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singing Uncategorized worship

Singing With The Understanding–Miscellany* 

Neal Pollard

We are a diverse group who gather to sing for worship. We vary in age, education, religious background and literacy, race, and doubtless other factors. Some of us have been singing the same hymns for decades, while others may be seeing those hymns for the first time.  There is a mutual responsibility, one for the song leader and one for the participant. Yet, I would argue that the leader has the greater obligation to assist the participants in offering better worship. Mindless participation is the fault of the participant, but being led to speak and teach words they don’t understand is not.  What can the song leader do to increase the effectiveness of “singing with the understanding.”

Engage In Thoughtful Preparation. When picking out songs to lead, opt for simplicity. Archaic or technical words can hang up and distract the worshipper. It is fruitful to ask the question, “How will this be comprehended by the average participant?” Does the song read like we speak today? If we’re not careful, we can tend to speak through song in mystical terms that help disconnect the mind and the mouth. Do we know what it means to “vanquish all the hosts of night”? Do we know what “cassia-dipped” garments are? Do we know what’s referenced “where Eden’s bowers bloom”? How do I “launch my bark”? These are lyrics from songs that are sung every week in congregations across the land, but words I’d venture to say that many, if not most, do not comprehend. We must give thought in preparation.

Engage In Adequate Explanation. Something that can help in song leading is to point out words or expressions we’re about to sing, defining and explaining them. This does not necessitate a second sermon, but as part of preparation we should be ready to clarify obscure or difficult words. For example, from songs we often sing, we find:

  • “Repining”–To feel or express discontent; to fret
  • “Guerdon”–A reward
  • “Warble”–To sing (especially used of birds)
  • “Fain”–Gladly
  • “Trysting”–Meeting 
  • “Essay” (as used in I’ll Never Forsake My Lord)– To attempt
  • “Cloven”–Divided
  • “Garish”–Bright and gaudy
  • “Fen”–A swamp

While some songbooks, like Praise For The Lord, have footnoted some of these difficult words, many worshippers don’t pay attention to them. So many of us project our hymns in worship. The onus (i.e., duty) is on the leader to explain.

Engage In Balanced Variation. Everyone has their favorite type and genre of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Song leaders are no different than worshippers. How important it is to balance out old and new hymns, considering the typical “audience” present to participate. 

Engage In Heavenly Petition. Anyone who leads in worship should season their preparation and participation with petition to God. Pray about doing what you’re tasked with doing as effectively as possible. 

What a blessing to have willing, talented worship leaders. We have a powerful opportunity to show God’s wisdom in singing according to the authority of the New Testament (cf. Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19). Let’s capitalize on that by putting everyone in the optimal position to sing with proper spirit and understanding!

*–Miscellany–A group or collection of different items; a mixture

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Categories
desire singing worship zeal

Desire That Bubbles From The Heart And Falls From The Lips

“To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.” This quotation was from a man who observed lethargy and unenthusiastic engagement in congregational singing. He decried a lack of apparent passion and zeal for God and spiritual things in this act of worship that is meant to be profound and transforming. The observer, as far as is known, was not a New Testament Christian, but he was responsible for giving us “Joy to the World,” “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” and over 500 more hymns. He complained about the lifeless hymns being sung in his day, and his father, who would be jailed for dissenting from the Church of England, challenged him to come up with a solution. All those hymns, which he started writing in adolescence, was his answer. Isaac Watts can be considered an expert on religious hymns, and he revolutionized congregational singing for especially English speakers. The fact that we still sing some of his hymns demonstrates that.

But, his observation in later life about indifference, negligence, and thoughtlessness from  those presumably worshipping is a fair challenge to each of us. Especially when we are singing songs so familiar to us, which we know by heart, we must guard against lips that say one thing and hearts which do not necessarily reflect those words. Is it possible to sing about Jesus’ death on the cross or God’s great love or the amazing hope of heaven or an examination of my Christian life and commitment without reflecting and contemplating? Could I be thinking about something while singing something else? The gamut might run from empty religion to understandable distraction, but we must challenge ourselves to keep our hearts and minds on the words and meaning of those psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (cf. Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19).  Let us cultivate desire in the heart that bubbles from the lips as we praise God and encourage one another in our song service.

