This past Monday, Tim Challies wrote a post that hit a little bit of a nerve (if one can judge this by blog comment threads). His post was entitled “I Love a Church That Sings Badly,” and basically made the case that of all the churches he gets to visit, it’s often the ones who sing somewhat “badly” together in corporate worship that stand out in a unique way. He says,
“I found myself reflecting on many of these churches and I realized something that surprised me: I am drawn toward a church that sings poorly and am a little suspicious of a church that sings really well.”
Challies’ argument in summary is basically this: that often (not always), churches who sound great singing together do so because they don’t have a steady influx of new or spiritually young believers, who don’t know the ins and outs of the songs, the vocal parts, etc. And Challies argues the converse as well, that a church that does have a steady influx of new and untaught, and unpolished, believers tends to sound a little unpolished in their singing too, and that this is potentially a good thing.
I won’t quote any of the comments on Challies’ post. You can go read them for yourself if you want to get a sense of the controversy a post like this stirs up. I’ve brought these kinds of arguments on myself more frequently than you might think. As a church worship leader, or if you serve at all with the music of a local church, you’ll potentially hear comments like this anytime you say the outward product or polish of the worship service isn’t the most important thing. Like Challies argues here, a degree of roughness in a church’s singing is often (but not always) a sign of healthy discipleship in that church family. And what do you read in the resulting comments on his post? Arguments for good singing being more pleasing to God – that we want to sing well and have our church’s music sound good because anything less isn’t giving God our best.
This is tricky stuff, because this argument is, ultimately, true. We do want to always strive to give God our best at anything we do, agreed? Paul exhorts the church at Corinth to this exact thing. It’s biblical. But where this goes wrong when applied to singing is when we do the simple thing and equate the outward appearance (or sound) with what’s most pleasing to God and say things like, “How dare you imply we shouldn’t sound as good as possible?” or, “So you’re advocating laziness and poor quality?”
Which, again, isn’t what Tim Challies does. His point is effectively NOT that singing off-key, or not knowing the words to our worship songs is the way to go. His point is that there are important, glorious things happening in healthy churches that often connect to the quality of our singing, and make a roughness and tension in our singing OK. Here are a few reasons why I think Challies’ post should resonate in a good way with church folks:
1. Discipleship and evangelism will always cause us to hold “quality” in tension.
I’ll just basically restate Challies here, because he really said this so well. He uses the example of an unnamed church he visited “in the not-so-distant past,” saying,
“[T]he reason they sing so poorly is that there are so few among them who are mature in the faith; there are so few among them who have been raised to hear those songs week by week from their youngest days. This is a church where the gospel is being preached in the worship services and where the people are taking that gospel to those who live nearby. The gospel is doing its work, many are being saved, and they are coming to those Sunday services to pour out their praises to God. This church sings so poorly because they evangelize so well.”
We should always try for our best in whatever we do in our worship services, but I think I can argue biblically that producing external quality and doing our best don’t always look the same. And that’s often OK.
2. Avoiding “Heaven On Earth” syndrome.
I think what we often expect from our churches in gathered worship is an ideal, heavenly kind of worship, especially through singing, that might be unrealistic in our particular eschatological moment. We’re pilgrim people, looking forward to worship in the heavenly city, in a “better country” than this one. So we should resist the temptation to want a perfection in our church families that we just won’t have yet. Our churches should be made up of imperfect people, who are all being sanctified at different stages by the Holy Spirit, and who together make up a glorious, imperfect, already-but-not-yet redeemed family. Which, again, doesn’t absolve us from always doing our best with what we have. Which brings us to the next point…
3. Considering The Widow’s Two Mites.
In Luke 21:1-4 we see Jesus point out a widow, placing her only two coins in the temple’s offering box. We know that Christ is the exact imprint of God’s nature (Hebrews 1:3), and that if we’ve seen Christ, we’ve seen the Father too. Here, we see God value the heart that gives everything it has in worship, which isn’t much for this woman, but is everything she has at that time. And it’s valued over and above what the rich can give, because even though their giving looks better, the widow’s worship runs deeper.
Again, this isn’t to be an extremist on this side of the whole argument about visible or audible quality. A rich person can give with just as much of a worshipful heart as the poor widow. But the point of Luke 21, and an underlying point of Tim Challies’ post, is that God looks at the heart. He always looks at the heart. And it’s often much easier to get the externals all polished up in a worship service, and miss the heart of the whole thing – the loving discipleship that marks a healthy church family. If having external quality in our church’s singing means a compromise of true discipleship, or a compromise of love for one another or love for unbelievers, or means that we look down on anyone who can’t sing as well as others, then we’ve missed the point of church. Jesus might as well have told the widow, “Don’t bother unless you can give a little more next time.”
Challies ends his post with this comment:
“There are exceptions, of course. It is not a hard and fast rule. And yet I think there is something to it. We who have been Christians for many years are tempted to judge a church by the quality of its singing…I wonder if we have it all backwards.”