However the history books record our age, there is one theme upon which every volume will agree. Without need for qualification or debate, each analyst will affirm: the present era signals the advent of individualism. Aided by a mirky river of other trends—consumerism, utilitarianism, moral relativism—the priority of the individual is a fact of our time, one which only the most myopic millennial would dare to deny. The injurious effects of such thinking are also a point of common agreement. Social commentators of every ideological persuasion readily note the need for corporate cohesion. We humans do better together. We must fight to reestablish an identity, around which we can congregate, so as to flourish.
Notwithstanding a plethora of noble institutions, each playing their part to combat the juggernaut of individualism, the Christian’s primary point of community must be the church. For every believer, the present age of social dysfunction should serve as an emphatic exhortation toward membership, fellowship, accountability, and service in the local congregation.
Beyond this initial observation, there are questions that might be asked. For the pastor, how should his philosophy of ministry adapt to account for the problems of the time? How could he orient the ministry rhythms of the church, to forge a defense against the tide of individualism? Moreover, how might he lead in offense, so as to render mute the plague of this era, and champion the cause of koinonia? My suggestion is simple—indeed, so basic that its inherent worth is often overlooked. Pertaining to the Lord’s Day, and the liturgical practices of each church, Christians must sing. With unprecedent vigor, every congregation should be led in song, lifting their voices in unison, so as to rehearse the doctrines of our faith.
That singing would manifest a powerful assault to the enthronement of the individual is perhaps not self-evident. Every Sunday we sing hymns, because…that’s what we do. Christians have always sung. It’s right to worship God through music. Therefore, this Lord’s Day, let’s make music again. If we have never probed the conceptual premise of pairing voice and melody, its inherent worth may not be clear.
Why do we sing? And why might the advent of individualism prompt us to sing, all the more? I want to try to answer that question. My argument is threefold, and cumulative: we must sing because of the aesthetic, instructive, and relational nature of music.
First, regarding aesthetics, consider the relationship between truth, and beauty. As the history of philosophical thought has consistently affirmed, these transcendental qualities do not stray far from one another. Indeed, Keats contended for a conceptual unity when he wrote: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”1 In all spheres of life, these two qualities go hand-in-hand.
No meaningless abstraction, this relationship has practical implications, informing our behavior on a daily basis. As a general rule: when we perceive verity, we ascribe glory. And when we behold beauty, we apprehend truth. This is why, for example, we know better than to enter a court of law, wearing pajamas. Because the environment is one wherein truth is pursued, decorum and dignity are commended. Intuitively, we leave our flip-flops at home. Similarly, as we take in the majesty of the Alps, flippant comments are prohibited. The apprehension of great things commends the articulation of truth, and if not, then silence. Without being instructed, we understand what nature of speech is required.
Consider now the act of singing on a Sunday morning. Certainly, it is possible to congregate and rehearse truths without melody. Indeed, corporate confessions have been part of the church’s liturgy for centuries. But they have never supplanted the singing of hymns. There is something intuitive about worship through music. The proclamation of truth in accordance with a melody is as natural to the Christian, as eating, sleeping, and breathing are to a new-born child. The reason for these issues is from the transcendental dynamic between truth and beauty. As the regenerate heart articulates divine indicatives, the irrepressible reflex is to ascribe to them value. The church seeks a tune. By appending a melody, Christians ordain the truth with beauty.
For this reason, it would seem strange for the pastor to suggest, “let us stand, and speak these words together…Amazing grace, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” He knows better than to quash the impulse of our souls. The appropriate response is to ordain such truth with beauty. These words must be sung.
Of course, there is a reciprocal benefit to this practice. By affirming the relationship between beauty and truth, we further apprehend its reality. As we sing hymns and songs, not only do we adorn the truth with beauty. At the same time, we further perceive the relationship. We grow in our awareness of how valuable the indicatives of Scripture are. Our estimation of redemptive realities increases.
Through the singing of songs, we find the truth to be more valuable—our doctrines are rendered precious. And this is why we sing.
From here, a second reason for singing quickly follows—one that pertains to its instructive nature. Understanding that the practice forges a relationship between beauty and truth, we can see similarities with other artforms, which do the same. Akin to painting, poetry, or even narrative, singing offers a stylized rendering of objective reality. Each melody finds its parallel with brushstrokes on a canvas, or metaphors in rhyme. It projects a certain depiction of the world—music guides our interpretation of the truth.
