I had the joy of spending a weekend with Southminster Presbyterian Church of Prairie Village, Kansas in early May, sharing time singing and learning together. While preaching isn’t something I do often, I was grateful for the opportunity to bring a word about singing as a spiritual practice. If you prefer to view the sermon, you can find it here.
When we reflect on singing in Christian community, we may find it easy to first speak about singing’s significance to us personally: the memories, the rich experiences we have shared, moments where singing lifted us out of painful circumstances, brought healing, closure, a profound sense of the presence of God, or a sense of being wrapped in community, held and sustained by sound.
As we reflect on singing in Christian community, we may also find ourselves speaking about its role in worship or its function in liturgy: how it shapes the energy of the service, how it summarizes rich theological ideas and reflects on scripture with poetic power and economy, how it reinforces what has been preached, how singing can affirm our sense of what is right and good, or what is needed in the church and in the world.
As we reflect on singing in Christian community, we may also find ourselves speaking about how inspiring and beautiful it is, especially when done with care: experiences of a well-executed performance that brought tears to our eyes, a profound sense of accomplishment, or an experience of transcendent beauty. We may speak of the importance of excellence, of preparation, of skill and craft, of making an acceptable offering to God in gratitude for all that has been given to us.
And, friends, in some wonderful way, singing is all these things and more.
But I share these three viewpoints or stances because they encompass points of conversation and, yes, points of tension many of us have seen and experienced firsthand, maybe even here in this community. Each holds gifts, challenges, and limitations. Let’s unpack them together for a moment:
1. Singing is what inspires and uplifts us
A pastor once said to me, “What matters is that people come away from worship feeling like they experienced the presence of God. They may not remember a line from a sermon (including this one) but they will remember a song that speaks to their heart.”
From this vantage point, singing facilitates a connection to God. Our musical connection to scripture and the sermon is essential, especially when it ‘takes us somewhere,’ or evokes a personal response in the listener.
This understanding of congregational song places high value on emotional connection, accessibility, and immediacy. By helping people experience the Sacred through song, we help strengthen and enrich their faith.
But that leads me to wonder: is singing just about experience? What if we don’t feel something? Is my personal experience all that matters? What about the community?
2. Singing serves the needs of the liturgy and community
As a colleague once said, “Congregants expect the service to be over in an hour. If we need to eliminate verses of a hymn or have the choir sing a shorter Offertory, that’s what we’ll do to make it work.”
Singing gets us from here to there in worship. Coordinating songs with scripture and the sermon may be valuable but this viewpoint sees singing is an accessory to liturgy and it might not even be necessary. This is a utilitarian understanding of music and efficiency is a spiritual value. As we pare away what seems non-essential or excessive, we maintain spiritual focus and direction.
But that leaves me wondering: what other purpose or role singing might have in worship? Are we called to just ‘get it done’ or can we savor or linger in the experience of beauty or something we’re making together?
3. Singing is what adorns worship
I was once told about a church musician who said, “The Psalm says worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, but in our congregation we worship the Lord in the holiness of beauty.”
From this vantage point, singing seems like icing on a cake. When thoughtfully coordinated with scripture and liturgy, it augments or enriches worship significantly. Time and effort go toward ensuring that it’s darn good icing. The expectation is of a high level of musical quality, regardless of the tradition or song repertoire. In one context that could look like a praise band that plays like a group of studio musicians. In other contexts, it could sound like concert-worthy performances by choirs and other music leaders.
This understanding of singing places high value on aesthetics. Beauty is a spiritual value and surrounding ourselves with beautiful things. elevates our souls and brings us closer to God.
But this leaves me wondering: who is welcome to participate in singing? Who can make something so beautiful it’s worthy of God’s ears? What about meaning and spiritual nourishment? Is excellence everything?
In my work around the church, I’ve seen variations of these viewpoints or stances toward singing. And instead of needing to come down in one camp or another, I have wondered if there is another way to think about singing and music in worship, one that encompasses them all without privileging one over another. What if the conversation points aren’t purely experiential, functional, or aesthetic but invite a dance or conversation between the three? What if there’s something that sits below them - deeper grounding, a foundation they rest on?
I think the passage we heard from Colossians points the way.
12-14 So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as [Christ] forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
15-17 Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of Jesus, thanking God every step of the way.”
