- We know, from experience, that singing matters. We’re just not always sure why. The answer, it turns out, arises more from anthropology than from theology.
Ask any worship leader today why we worship, and you’ll no doubt get a theological answer. To pursue intimacy with God. To declare his glory. To raise to him the praise due to his name. Ask, though, why we sing – why the specific act of joining in choral song plays so central a role in our worship – and they may be less sure. We know, from experience, that singing matters. We’re just not always sure why. The answer, it turns out, arises more from anthropology than from theology. Singing is a deeply human activity, and singing together is deeper still. Support for the benefits and joy of corporate singing has emerged, in recent years, from surprising quarters.
Brian Eno, for example, is one of the world’s most sought-after music producers. As well as forging his own career as a composer and performer, has produced breakthrough albums for the likes of David Bowie, U2, Talking Heads, and Coldplay. He is acknowledged as a unique force for innovation and artistry in the wider music industry. Eno is a self-declared atheist, but there is one thing about church he deeply appreciates. He loves the way we sing. A long-time fan of Gospel music, he has frequently attended church for the pure joy of joining in worship. “That experience of singing with a group of people who are singing passionately,” he says, “Is not like anything else that can happen to you.” More recently, eager to reconnect with this same feeling, he started his own acapella choir. Meeting every Tuesday evening, the group of 12 diverse friends would sing purely for the joy of it. “That was our first rule,” Eno says, “No recording, no performing. It’s about participation, and it’s about being in the moment and loving the people you’re doing it with.” Eno has become something of an evangelist for the potency of shared signing. When he was invited to re-invigorate Coldplay for the album that became Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, he started by taking the band, without instruments, into an empty church. Inviting them to form a circle, he asked them simply to sing together. The experience of shared song, of hearing one another’s voices in this intimate setting, deeply inspired the band for the recording sessions that followed. There is power in the primal act of singing.
The Toronto-based band Choir! Choir! Choir! have harnessed the same power to turn the standard concert evening on its head. The hundreds of people who buy tickets for each of their shows discover, on arrival, that they – the audience – will be doing the singing. Handed lyric sheets at the door, every attending member is invited to join the impromptu choir. There are no auditions – this is for everyone. And it is proving astoundingly popular. What started as a one-off stunt for a friend’s birthday party has become, for band members Nobu Adilman and Daveed Goldman, an international career. Over 12 years Choir! Choir! Choir! have delivered over 1000 shows, in Canada, the USA, and Europe. Tens of thousands of people have paid good money not to listen to a choir, but to form one.
What is it about the act of singing together that has gripped so many people – and what can we learn from these experiences about the place of song in worship? I think there are four things that we can say are going on when human beings sing – and they are four things that matter very much.
Singing is Belonging
Firstly, singing is belonging. The fact that this is such an obvious idea does not mean that it isn’t profound. There are reasons why the adjective harmonious can be applied both to a choir and to a community. Singing with strangers allows me to contribute my individual life to something bigger, to become a part of a larger whole. Studies have even shown that the vibrations passing through our bodies as we sing cause our separate heartbeats to synchronize. As UK singer, singing teacher, and choir leader Sophia Efthimiou expressed, “We literally form one unified heartbeat.” Human beings need this sense of belonging, especially if it comes – as in the Choir! Choir! Choir! events – with no qualification; no audition; no pre-selection. Singing builds community. It is, Brian Eno suggests, “beyond anything to do with politics or identity – you know, all those culture-war things that are now being used to divide us up into neat voting blocs. People find a kind of love for each other. And I use that word carefully. I don’t throw that word around. There is a real love among people who sing together.”
Participate in the Creation of Beauty
Secondly, singing together allows me to participate in the creation of beauty. A few chosen humans are blessed with the confidence to sing alone in public: mic them up, play them loud, and they’re not afraid of the sound their voices will make. For most of us, though, this is a long way from the truth. I’m part of this awkward majority. I’ll sing in the shower, with no one to hear, but in the presence of others, I lose my nerve. “When our voice makes the wrong note we can feel terrible as though it is a reflection of our self-worth.” Efthimiou says. But put me in the middle of a crowd; let me sing with a congregation, and my inner Pavarotti gets his game on. My voice may not be strong enough or trained enough to carry a tune alone, but with others, as one thread in a larger tapestry, I can play a part in making a beautiful sound. This is why, in a congregational setting, when the musicians drop back and the leader says “just the voices” a moment of such exquisite grace can emerge.
Singing Releases Deep Emotions
Thirdly, singing releases deep emotions. All music, in fact, has the capacity to stir in us soul-level sentiments and sensations. In particular, music has always been associated with deep spiritual experiences. George Corbett, Professor of Theology at Scotland’s St Andrews University, has devoted much of his career to exploring this connection. “Whenever human beings are thinking about their place in their world and their relationship to the divine there is always music,” he writes, “In all religions, you find people turning to music to express their relationship to a creator. So, it’s deeply anthropological. It’s part of what we are as human beings.” This is not a uniquely Christian phenomenon, but it plays a huge role in the history of Christian spirituality, and while all music has the power to move us deeply, the music we ourselves create in song is somehow deeper still. In our singing ‘deep cries out to deep’ – and in singing together, the cry is amplified.
Singing With Others Is An Adventure
Fourthly, singing with others is an adventure – a potent cocktail of risk and reward. Joining in with a song may not quite engender the nerves of a bungee jump or high-dive, but it does carry some of the same need to step out. Is there jeopardy in signing? For most of us, yes. We launch our voice; we rely on those we are with, and those leading us, to curate the sound effectively and positively; we risk exposure; failure; humiliation. But the rewards are worth the risk. Brian Eno calls this ‘surrender’ and sees it as a vital part of the religious experience. “Surrendering isn’t a passive thing, in my opinion,” he says, “It’s a decision to become part of something, part of something that you don’t control.” Singing is an opportunity to experience the kinds of rewards that only come when we are prepared to risk. To surrender.
This powerful combination – of belonging, depth, beauty, and surrender, makes shared signing one of the most profound experiences available to us. It is a deeply human, deeply moving experience. Does it detract from the uniqueness of worship to know that it is built on the mechanics of such a human activity? Far from it. Just as Miriam took up her tambourine to celebrate God, and musicians down the years have offered their skills to honor Him, so corporate worship takes the very human, very earthly experience of singing together and harnesses it for God’s greater glory. There is theology to the act of worship, to be sure – there are important spiritual principles involved – but there is also this. When we worship in song, we take one of the most beautiful, most profound, and most creative activities available to us as human beings, the act of blending our voices, and we use it to give glory to our creator. Offering the deepest sense of our humanity to the God who made us – isn’t this the very definition of worship?
- Brian Eno – interviewed by Martin Wroe at the Greenbelt Festival
- Sophia Efthimiou – quoted in The Neuroscience of Singing
- Choir! Choir! Choir! – cited in The Canadian Choir boys taking on Europe by Jenn Frazer
- George Corbett – cited in Music as a Bridge to Spirituality
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A pastor, poet, and missionary, Gerard Kelly lives in Normandy, France, where he and his wife Chrissie lead the Bless Network. Alongside church-planting, Bless is involved in refugee ministries, support for Kingdom businesses and The Seven Stories School, a missional education programme. UK born, Gerard has French and Irish roots and has lived in England, Ireland, Canada, France, and the Netherlands. He holds a Masters Degree in Evangelism Studies from the University of Sheffield and has been a member of the research staff of King's College, London, and the teaching team of Redcliffe College in Gloucester. Gerard’s published works include poetry, a novel and several books on prayer, church, and mission.