Jonathan Aigner says something I’ve been struggling to find the words to express in this brief essay on congregational singing in worship.
As a musician, the goal of excellence is implicit in any mention of music-making. That’s not the issue for me. The problem is this underlying tone of enjoying music in worship. To me, enjoyment is never the supreme objective (emphasis added). I want to facilitate music that preaches, challenges, afflicts, inspires. Music that puts God’s story on people’s lips. Music that conveys a sense of urgency to the Christian life and worship. Music that gives the congregation a job.
If they enjoy it, splendid. But if that’s the goal, why bother with any of it?
Sometimes work is fun. Often, it isn’t. The reason we worship isn’t to have jesusy fun. This is serious business, and though measures of joy, peace, exuberance, elation, humor all certainly have a place, we don’t participate because we feel like it. Worship is work, and sometimes it isn’t enjoyable, emotionally positive, or imminently fulfilling.
I’m not pontificating here. Not at all. I’m saying this humbly, repentantly. I’m saying this because of the challenge, the constraint it places on me to remember this truth myself.
It is natural to want to sing familiar hymns and songs, but I am very thankful that I have had to learn new ones where I now worship. In addition to the fact that, especially the older ones, are good theology, having to pay attention to the text precisely because of my unfamiliarity with it, keeps me focused on the meaning, and it helps me worship.
C.S. Lewis had a similar point of view:
I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit. It is not for me to lay down laws, as I am only a layman, and I don’t know much. (God in the Dock)
Demanding that we only sing our favorites has one major fault, I think. It is egocentric.