The following is adapted from a talk given at a regional worship night last year, written in collaboration with Lucas Cortazio from Community's Yellow Box Campus
Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous;
it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
Praise the Lord with the harp;
make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully, and shout for joy.
Why do we sing? Have you ever thought about it? Why do we come together, week in and week out, stand in a room with a mix of strangers and friends, and sing? What is that about? It’s not like a common thing elsewhere in our lives. It’s not like we walk into a coffee shop and expect to burst into song. When was the last time you broke into chorus in the supermarket? Any recent musical numbers in a yoga class? Public singing is kind of weird, when you think about it.
And yet, singing has had a place in culture for most of human history. It is believed that singing predated spoken communication, and became a vital step in the creation of language. Anthropologists tell us that there is no human culture, no matter how remote or isolated, that does not sing. There is something primal, almost instinctual, about singing. Some ancient civilizations believed that singing was such an awesome act that creation was sung into existence.
Fast forward to today, and science is proving the innumerable physical and emotional health benefits of singing, especially group singing. Studies show that endorphins and oxytocin released during group singing lower depression and loneliness while enhancing feelings of trust and bonding. Study after study has shown that singing with others relieves anxiety and contributes to a higher quality of life. The growing field of music therapy is built on that premise.
But that’s not why we sing, is it? Fringe benefits I would call those. I believe there’s something more. Something so urgent and necessary about our singing that the Psalmists would exhort us over and over to “sing joyfully to the Lord.” The Bible contains over 400 references to singing, and over 50 direct commands to sing. Zephaniah 3:17 says that God himself “rejoices over you with singing.” Jesus sang hymns with his disciples.
There is real power in singing together. The documentary “Singing Revolution” tells the story of Estonia in the late-20th century. Through several decades of occupation under the Nazis and the Soviets, over one-quarter of the population had been deported, executed, or fled. Music sustained the Estonian people during those years, helping to maintain their language and distinctive culture. Between 1987 and 1991, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered publicly to sing forbidden patriotic songs. The singing of the Estonian people literally wrested control back from the Soviets, as they gained their independence without any bloodshed.
And consider the power of singing in the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. The Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a key training center for nonviolent activists, equipped supporters with songs to help spark and unite the movement. One night in 1958, the school was raided by the police, who shut off all the lights in the building. One woman found the strength to sing out into the darkness, adding a new verse to the song “We Shall Overcome, singing “We are not afraid.” In the darkness, others joined in, singing louder and louder, until one of the policemen, trembling, came to the woman and said, “If you have to sing, do you have to sing so loud?” The police had all the guns, the billy clubs, seemingly all the power. And he asked her, shaking, if she would not sing so loud. There was great power in their songs. Power unleashed as they sang together.
When we sing, a great many powerful things (can) happen. In Part 2, I'll look at three of the most particular and powerful dynamics in play in Christian singing. Stay tuned.