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Being ‘Traditioned’ in the Faith: Congregational Singing, the Psalms, and Biblical Literacy

Biblical illiteracy is partly due to changes to the worship service over the years.  Take the average church forty or fifty years ago.  There would have been a morning and evening service on Sunday and a Wednesday night service.  There would have been Sunday School, youth group meetings, and Bible studies.  To one extent or another, most churches are doing less than they used to during the week, and many people only experience ‘church’ in terms of one Sunday morning service a week.  Also, worship services and sermons are, typically, shorter than they used to be, and the latter may well be less Biblically focussed.  (Mainline denominations have moved increasingly away from orthodoxy since the 1960s, and many Evangelical churches have opted for topical sermons that fail to explore the Biblical text with the congregation.)  Finally, the music in the worship service is less conducive to Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literacy.  This last point will be considered here.

Fifty years ago, the church’s music would have come from the hymnal.  Having words put up on a screen allows the song leader to pick songs outside a ‘canon’ of music that has been carefully assessed and chosen by a particular tradition.  It also allows an ongoing variety of new songs to be chosen for the worship service, such that many songs sung are often unknown or only briefly used in the congregation.  This means that people know far fewer songs over time.  The problem this poses is exacerbated greatly by the quality of modern songs, which often lack theological depth.  Moreover, many churches, particularly large churches, opt to have bands lead the worship part of the service, which is largely reduced only to singing.  (There is far more to worship than singing.)  In other words, the person with a good voice and who can play a guitar is made the worship leader, even though there is not necessarily any relationship between leading in worship and singing.  Finally, the more the worship band sees itself as leading in worship rather than aiding in worship, the more worship can become mere performance.  How often one sees people trying to sing along to songs they do not know with a worship band performing on a stage.  These worship bands do not always know the difference between congregational singing and band music.

How does this dismal situation relate to Biblical illiteracy?  Music is an aid to memorization—memorization of Scripture and the Church’s theology.  The hymns of a theological tradition help to educate members in the tradition, such as when songs from 150 years ago are sung today.  This is not to say that new songs should not be written, but they should not overwhelm the congregation or change every few months.  Most significantly, the words of songs need to be Biblically based and even come from Scripture.  Indeed, we do have a few contemporary hymn writers who are doing just that, such as Keith and Kristyn Getty and Stuart Townend.  But, if and when we do introduce their music into our worship, we should repeat the music over many years so that the congregation and different generations can memorize it and be formed into a community of faith and tradition through it.

Consider the following observations from Gordon Wenham’s excellent study of the psalms, Psalms as Torah.  He observes that hymns and songs teach theology and ethics (p. 3).  Too often, the music during a worship service is understood simply as music and worship, not also as teaching.  But lay theology is learned largely from the music of the church, and a church that fails to sing Biblically grounded songs, theologically deep songs, and songs that incorporate the worshipers into the church tradition will also struggle to keep its members Biblically, theologically, and ecclesiastically literate.

Wenham’s focus in this book is the Psalms—Israel’s songbook.  He argues that ‘the psalms were and are vehicles not only of worship but also of instruction’ (p. 7).  Thus, second, the Psalms should be much in use in the worship of the Church.  The Psalms are not only Israel’s songbook but also the Church’s book of worship, and, as such, it instructs people in the faith.  More quotations in the New Testament come from the Psalms than any other Old Testament book, and it would have been a psalm that Jesus and the disciples sang before going to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, that Paul and Silas sang in prison in Philippi, and that believers sang in their meetings when filled with the Holy Spirit.

Third, Wenham notes that the Psalms were memorized (ch. 3).  Indeed, the cultures of the Middle East and the Roman Empire in the centuries during which the Scriptures were written spent considerable time on memorization.  Even if some people were literate and could write, they tended to use literature as an aid to memorization.  That is, argues Wenham, the predominantly oral culture highly valued memorization, and even the literate thought of much of the literature available in terms of an aid to that end.  This was especially so of poetry and anthologies, of which the book of Psalms is an excellent example.  Memorization of the Psalms was aided by poetry, music, and the organization of the psalms.  Thus, the content of the Psalms was the key and music was an aid to learning.  Several points emerge from these observations for contemporary worship.  First, the message, not the music, is primary (even if the quality of the music is important).  All too often, the music gets in the way of the message, let alone the memorization of the message.  Second, the Psalms are significant to deliver the content of worship for the Church, and the more the Psalms are used in worship, the more Biblically literate the Church will be.  Third, memorization is important because it means that the worshiper can take away the words of God from the service, having internalised them and therefore being able to meditate on them day and night.  Fourth, the goal of memorization and the focus on a particular collection of worship, the Psalms (or the Church’s hymnbook), means that music is not going to be changed every few months to keep up with the latest hits on the local Christian radio.  Only in this way can we internalize and meditate on Scripture and our faith throughout the week when we are not sitting down to read Scripture.

Wenham also points out that the Psalms are more than what is said (locution); they are also a performance of certain acts of worship (illocution).  Examples can help illustrate the point.  One might read theology and learn something important, but when one prays and sings a psalm, one is performing certain acts, such as declaring, confessing, committing oneself to do something, expressing something, and so forth (cf. p. 66).  In the same way, listening to a sermon might involve learning something important about Scripture and the Church’s theology and ethics, but reading the Psalms out loud and singing the words of a song or Psalm involve performances of the faith.  Wenham points out that the Psalms were actually not meant to be read silently, and we can follow this practice by either reading Psalms in the worship service out loud as a congregation or singing songs based on the Psalms.  In this way, we perform the Scriptures—perform our theology and faith.  This is like the difference between signing a marriage certificate in a judge’s office and saying ‘I do’ before a community of faith.  The wedding is a performance of marriage that involves the acts of oath taking and covenant making.  The worship band performing during worship and ever introducing new songs leaves many people behind the performance of worship, and they become observers instead.

Thus, positively, it might be said in conclusion that the congregation can become increasingly literate in Scripture and the Church’s theology and ethics through its worship in song.  This will be aided greatly the more what is sung is Biblically based and expresses the Church’s theology.  Further aiding this will be singing from a body of known and well-chosen songs, singing songs written for congregational worship, not the performance of a worship band, memorizing the songs, and using the Psalter in worship (whether singing or reading from it out loud).  Such an approach to worship in the local church will aid the memorization, internalization, and meditation on the Scriptures.

A simple self-test might illustrate the points made here.  Imagine yourself imprisoned for your faith—rather like Paul and Silas in Philippi.  Or, imagine yourself imprisoned for several years, with no access to Scripture or to other believers.  Will you have internalized and memorized a large number of songs with a Biblical and theological depth that your faith will be sustained and you will be encouraged despite your circumstances?  Or will you groan as you barely remember more than a line of a few songs, and ones that were not very deep or Biblical, because your worship leader was really only a musician with a fairly shallow faith himself who liked to change the music as often as he could?  Without a doubt, hardly any of us today have memorized Scripture as the average believer, including illiterate ones, would have back in Biblical times.  That is a result of not being an oral but a literary culture.  (And the problem continues as our literature culture becomes a visual culture with television, CDs, and computers.)  However, we can make several changes that will help us to know the Scriptures better in our day, and one of the changes we should make is how we approach worship music in many of our churches.