One of the things that I like to do on the side is lead worship every once in a while at my church. If you’re not in the midst of church culture, that concept of leading worship may be something that is new to you. I get so used to talking about this thing called “leading worship” that I easily forget how foreign-sounding that might be to someone for the first time.
It’s pretty simple really – essentially I stand in front of everyone who has gathered on a Sunday morning at my church and I lead them in singing some songs together. It is the job of the worship leader to select the songs, and maybe some readings from the Bible, gather the other musicians together for a rehearsal, one during the week and one early on Sunday morning and making everything run as smoothly as possible on a Sunday morning, and I do this about once a month.
Singing songs together on a Sunday morning is a pretty integral part of the time that we spend together at church. It’s not a matter of just singing any old songs. We don’t sing old Beatles favourites or Adele’s latest hits. The point of our singing is to worship (although this can easily be forgotten in the spirit of doing “what we’ve always done”). The songs are about God and directed to God and for God. Worship is supposed to be an expression of love and honour to the one who made us, and it is also an opportunity for a particular group of worshippers who belong to the same church to do this together.
When I think about it, I wonder if the fact that we spend so much time singing to God seems strange to anyone outside of this experience. There’s not many other times or places where people typically express their feelings to each other in song. We sing Happy Birthday to people on their birthdays, but it’s rare to sing to each other.
Singing is very common. People love to sing. People who are good at singing will often give performances or record their singing so that people can listen to it whenever they want. People sing to themselves in the shower or as they go about their work. There’s a maintenance guy in the building where I work who has a beautiful voice and you can often catch the sound of him singing show tunes when you pass him on his way through the building.
But singing in church seems a little bit different. It’s for everybody. People don’t have to sing, but everyone is welcome to sing, whether you’re good at it or not. So we sing and we sing to God. The songs aren’t always directed at God. Sometimes the songs are about God or about Jesus or about faith and we sing them to remind ourselves of all the things that God has done for us – that our very existence in this world is a gift of God. Singing is also an opportunity to express frustration and a lack of understanding at all that is wrong with the world and to ask for help. There’s not as many of those songs, but they’re out there.
My wife and I spent six months in the Democratic Republic of the Congo when our oldest daughter was nine months. We volunteered with World Vision there on a small project and so I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time at one of the development offices there. Every morning all the workers in the office would gather together to sing and to read the Bible and to talk about what we read. But the singing is what I will always remember. It changed me. It really impressed me.
They really sang there. They really sang from the gut; with their whole hearts. They sang like they meant it. The woman who cleaned the office would often join us and she would always sing her heart out, and I remember her in particular because she didn’t have a particularly lovely voice and she wasn’t always on tune. She wasn’t a great singer, but she still sang with all that she had, and I thought that was amazing.
That kind of singing does something to a person. It is cathartic. It can express the feelings of your heart and it can pour out the emotions that we are feeling inside. It’s so good to sing like that. It’s so wonderful when we can sing like that together.
We don’t always sing like that at my church or at the church where I grew up. I think it’s cultural. It’s habit. It’s hard to belt it out when you’re surrounded by people who are singing more quietly or more subdued. It’s tempting to say that it has to do with people being more concerned about sticking out or being too expressive. That may be part of it, but when everybody sings out, then nobody sticks out and so it’s a question of what everybody’s doing, and when everybody’s always been doing it that way, people tend to keep doing it that way.
In any case, singing from some place deep inside is like gold. It is an opportunity to open up and to let out our feelings in the best way possible. Sometimes just to vocalize in the way that we do when we sing can release things that have been bottled inside. There’s a reason that so many songs and so much poetry have “O”s everywhere. Don’t ever pass up the opportunity to vocalize your “O”s. Making an O sound is a great way to open up and to express your soul.
“Bless the Lord O my soul, O-o-o my soul”. It feels good.
I heard that this was the case in acting school, but I learned it firsthand in those morning devotion times in Congo. Watching those people sing and worship and then daring to join in myself was a revelation to me. I couldn’t believe how good it felt. I felt like I had learned how to sing for the first time in my life.
I think this is why we worship God with song so much of the time. It is a time to emote and to vocalize feelings in a way that is harder to do with the spoken word. You just can’t belt out a poem in the way that you can belt out a song. But it’s not just about belting something out. It’s not just about being loud. It’s about making a sound. It’s about making music. Language expresses meaning that we understand if we understand the words of that language. Sound and music expresses meaning that is understood outside of language. A song in an unintelligible language can be understood perfectly on an emotional level.
When God is spirit and when our communication is often so different than the way we communicate with other people, a possibility of expression that lies outside of words and language is important. It is welcome, and this is a big part of why we worship with music I think and it is a big part of my job as a worship leader.
I want to lead the songs well so that they sound good and so that people can sing along, but I also want to facilitate an atmosphere where people can enter that emotional expression that transcends language and hopefully to speak to God and to hear from God – whether it be a message with a direct meaning or a message of emotion – joy, or relief, or peace, or whatever it might be.
It’s also important that we do this together. While people in a church who are worshiping together may be experiencing different emotions and feelings and thoughts and prayers, it is important that they come together and lift up their voices as one. It is so important to remember together and to express together the goodness of God and the faithfulness of God while at the same time bringing the different experiences and feelings we have in our hearts and letting that express itself in our hearts.
I had this idea to blog about something that happened to me last Sunday when I was leading worship, but then as I got started my introduction of what is worship, I decided to keep going and to just write about worship. I can tell my story another time. Worshiping through music can seem like a strange thing, but I wanted to try and express to you the beauty and the power of it if you are willing to inter into it.