Does it strike you as strange that, in the middle of this exhortation to Christian community, the writer of Colossians invites us to sing? To keep in tune with each other? To keep in step with each other? It’s woven into the heart of this passage and I wonder what singing what singing might have to do with compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline, forgiveness, grace…how singing helps us become a loving community.
It’s as if the author of Colossians has sung in a choir and knows how much work it takes to make something together. And while the author uses the image of clothing or a garment, something we put on, it’s more than just about what we wear on Sunday, putting on our Sunday finest. She’s talking about what we put on every day. It’s a process of formation, of becoming, a spiritual practice. It’s about the habits of our heart.
As any member of a choir will tell you, it takes practice to sing with others. It takes showing up for rehearsal consistently, warming up your voice, learning to tune with the person next to you, breathing together, running through those difficult passages until they feel natural and intuitive.
And so, friends, in the same way this life of love we’re called to is practiced. It takes showing up. And singing is one of the ways we live into it. It is a holy act that makes us whole, that helps knit us back together again, individually and communally.
As Helen Kemp, the children’s choir guru, would often say to her choirs, “Body, mind, spirit, voice, it takes a whole person to sing and rejoice.” Singing is one of the places we are integrated. The hemispheres of our brains are connected. We’re in touch with our breath, our feelings, to the life that’s within us. Singing invites us to be fully human.
And perhaps singing in community is one of the most powerful ways, and one of the most tangible ways we actually become the living, breathing, feeling, thinking body of Jesus in this place and in this time. But, again, it’s something we have to work at. It’s something we have to practice, something we show up to again and again.
So I wonder what would it look like to imagine this moment - worship - as a kind of holy rehearsal space. What if singing together is a place we are put back together, where we remember, re-discover and renew what we believe?
And what if this congregation is a choir: a community of learning where we have the opportunity to grow into new experiences, trusting there is no success or failure but a deep pool of grace that holds us as we try and try again?
And what might it look like to put to practice this way of love through our voices, through the tunes and rhythms we share in song? I’d like to offer a few possibilities, and you’ll surely imagine others.
1. To practice singing with love means expanding and enriching the ways we express ourselves, growing our repertoire of praise and prayer, finding new ways to express and explore our relationship with God, others, and ourselves.
And it’s not just about practicing the music we love and know, or that comes easy to us - tuneful, cheery anthems for a life of Easter sunshine. We know that deep love can mean grief and loss. For our singing to honor faith in all its richness and complexity, our songs can’t simply offer trite assurances or a saccharine soundtrack. But we sing the range of human emotions - lament, grief, anger, the minor, the atonal, the challenging dense, dissonant harmonies that honor experiences we’re less inclined to share on Sunday morning but are still part of the life of love we’re called to.
2. This rehearsal space invites us not just to tolerate the musical preferences and songs of those we share a pew with, but it’s a place we learn to love what others love, through their eyes. It’s where we cultivate empathy and compassion. It’s an invitation to listen closely to the tremendous variety of voices and songs present when we gather - to lift up, celebrate, to honor the experiences and perspectives they bring.
3. Practicing love through our voices isn’t for one age group but invites sharing across across generations, teaching and learning from the oldest to the youngest. It sounds like elders sharing hymns they love with middle schoolers, and syncopated drum fills that set the feet of elders dancing…singing as an expression of care, desire for well-being of others, as a way of passing on a living, vibrant faith.
4. Finally, singing with love invites us to connect to others face-to-face in an increasingly disconnected world, breaking down the walls that so often divide us. It’s looking for the ways singing unites us and invites us to mobilize, to work together for the greater good of all people, not just those within the walls of this sanctuary or denomination.
Our formation as a singing body, practicing a way of loving listening means showing up not just for ourselves but for this wider world that God loves so much, for those who struggle to speak their truth or whose voices have been muted or even silenced.
The scholar and theologian Cornell West often says, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”
With apologies to Cornell West, I’d like to add to lovingly adapt that quote to, “Singing is what love looks like in community.”
Friends, a life of embodied faith invite us to sing with, sing for, sing over, sing alongside others, doing the work that makes for peace, justice, and wholeness in our world.
So, let’s try it. Let’s rehearse together. Putting love into action, let’s discover how we can be the singing body of Christ in this time and place, sharing a song that empowers, that liberates, that celebrates all that God has done, is doing, and has yet to do as we practice living and singing in love.
With My Voice Alone - Moon Seong Mo