For as long as I can recall, music has always accompanied my faith.
I must have been around five years old at the time. It was Sunday night worship and we met in our church’s chapel. I was thrilled at what was unfolding—we were going to have a hymn-sing! Little did I know then that the pastor simply wanted a night off. And praise God for that! Our evening was filled with music. Those in our attendance could request the next hymn and we would all lift our voices in worship through song. At one point, I was able to corral our music minister’s attention and I requested a more modern hymn: “Pass It On.”
“I’ll shout it from a mountain-top!,” the chorus rang out. “I want my world to know the Lord of love has come to me, I want to pass it on.”
I don’t have a clear memory of any other Sunday evening worship service from my childhood. But I remember this moment because the entire service was filled with congregational singing.
With the exception of the National Anthem, or ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame,’ we rarely sing together in public. Outside of church, people do not sing together as we once did. And that’s a shame. Music, and singing in particular, is such a communal activity. When we sing together, we feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. We can make harmony, together. We can get lost in a melody. We can digest rich words of meaning as we sing them. There is power in our shared voices.
Church, then, becomes one of the last few places that we can sing together. Congregational singing is a transcendent experience and is one that we must preserve. Unlike concerts, where the function of the event is to receive the music by listening to the artist, congregational singing places the emphasis on our corporate offering. This shared experience has a name. We call it church.
This Sunday in worship, we will celebrate how music makes us stronger. We will sing our praises to God, hear testimonies about how hymns have touched our lives, and will marvel at the way God is present in our singing. Indeed, God roots us together in Christ by weaving His song into our own.
One of my favorite hymns is, “For All the Saints.”
Although I had grown up with this song, it took on a new meaning for me during my first week at Princeton Seminary. The seminary’s chapel, nearly 200 years old at the time, had extraordinary acoustics. The high ceilings, the marble floors and the uber-powerful pipe organ all worked to reveal God’s glory in music.
It was the downbeat that got me.
I wasn’t expecting it and I certainly wasn’t expecting the power that accompanied it. The note, cloaked in power from the depths of the musical scale, cleared the way for what was to come. The chapel shook. The pew in front of me rattled. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I gasped. What kind of majesty was this?
Triumphant, glorious, evocative, 200 seminarians sung as loud as their voices would carry them, and the familiar tune marched us through the 19th century lyrics of encouragement and consolation.
“Thou wast their Rock, their fortress and their Might; Thou Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight; Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light. Alleluia! Alleluia!”
Today, this hymn seems perfectly crafted for funerals and memorial services. No, it is not a mournful song. No, it does not soothe a heart wounded by tragedy. Instead, this hymn rouses us to lift our heads to heaven. It is a toast (!) to those who have gone before us into life eternal. The song is a victory march that functions as a confession of our faith in Jesus Christ.
"And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, Steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong. Alleluia! Alleluia!”
When we choose to lift our voices together in worship, we are privileged to sing ourselves strong. This Sunday, First Baptist Church, we will do just that.