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Andy Baker leading a group in singing (photo credit: John Moore)
Categories
cross singing Uncategorized

Singing With The Understanding: “Beneath The Cross Of Jesus”

Neal Pollard

Most of us have favorite songs and hymns. My favorite category of hymns is songs about the cross. I love the somber, dramatic feel of Beneath the Cross of Jesus, a hymn penned right after the close of the Civil War by Elizabeth C. Clephane and one set to the music we sing with it by Frederick Maker a dozen years later in 1881. The cross of Calvary is treated as a metaphor of protection for one in a wilderness. One might envision the wandering Israelites making their way to the Promised Land and apply that, figuratively, to our journey through this world of sin toward heaven. But the song will change scenes multiple times until, in the last verse, it is a most personal challenge to each of us to be faithful disciples of this crucified Lord.

The first verse introduces the foot of the cross as a shadow of a mighty rock where we find relief and a home to rest in from trials and difficulties while pilgrims in a weary land (the world). We might easily think of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Some songbooks have a notation to define “fain,” a word used in the first line. It means “gladly.” I am happy to shelter behind Christ’s cross in adversities.

The second verse builds upon the metaphor of the first verse, then subtly shifts to an event from the book of Genesis. The cross is, again, a shelter and refuge. But, then, he shifts to an allusion to Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:10ff). He has left his father’s house and his brother’s wrath and beds down near Haran. He lays down, using stones for a pillow, and falls asleep. Moses writes, “He had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants” (12-13). This is where God reaffirms the promise He had made to Jacob’s grandfather and father to make of them a great nation. It symbolized hope, reward, and heavenly assistance. The song writer says the cross is just like the ladder in Jacob’s dream, except that I ascend to heaven by way of the cross. Again, Clephane uses a poetic, if obscure word, in this verse: “trysting.” The word means “meeting.” At the cross, God’s perfect love and justice meet. His love is shown and His justice satisfied by Christ’s sacrifice.

The third verse becomes a straightforward look at a literal remembrance of the graphic, horrific suffering of Jesus on the cross. She focuses on what our reaction should be–a smitten heart, tears, and a proper conclusion. How great is His love! How unworthy I am that He would demonstrate it to me (cf. Romans 5:8).

The last verse is the challenge to respond to that sacrifice. We are to live in the shadow of the cross, daily reflecting upon it and letting it affect how we live. We are to ignore all else to focus on Him. Clephane seems to allude to Paul’s words in Galatians 6:14, if ever so subtly. Too, there’s a challenge to not be ashamed of Jesus and the cross, but reserve our shame only for the sin in our life that made the cross necessary.

It is beautifully and intricately woven. Despite some unfamiliar, even archaic, poetic words, it is powerfully written. What a great song to prepare our minds for the Lord’s Supper or to sing when our motives gets clouded and our priorities get muddled. May we take the time, when we sing it, to consider the truth it teaches and the challenge it contains.

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Categories
mechanical instruments of music singing Uncategorized worship

NOT JUST A PROBLEM FOR THOSE WHO FAVOR INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC

Neal Pollard

People who have rejected the teaching that singing in worship must be without the addition of mechanical instrumental music have appealed to culture, to the permission of silence, to aesthetics, to emotion, to tradition, to preference, and the like. As we examine Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5, seeing the imperatives in each place (“let the word of Christ richly dwell within you”—Col. 3:16; “be filled with the Spirit”—Eph. 5:18) and the participles that reveal how to obey the imperatives (Eph.: “speaking…singing…making melody…giving thanks”; Col.: “teaching…admonishing…singing”), we rightly say that God specifies what He wants and through such excludes what does not fall within these categories. No one will successfully build a case for Divine authorization or approval, and church history will have turned centuries of pages before it is even found introduced in Christian worship.

Having said that, we have at times failed to step back and look at some of our own attitudes toward the music portion of our worship that may reveal some deficiency in our musical offering to God. As a musical instrument may drown out, overshadow, or become the central feature of worship music, so may our own minds and attitudes. How?

