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Singing as Holy Communication

Singing as Holy Communication


Augustine: For he that singeth praise, not only praiseth, but only praiseth with gladness: he that singeth praise, not only singeth, but also loveth him of whom he singeth. In praise, there is the speaking forth of one confessing; in singing, the affection of one loving.  (Commentary on Psalm 73:1)

Singing is a primal and integral part of being human and at the same time reflects our heavenly citizenship. Before the earth was created angels were singing God’s praises in the heavens.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy? Job 38:5-7

The communication of singing:

  • Singing is the most participatory thing we do congregationally
  • Singing is metonymic and points toward our expression of “new song/Christ” in the larger world
  • Singing is based on the text/Scripture and as such forms us as Christians: the word becomes flesh
  • The songs we sing, the aesthetic and musical forms are important markers of the phases of life of our church or faith tradition
  • The forms will naturally become rigid and lose expressive power—as the language, symbols become hardened—and need to be revivified or reinvented.

The relationship between the Word of God as it is written and spoken (in Scripture and prayer and the interpretive discourse of preacher or theologian) and the Word as it is sung and felt (in hymns and even in instrumental music) is fundamentally one of body, mind, and spirit, as well as of church, society, and culture. There is obviously much more to understand in the relationship of Christianity and culture than what is aesthetically experienced. The relationship between communication and culture is an important one that has been explored in pioneering efforts at the Fuller School of Intercultural Studies in the form of “incarnational” communicational theory. The essential doctrine of incarnational communication is that Jesus came in flesh so that he could be understood. As Charles Kraft writes in Communicating the Gospel God’s Way, “God wants to be understood not simply admired” (1979:4). Music as expressed in singing is a unique form of communication that is capable of not only carrying, but also embodying, God’s message of relationship and love to singer and listener alike.

New Choices
In our era, due to the transformation of singing, things that were once settled are now up for grabs. What songs shall we sing in our worship service? What instruments will we use, what sounds will we create? What technologies are appropriate to use to support and amplify the sounds of worship? Who will lead the congregation? Will the people sing or just listen? What shall we bring forward from our community’s past or borrow from the common Christian storehouse of artifacts, and what can we use from our own production in the present as well as from others? These are some of the questions that arise when the sources available are literally global in scope and instantly obtainable through the Internet.[1]

These questions are not merely theoretical or intellectual; they are practical and they are being asked and answered in a variety of experimental ways every week in churches around the world. It should also be evident that the way in which each local church community answers these questions is not simply a matter of taste, or the aesthetic adornment of its worship services, or the packaging of its outreach efforts to the unchurched. Rather, a congregation’s musical decisions and practices, the songs they sing, reveal the heart, soul, and structure of the community. It is therefore a profound issue for ecclesiology and fruitful approach to the problem of balancing tradition with modern aesthetics.

Music, especially in the context of worship, can usefully be considered as a charismatic gift of the spirit, one that needs to be understood on its own terms for the crucial role that it plays as a special type of ritual communication that functions to bring the various members of Christ’s body into unity with one another. In the act of collectively singing hymns and songs of praise, members of a religious movement or church congregation share a sonic space and feel the breath of the Spirit move through their bodies, which themselves are instruments of praise as they vibrate with notes, chords, and harmonies. The sensation is one of unrepeatable performance, a powerful indication of collective grace and group unity. Apart from the physical sensation of singing, there is also the charisma of the poet who sings and speaks for the congregation in lyric hymns. Here we can point to a long tradition within the Christian Church, originating in the first century Odes of Solomon,[2] if not before, in which hymns give voice to an intimate experience of God and an acknowledgment of His presence, reflecting and creating a charismatic sense of the immediacy of divine love. This type of charisma is linked to the power of love and the ability of the poet/singer to both speak to, and speak for, the congregation, in evoking the real Presence of this power.

New Song
To the degree substance and style connect with the congregation members’ personal and shared consciousness (sensorium), to that degree communication of the gospel, unity, and transformation are expressed and experienced. Singing is part of how our identities are formed, not only conceptually, but actually. Worship is incarnational, transformational, and as church growth experts know it is also evangelical. Singing points to the unified presence we hope to reflect in the larger world, as we reflect Christ to a world in need of his grace, compassion and gentle voice of love. Jesus sang the night he was arrested (Mk 14:26, Mt 26:30). As we sing the song God has given us in the congregation and the world, we echo his life and love to a world desperately in need of not just a new song, but “the” New Song, Jesus.

(Adapted from Textual Communities and New Song in the Multimedia Age by Chuck Fromm)

Chuck Fromm is the publisher of Worship Leader magazine and CEO of Worship Leader media.


            [1] See Manuel Castells for impact and influence of internet on society and culture: global flows of wealth, power and images and restructuring of society, The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd edition. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

[2] Old, Hughes Oliphant (1992) Themes and Variatiosn for a Chrisitian Doxology, Some Thoughts on the Theology of Worship. Grand Rapids, MI:William.B. Eerdmans

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