. The question though is whether something has been lost as our churches have rediscovered the importance of edification. Something that may in fact be affecting our whole way of encountering God as we meet. And so, how do we answer the question, Why do we gather? Is it for worship or for is it for edification? You will have to read Rob’s answer.
As we come to the question of why we sing, one of the greatest gifts of this book is how it takes us to Psalms as our guide. Not simply to a verse of one or two psalms, but to a deluge of verses from dozens of psalms (and from elsewhere in Scripture), working together to demonstrate the emphatic call to the people of God to sing. Singing is, and always has been, for praise of God in a range of ways. But singing is not just for praise. Prayer and preaching are the other two key ways in which the psalms model what singing should be for the church today, just as it was for Israel. And we do well to remember how significant the psalms were for Jesus himself, not just as holy scripture, but as a vehicle for his own self-identification as the anointed of God, the suffering Messiah.
And so, as we come to the oft-quoted Pauline verses on singing in the gathering (Col 3:16, Eph 5:18-20 and 1 Cor 14:26), the psalms make us better equipped to see the context for singing out of which the early church found its own voice. When Paul says, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts,” he is anticipating that the whole Christian repertoire (including the songs of Israel) is intended to be Christ-centric, where we drink deeply from the gospel all the time. And putting Christ at the centre is part of how our gatherings are defined as new covenant gatherings rather than old covenant gatherings.
So, to this question of musical reformation. Is it overstating the problem? Much of the book was written in 2017, the year of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, and as such, engages intentionally with the reformed tradition throughout, especially the contributions of Martin Luther. In particular, Rob cites the reformation principle that “the reformed church is the church that is always reforming”. Reforming is what we seek to do in an ongoing way if we see ourselves as in any way beneficiaries of reformation past.
Part 3 of Rob’s book is entitled “Helping God’s People Change”. Here is the rub. Music and singing is not just the domain of the music team. In my experience, church leaders have too often delegated too much to the musically gifted in their church. This is not to say that Rob would envisage any form of micro-managing of musicians by ministers. Rather, his emphasis is on how music fits the high-level principles and practices of church life. And pastors, if you, like I have at times, sometimes skip the singing at the beginning of your services as you do final mental prep for your upcoming sermon, there is a very poignant paragraph of rebuke waiting! Not only do church leaders need to think through their approach, so too do members of the congregation. Perhaps one of the most significant reminders of the book is the congregation is the choir, not the audience. Members of the body are singers. And we do this singing for lofty reasons. Perhaps we need to be reminded how important it is for us each not only to turn up on Sundays, but to sing up!
Of course, there is a word of encouragement for musicians too as they continue to seek not only to serve on Sundays, but also to encourage others in the church in their important role of singing. As an aside, while I would recommend this book for anyone in church leadership, I would consider it essential reading for anyone specifically in music leadership. It will give you a wonderfully balanced biblical exposition of what you are doing in your ministry, what is important, and how to do it well.
I still find it hard at times to throw myself into singing on Sundays, despite all the music I have been involved in over the years. But in light of the sheer weight of whole counsel of God on this, as we think past, present, and future as his precious and privileged people, I am called to give myself heart, soul, mind and spirit every Sunday as I sing, just as I am in other ways every other day of the week. He calls me to love and adore him, and my song is part of my expression of that. I’m thankful to Rob for this timely and gracious reminder to come, and let us sing
MARK PETERSON, SA