  • Being distracted by the age of the song (it’s too old or too new)
  • Being distracted by the pitch of the song (it’s too high or too low)
  • Being distracted by the pace of the song (it’s too fast or too slow)
  • Being distracted by the notes of the song (the song leader is leading it wrong)
  • Being distracted by who the song leader is or his appearance
  • Being distracted by how many verses are sung (too many or too few)
  • Being distracted by the aesthetics of the song (thinking about how it sounds more than what it says)
  • Being distracted by our own ability (proud of how good we sound or so embarrassed at how we think we sound that we keep quiet or fail to speak, teach, etc.)
  • Being distracted by the person/people next to us (concerned about what they think of us rather than what the message of the song is)
  • Being distracted by our familiarity with a song (frustrated that we don’t know it or knowing it so well that we sing from memory without engaging the heart)
  • Being distracted by matters outside the song (people-watching, thinking of other things, etc.)

Though I’ve never heard it said, have we constructed a theology that believes the only sin in our worship in song is adding an instrument to it? If we refuse to sing, sing with improper attitude, sing without heart and mind engaged, and the like, do we believe we are OK since we did not add to what God authorized.

In Matthew 15:9, Jesus condemned the Pharisees and scribes for worshipping God in vain due to their “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Context reveals the specifics of their wrongdoing. But that word vain means “pertaining to being without any result; to no avail” (Louw-Nida; “to no end,” BDAG). Review the examples of distraction above. Can those render worship in song with no result, avail, or end? Absolutely! Perhaps we need to emphasize within our own assemblies how equally necessary it is to be worshipping God “in spirit” as it is “in truth” (cf. John 4:24). The bottom line of this whole matter of church music is striving to please God in our worship. That is not limited to a single issue or somebody else’s issue. It is as individual and personal as each of our own relationship with God.

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Categories
mechanical instruments of music singing Uncategorized worship

Some Hurdles I Just Cannot Jump Regarding Instrumental Music In Worship

Neal Pollard

How often the matter gets discussed among preachers in churches of Christ, I cannot say. But, I know that it does. More members of the church than we might care to think do not have this matter settled in their minds, especially as it has to do with the state of those who have been immersed for the forgiveness of sins, submit to the authority of Christ in other areas of their lives, but who use the instrument in worship. Some have said they think its use is wrong and we have been right to argue against its use but do not think they can say it is a salvation or fellowship issue. It should be stated that many of these are sincere brethren who love the Lord and people nor are they change agents intent on trying to destroy the Lord’s body. Too often, we have lacked an environment where we could have healthy, constructive dialogue free of name-calling, suspicion, and visceral discussion. But failing to discuss and work through matters like these does not make them disappear.

Having said that, here are some hurdles I just cannot jump regarding this matter:

  • The presence of singing and absence of instruments in New Testament passages. The fact that every instance of singing in the context of the Christians’ activity together reveals singing (Greek is a precise language; ado means to utter words in a melodic pattern [Louw-Nida] and ). Psallo, according to Lexicographers, encompassed playing musical instruments at an earlier time in its linguistic history, but did not mean that in New Testament times (e.g., BDAG, 1094; TDNT, 8:494). Interestingly, the translators of English translations, beginning with the King James Version, were unanimously members of religious groups that used mechanical instruments in music. Despite their obvious bias in worship practice, they translate the Greek “singing and making melody in your hearts.”
  • The absence of instrumental music in worship in early church history. Though a member of the church of Christ, Everett Ferguson has the utmost respect from scholarship across the religious spectrum. In multiple volumes, Ferguson meticulously sets forth the case that instrumental music was absent in the church from its establishment until many centuries later. His studied conclusion is that this was neither incidental nor coincidental. He writes, “The historical argument is quite strong against early Christian use of instrumental music in church” (The Instrumental Music Issue, 98; the whole chapter is a worthwhile read). In another work, he states, “The testimony of early Christian literature is expressly to the absence of instruments from the church for approximately the first thousand years of Christian history” (The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, 272). John L. Girardeau, a Presbyterian scholar, devotes an entire, well-documented chapter to the historical case of only vocal music in Christian worship for many centuries and upon doctrinal grounds (see Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church, 86-100).
  • The examples of how God dealt with unauthorized worship throughout history. What do we make of what God does with Cain’s worship in Genesis 4, Nadab and Abihu’s worship in Leviticus 10, and Jeroboam’s worship in 1 Kings 12? Why would God care in the Patriarchal and Mosaic Dispensations that His commands for worship be followed per His instructions, but lose that desire under His Son’s covenant?
  • The fact that God draws definitive, doctrinal conclusions through the use of silence. The writer of Hebrews says, “For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests” (7:14). The argument shows that Jesus could become a High Priest after the order of Melchizedek, but not under the Old Testament rule and covenant. Why? God specified Levi as the tribe for the high priest under the old law. It did not explicitly say that a high priest could not come from any other tribe, but it did not have to. What it specified was sufficient, an argument made in the New Testament.
  • The fact that authority can and must be tangibly determined.  Why is it that we sing in worship at all? Is worship merely a matter of what we come up with and wish to offer? Few would argue such. The basis for worship arises from what the New Testament teaches. Nearly everyone, then, would say there are definitive, delineated boundaries. If there is and must be divine authority for worship, and thus “rules” that are objectively determined, there must be activity that falls out of those bounds. Where will we find the boundary markers if not in Scripture?

