I sometimes hear complaints that contemporary worship music contributes to a privatized faith, a way of participating in the church’s response to God’s self-revelation as if all there was to lived faith was a love song in our ears. If we measure true worship simply by the intensity of our sung devotion, eyes shut and holy hands raised, we downplay the process of being formed as living sacrifices, whose eyes search out what good our hands can do for God’s mission. The blessing of being caught up in music (which can orient us to the way God wants us to see the world) can’t be separated from our worship through which the world is blessed, as our lives are sung to God for their sake.
But, when laying blame, I think we really have to go back to the early English hymn writers, and especially John and Charles Wesley, who pioneered the commodification of music of the heart. Although, if I ever find myself singing with them, I am quick to forgive.
The Wesleys maintained a life-long commitment to their Anglican roots, but their legacy includes the Methodist churches and a significant contribution to the Pentecostal stream. Their emphases on authentic personal faith and rich, deep communal discipleship mark much of American Christianity. And these priorities are reflected in the music of their movement.
They published one of the earliest widely used hymnals in which more than just the texts (lyrics) of hymns appeared. If you’ve been to church much, you’re probably familiar with some of Charles’ best work, including “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (a mouthful, I know) and “Christ the Lord Has Risen Today.”
John was a frequent collaborator and often the theological editor of his brother’s work. He also provided an interesting set of directions to congregations on how their hymns were to be used:
I. Learn these tunes before you learn any other; afterwards learn as many as you please.
II. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.
III. Sing All. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.
IV. Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were held dead, or half asleep, but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
V. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony, but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
VI. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
VII. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your Heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually. So shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward you when He cometh in the clouds of heaven.
The Wesleys wrote music that called for a heartfelt expression, but continued to ground its use among other meaningful acts of corporate worship they regularly practiced. Charles wrote a great number of hymns for communion.
The prescriptive tone of what’s above seems an odd companion to the passionate abandon in lines like “lost in wonder, love and praise.” But what John’s list passes on is that the music of the church is not just a sound that belongs to me. It is the sound of my belonging to God, and us belonging together, and together being an offering to the Father for the world he sung into being. We are meant to sing within sight of the table that binds us, and in anticipation of the banquet set for voices that have not yet joined ours. It is music we “sing spiritually,” not by just having our spirits stoked by these sounds, but by offering our voices to God and our lives to God’s work.