singing. again.

i’m at the beginning of three days off, but i just wanted to put up a quick thought from the workshop i did yesterday for people at Synod. One and a half hours is no time at all… we raced through everything, but it seemed to have a really good feel, and lots of interesting conversations during and afterwards. there was a lovely spirit of generosity and graciousness in the group. it felt like something might have shifted in the atmosphere. i’m looking at everything through the lens of abundant thinking at the moment – where are the places where people think there’s only a certain amount of ‘stuff’ [money, friendship, love, truth, air…] that has to be fought over; where are the places that people realise there’s more than enough to go around… This was an abundant space – no protection of boundaries, no feeling threatened, just graciousness, exploration and encounter.

we talked about singing in worship, and how that seems to be more cemented into the ‘must have’ category in worship than praying or reading the bible. someone said afterwards that people in the community love singing, and, of course, cited the example of people who go to footy games. it’s interesting though that only the winners sing at the footy – there are no songs for losers… i remember going to one game years ago, and the unexpected team won – carlton? – and no-one knew the song.

i’ve never had someone leave worship / sacred space i’ve curated, saying ‘i wish we’d sung, that would have made it real worship’. i’m not saying there’s not a place for singing in worship. i just wonder what’s made it the sacred cow.


  1. As an addenda to that thought, I have had the good fortune to lead worship in many a congregation over the years. I’m 47 & I feel the conviction & passion to do this, more than I ever have. Lately I can’t seem to shake the thought that quite often our churches do simply treat that moment as, in your words, ” a sacred cow”, & it has become the modern ritual/tradition of churches that would decry mainstream Catholic & Anglican sacred traditions. Curious.
    As a leader of worship I find myself drawn more towards needing to give people a reason to sing this lyric with whatever intent we happen to have arranged the music. I find it difficult to simply fire up the band & without a relevant communal context, simply launch into a song. I know that we can simply worship God most high for no reason other than “this is the way he has wired us” (C.S. Lewis). I find that singing a song without even a simple context is like being asked to “repeat this prayer after me” by the pastor. Well, I want to know what you are asking me to pray before I pray it.
    Just a few rambling musings that I am trying to straighten out. Oh, & BTW Mike, Giant Steps, my shout , when you are free

  2. Sacred Cows Make The Best Burgers, Kriegel, Robert et al –

    Got a little lost in your addenda there, Mick, but I think you’re looking for a reason to sing the same tune as everyone else before you take up the chorus. Thats why I can’t join in with “shine Jesus shine”, but will sing loudly,
    “So join the struggle while you may
    The Revolution is just a T-shirt away
    Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards”

    Other mainstream emerging sacred cows include:
    InfoTech – network access and software in particular “Why do you need internet during the service?”
    Data projectors – a great tool, but don’t take it down from its bracket!!!
    PA – Don’t touch the EQ! even if that mic channel was eq’d for congas last week, don’t change it for the violin!

    (In lieu of carrying out our conversations on Cheryl’s site… Giant Steps? you’re on.

  3. Or as a friend of mine once said; the 7 words of a dying church….
    but we’ve always done it that way
    . (Mick stops, winks, flashes a wicked/sinister smile)

  4. I don’t see music as more of a must have than praying in a service. Perhaps reading the bible has fallen off the must have list a little, though that tends to depend on what the theme of the service is, and whether a bible reading will help with “the message” of the service.

    What is the difference between a “sacred cow” and “convention”? Coming from a church where the band need to turn up every week an hour before the service to practice, occasionally without even having spoken to the worship leaders yet, it seems to be more a matter of practicality that ritual. Expecting that there will be music just means that all the people involved in the service can go about what they need to do without having to check everything first. If there is going to be a service without music (which does happen from time to time) then it’s the job of the service organisers to let everyone know so that people are turning up for an unnecessary practice.

    Mick, I have found launching straight into songs works fine, although we do take a lot of care to choose songs that fit with the theme of the service where possible. It does depend on the personality of your worship and band leaders though. I think it often better to have nothing, and let people think for themselves, than to have someone try to preamble each song poorly.

    Just thinking laterally about why we sing in church, I wonder if it’s more than just the words and music that we should consider. Singing is a physical activity that gets a lot of oxygen into your lungs. I wonder if this helps (or hinders) our brains thinking patterns during the non-singing parts of the service?

    P.S. Sorry for the long comment. Kinda got away on me.

  5. Cheryl

    hello everyone, thanks for the comments! keep talking amongst yourselves… will be back on deck in a day or so…

  6. Yeah Mike the eq thing is pretty funny from where I stand. I set up concert systems for a living & have had many a tense conversation with control freaks that are simply speaking out of ignorance. I literally once came from setting up a system at the Rod Laver arena, to doing sound at a wedding for some friends & had to convince the power brokers that I was safe to leave with their 8 channel 250watt p.a. It’s not the pa per se that bothers me with these scenarios, but the bigger issue of trust & empowerment. But I have digressed off the topic & will think about sacred cows & singing all night whilst I slumber

  7. Three reasons…
    It’s sacred because it’s been a point of identity/differentiation for the churches.
    It’s sacred because it’s provided a sense of community spirit and commonality for so long.
    It’s sacred because you can participate without having to think too hard. i.e: it’s easier than properly hearing scripture or a sermon/reflection
    Arguably, three reasons that no longer hold in the current cultural context.