Thus, we note, like other artforms, songs intend to communicate. Those who sing paint a picture, they prescribe a poem, they tell a story—for others to apprehend. The truth is projected, in order to be received. Stated otherwise, like all artforms, singing has an inherently didactic quality. Songs intend to inform.
And so, unsurprisingly, we find that the Apostle Paul instructs the church to sing: “Look carefully then how you walk…understand what the will of the Lord is…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5:15-19). His exhortation falls under the broader imperative to walk wisely in an evil world (5:15, 16). How might this be accomplished? In part, by teaching one another what is true. And as the aesthetic medium of song is employed, such instruction becomes particularly potent. Truth combines with beauty to produce an especially persuasive lesson. Propositions combine with melody and impress themselves upon the soul.
Incidentally, this observation commends certain practices during the worship service. The didactic nature of singing carries implications concerning the what and the how of our worship. Consider, for example, the arrangement of seats in your church. If hymns persuade, ought not we project towards one another? A linear arrangement of chairs—in the style of an airport lounge—belittles the instructive power of song. The people project, but only ever towards the stage. By contrast, when the seating arrangement arcs, we enable the aesthetic medium. Congregants now face one another, and their singing is received. As such, the rehearsal of each hymn becomes a moment of mutual instruction.
Similarly, we ought to exercise caution in the selection of songs.
Many lyrics today hover precariously around the individual and his feelings, without any reference to objective truth. They project a vision of the believer which begins and ends with himself. Emotions are product of subjective thought, entirely untethered from the gospel.
As with all music, these songs instruct. They implicitly teach a subtle form of individualism—one wherein the Christian is no longer defined by the creeds of his faith. By contrast, those hymns that center on objective truth will accomplish a more agreeable outcome. Complementing the sermon, they will teach the believer to define himself in relation to biblical realities—centering his thoughts on those doctrines of the song. Singing is inescapably instructive, and this is why we sing.
A third and final reason for singing follows. If songs adorn the truth with beauty, in a didactic mode, they also unite. This phenomenon stems from the curious and somewhat unique nature of music. Specifically, as we hear a note, a tune, a concerto, our brains do not strive to identify the cause. In order to understand music, we are not inclined to see the bow on the string, or the wind travelling through the pipe. We may enjoy the sound, without understanding its source. For this reason, philosophers refer to music as a “pure event.”2 Its inherent worth can be embraced apart from the causal act.
Indeed, we find that the perception of music by the brain is actually oriented in the other direction. Rather than pursuing the mechanical origins of each sound, we intuitively pursue its harmonization with other sounds. Our interpretation of every note is informed by our ability to understand it with reference to other notes. Every time we listen to music, we grasp for the holistic thought—bringing together every sound offered.
Mapping this principle to the act of congregational singing, a powerful reality emerges. As the saints gather together each Sunday, they raise their voices in unison. Collectively we sing. And as we take in the truths we project, we are simultaneously interpreting them with reference to one another. We seek not the physical cause for each sound, rather we strive to hold every sound together. Thus, as we receive the singing of others, our interpretation of the truth becomes dependent on those around us. We understand doctrine, with reference to one another.
Incidentally, this reality sits in perfect accord with much New Testament theology. The epistles were not written to individuals, but to churches. The imperatives given therein are issued, most often, to the collective—not the singular. The Apostles desired that we would apprehend the truths of our faith together. They intended that the process of sanctification would be corporate. Through singing, we begin to enact this responsibility. Every verse is an articulation of truth, mediated through our fellowship with one another. Our choruses unite, and this is why we sing.
And so, with the aesthetic, instructive, and relational nature of music in view, the pastor finds strength for the fight. The persistence of individualism outside of the church is a manifest and toxic reality. Without due attention, it seeps surreptitiously into the pews. How might he lead his people in another way? How can he teach them an understanding of the self, that is rooted in community? There is much to say. But to start, he can ensure that his people sing. The pastor can resolve that whenever the church gathers, they will make melody together. The rehearsal of psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs will be a defining feature of the assembly—trusting, that by God’s grace, the auspices of individualism will be banished from their midst.
1 John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn.
2 See for example, Roger Scruton, Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 20–32.