Sunday morning. You've arrived at church, sat in your usual place in your usual pew, greeted your usual friends, shaken the usual hands. The service starts. You are asked to stand and turn to page such and such in your hymnal, or to direct your attention to the words on the screen or in your bulletin. The song's introduction plays, and as the congregation begins singing, you are conscious of yourself in a familiar but unpleasant way. You feel the same old doubts: "Can the person in front of me hear me singing? Is my voice sticking out? I'm too loud. I don't sound good. I'll just sing softly, sort of to myself..." The song ends. You sit down, relieved.
I am the first to admit that not every person is equally talented in the area of singing. Some people seem to have to do very little work in order to sound good singing anything. Most people can sound pretty good on most music if they master a few basic skills. Some people seem to be trapped in a tiny range of pitch (usually the pitches used in their everyday speaking), and rarely sing on the correct pitch or with a pleasant tone. Although I also firmly believe that anyone can learn to sing decently, this article is devoted to addressing the Church's singing situation as it is. The reality is that the scenario in the first paragraph is played out in a number of minds, every single Sunday, in your church and in mine, and it should not be. One more caveat: I am writing this article for the man in the pew on Sunday. What I have to say here is for the Christian who is participating in corporate worship as a congregant, not a leader or officer. Why do so many not sing, and can they be helped to do so more.
To put it briefly, most of the victims of this kind of thinking are men. They may doubt their ability because of an embarrassing experience during adolescence when the length of their vocal folds doubled overnight and both speaking and singing came a literal analogy for trying to relearn how to walk with 8-foot long legs. Many were told by their middle school music teachers to quit singing, or at least to "mouth" the words so they wouldn't make their classes or choirs sound bad. After their voices settled, a total lack of use during those most formative and vital years rendered them extremely limited in range of frequency, amplitude, and color. Other men may not have had this exact experience. Perhaps they didn't even make it as far as middle school choir, but were culturally conditioned to avoid singing altogether as an unmanly activity. Perhaps some of our men simply came to notice over the years that their voices weren't quite measuring up to those they heard around them, and quietly retreated into themselves until their true voices were lost.
Whatever the reason, the sad fact is that many Christian men either don't sing, or don't enjoy singing in corporate worship. Fortunately, this situation can be changed, even for those who have practiced it for scores of years. There is a lot to know about singing, but the single most helpful and most needed piece of information is tremendously basic, and ought to be inherent to a Christian theology of worship. That piece of information is this: all good singing takes humility. When you unleash your voice without knowing exactly what will happen, you may feel like you are being presumptuous and prideful, but if you examine yourself closely, you will discover that you are actually hesitant as a result of fear. That fear is directed toward the thoughts of others who may judge you. That fear is therefore actually pride - the opposite of humility.
What better place to be completely humbled than in the setting of corporate worship? We stand in the presence of the Creator of the universe; there is no one of us who can stand above any of the rest when placed in this position. The mayor of your town may stand next to the garbage collector; the president of the university next to the night custodian; the king next to a shop owner; in the presence of God, all are shown equally low. In Christ, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." (Ga. 3:28). In our baptism, in the body of Christ, in the presence of God in worship, all is revealed as it is - equal. It may be that your singing ability is not as great as that of the person in front of you. That is objective and measurable, and it may be true. But if you are refusing to use your voice in the presence of God because your focus is on your lack of ability, then you are not worshiping God - but yourself. You have determined the extent of your act of worship based on your fear and your assessment of others, rather than recognizing your equality in the presence of God and letting your worship be about Him. Corporate worship is the great equalizer, so sing!