This list is not meant to be exhaustive and it cannot, in one brief article, be exhaustive. It is included here to show us the great pause that should exist in changing our minds or our teaching on a matter where God has been vocal and specific. The weight of that is not insignificant or inconsequential. May we lovingly and wisely approach this matter and take great care before we relegate a matter of divine importance to a mere matter of human preference.

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Categories
culture singing worship

SCATTERED THOUGHTS ABOUT “OUR SONGS”

Neal Pollard

Disclaimer: I clearly recognize my own fallibility and potential short-sightedness on this and all matters.  Please be assured that the following is written with deepest love for the Savior, the saved, and the lost sinner. Prudence, wisdom, and Christ-like love should characterize all such discussions as these, and that is my intention. 

  • There is wisdom in an evangelistic congregation looking for more psalms, hymns and spiritual songs written in the late 1900s and the 2000s.
  • Our congregations need to be seeking talented people to write words and music for new songs that connect in melody and wording with those living today.
  • The songs in our songbooks (other than those directly quoting Scripture) are neither inspired nor infallible.  To note any archaic or befuddling words, lyrics, or tunes is not inherently sacrilegious.
  • Proper respect should be maintained for members, old or young, who love and are edified by our older songs.
  • Proper respect should be maintained for members, old or young, who love and are edified by our newer songs.
  • “Newer songs” do not automatically equal spiritually inferior or unscriptural songs.  “Older songs” do not automatically equal spiritually superior or scriptural songs.  Of course, the opposite is true of both types of songs.
  • It is neither wrong to sing every verse or omit one or more verses of a song.  A few songs make less sense, however, if verses are omitted.
  • Greater attention should be paid to the “horizontal aspect” of our singing; As our singing is to “teach and admonish one another” (Col. 3:16), we must be sure that we pay attention to this dimension of congregational singing.
  • As always, our task is not to judge the worshipfulness of anyone else but to be sure we are constantly striving to worship in song in spirit and truth, with understanding (John 4:24; 1 Cor. 14:15).
  • It’s just as wrong to refuse to sing as it is to add to the command to sing.
  • While we never want to be fake or contrived in our emotions and expressions, we should give thought to what we convey as we sing in worship—enthusiasm or boredom, joy or consternation, interest or apathy, etc.
  • Suggestions for improving our singing in worship does not equate to a  “liberal agenda.”
  • Projecting songs is not a panacea for most of these issues.  However we read our songs, we must strive to focus on praising God and teaching each other.

Categories
singing

“He Has Put A New Song In My Mouth”

Neal Pollard

Pollards love singing and music. A few (and they usually are those who marry into the family) actually know a few things about either or both. We are thankful that “joyful noise” does not mean “pleasant melody.”

David was probably quite the songster. The “sweet psalmist” wrote the Jewish hymn book, songs used by God’s people over the course of two covenants and hundreds and hundreds of years. We still sing songs inspired by his inspired psalms, and some songs are derived, verbatim, from the sacred text. In Psalm 40:3, David declares, “He has put a new song in my mouth.”

Isn’t that true? Maybe, you used to sing “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” or “Am I Blue?” Now, we sing, “I’m Happy Today” and “I’m Redeemed.” Our favorite song might have been “Let’s Talk About Me.” Now, our anthem is, “Make Me A Servant” and “In The Service Of My King.” It used to be that our theme song was “We Are Living In A Material World” but now it’s “This World Is Not My Home.” Maybe, we used to sing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” but now we can sing “God’s Family.”

The difference Jesus makes to us hits every facet of our lives. It impacts the very songs in our hearts. Not only will we sing the new song in heaven some day, we have a new song now.