  8. We’ve been thinking about this at our church. While singing itself (as an indispensible element in worship gatherings) isn’t sacred, we’ve come up with some reasons to choose to continue including it …

    It’s physical. We’re committed to the idea that God wants more than our mental assent (that is to say, more than nodding our heads thinking “Oh, quite right, nice idea” while sitting on our butts listening to a sermon) we try to include meaningful actions that people can join in if they choose/feel led. We leave our seats to light candles,consider artwork or devotional objects, share communion, occasionally draw or model with clay, write prayers, feelings, intentions, bring symbolic objects to the altar, Singing (and/or moving to music) is another way to involve your body and get out of your head a little.

    It potentially implants scripture in one’s head, for later

    it can be communal – even if you don’t choose to sing, it can make you aware of the people around you. This isn’t just you and God in the prayer closet, or you listening to a sermon on tape. You’re with people. People you like, or don’t. People who can carry a tune, or perhaps not. People who are at different places on the same road.

    For me personally, it makes a connection to my youth that’s much more than nostalgia. Singing hymns that I knew as a girl (as well as using prayers I grew up with) sometimes gives me a physical jolt of connectedness, a through-line that I can see in my (long, very up-and-down) life with God. I can’t be the only one who’s had that jolt.

    Also, we try hard to make real for our congregation a sense of connectedness across history and across the world. We want them to feel their place in the long and enormous story of God and people. Singing hymns – or even praise choruses – can sometimes bolster that, the idea that we are on the same road, not only with one another but with Luther or Wesley – or millions of people right now, in countries we’ll probably never visit, saying the same words.

    And, yes, we probably do it in large part because people expect it, and we can only imagine the kind of looks the congregation would give us if we planned a service with none.
    Though we may find out this year!

  9. I appreciate this post and comments, as I’ve been thinking about this over the last few weeks particularly.

    If I can come from a different perspective entirely… I think the way we have handled singing in church services has done a disservice. Despite how many sermons the pastor might preach to the contrary, for the vast majority of church goers, worship=singing. I’ve heard many, many different pastors try to broaden the view from the pulpit, but it’s senseless. The only form of “worship” that most congregations do collectively (I don’t think your group is typical, Betsy) and is modeled consistently is to sing.

    I don’t know if it’s because of tradition, or because it’s an efficient way to worship collectively… but I don’t think the goal of this is to be efficient.

    Perhaps you’ll consider throwing soft, squishy balls instead of sharp, pointy stones…? 😉

  10. The following comment is not a condemnation of anyone, nor is it a comment about anyone else except me.
    When I am asked to prepare for leading worship, the questions I am constantly prayerfully asking is “who is this for? What is the season of our church? What’s going on in our community? Who is going to be in the building? & etc”
    As I’ve begun to build this approach into my life, I find that it affords me the best possible opportunity to begin to answer, what we will sing, how we sing it, (style) how much we will sing it. I approach every service firmly believing that God can use any word, any note to intersect someones’ life, and with that in mind, I take my responsibility with some degree of sobriety. (not a great word but that will do.)
    I once heard a Salvation Army Officer speak at a leadership conference & one of the things she said arrested me; she said that one of the key turning points for the Salvation Army was realising that any organisation that simply seeks to maintain the Status Quo, is already in decline. From where I sit, I sense a wave of the Holy Spirit empowering & enabling a season of worship that is different from the one I grew up in. I will continue to sniff the wind & attempt to read the signs of the times, & respond as best I can with the gifts that I have surrendered to serve the church

  11. Cheryl

    these are all really interesting comments. i got a bit confused in your comments, mick, because in my church experience we differentiate between song leading and worship leading.

    this is helping me to clarify my thoughts a little…i think there are plenty of good reasons to have singing in many communities. and i think ‘we love it’ is more than enough justification. but instead of asking ‘what songs should we sing’, perhaps the critical question in planning is ‘how do we invite people into an encounter with God in this space’. sometimes singing will be the answer, occasionally it might not be.

    i was just imagining what would happen if we did worship in absolute, complete silence – i normally have ambient music playing throughout worship. perhaps that’s my sacred cow. i think the worship on easter saturday next year might be wordless and soundless… or maybe the advent sacred space this year… hmmm…

  12. Cheryl

    sure, sorry, i was a bit obscure. in my ‘tradition’ the worship leader is the person who prepares the space and the prayers and bible readings. there’s normally someone else who makes the music happen.

    does that make sense?

  13. Yes that makes sense
    It’s funny coz I served for years in the Catholic church as a musician, where there was really no title given that I can remember. We kind of just did the music. Now I exist in a church world where all of the music is called worship leading; like many others, we try to educate our colleagues in the theology that worship is not restricted to a few songs on a Sunday, but it is an attitude that one should develop & carry all of their waking life (& hopefully too their dreaming one)

  14. Hey Cheryl,

    I have a wry smile from your asking whether ambient music is your sacred cow! I caught that very same question from Mark, Ben, and Johnny, and was intrigued (and heartened) by the constant re-examination. I enjoy the ideas that flood in when I stop making assumptions…

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