Hymn Hypocrisy
(Do we believe what we sing?)

This newsletter provides a few thoughts on a subject that likely receives less attention than it ought to. When we announce the singing of hymn in a church service, are we putting pressure on at least some of those present to lie? Is there a kind of forced hypocrisy involved in hymn singing?

It’s a possibility that’s sometimes troubled me, for a couple of reasons.

Singing Hymns for the Wrong Reasons
First, I wonder how many folks sing hymns simply as a matter of form, or because they like the music, without particularly considering the meaning of what they’re singing.

The music of a hymn is intended as a setting for the effective delivery of its message. But does experiencing the music take too prominent a place? And what is the message of the words? Does the hymn express something I truly want to say to God? Or, in the case of a gospel song, is it my sincere witness to others?

Once a month or so, in our services, I try to leave time for some requests. And, if your service is informal enough to do it, one way the service leader can help members of the congregation to zero in on the text in that case is to ask such questions as: Why is this hymn a favourite of yours? What is there about God in this hymn for which we can praise Him? Which is your favourite verse of the hymn? (And why?) Etc.

Singing a Musical Lie
Second, there’s the concern that we’re asking people to sing words they don’t mean. Are we forcing them into a kind of hypocrisy? These would seem to be their choices:

¤ Sing words you don't really mean (formalism)
¤ Pretend to mean the words you sing (hypocrisy)
¤ Simply keep silent (perhaps embarrassing yourself)

Maybe this is so. But I do think it’s helpful to see the corporate (group) expression of faith and purpose as an entity unto itself. Hymn singing is not only an individual act, but a corporate act. In other words, it's something the church does. We’re not only singing as individuals, but as a body.

Compare an election. Likely not everyone will have voted for the eventual winner, but the election overall expresses the community's will. In a similar way, the singing of a hymn can be seen as an expression of what that local church stands for. In congregational singing, the church expresses itself. This doesn’t remove the responsibility of the individual to sing with sincerity of course, but the ministry of the body as a whole is a factor.

The same thing happens when the offering is received in a service. Not everyone who puts money on the offering plate is doing so for the right reasons, but the funds provided support the work of the church as a whole, and they express the desire of the congregation that it continue to do so.

There would seem to be a parallel in the hymn-singing of Israel. “Blessed be the LORD God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting! And let all the people say, “Amen!” Praise the LORD!” (Ps. 106:48).

That phrase, “all the people” is used many, many times in the Old Testament. When the Law was given through Moses, “all the people” said they would obey it (Exod. 19:8; 24:3), but not long after “all the people” were involved in making and bowing to a golden idol (Exod. 32:3)!

Do the words “all the people” represent every single person in the nation? I doubt it. Rather, they identify a corporate act, an expression of the nation as a whole, or at least of the group present on a particular occasion.

God's ideal for the local church is that all have true unity of heart and voice, whether in the reading of Scripture (or following a liturgy), or in hymn singing. "That you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (I Cor. 1:10).

Even if this is practically impossible, given that weak and fallible human beings are involved, it should be our desire and our goal as a church. We should be "endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3). And toward that end, here are several things I would strive to do:

1) Make sure that our hymnody is soundly biblical. (It doesn't hurt to point out when it is not, and either change the wording, or skip the problem stanza of an otherwise good hymn.)

2) Teach the meaning of our hymns, and briefly point out a key truth we will be singing about, when a hymn is announced. This helps those assembled to remember that they are singing for a deeper purpose, not simply engaging in a traditional ritual.

3) From time to time point out the corporate nature of hymn singing, by reminding the congregation that this is what Christians believe, or this is what our church stands for.

4) Remind singers of the importance of sincerity. That they are expressing themselves to one another and to God when they sing (cf. Col. 3:16). This calls for us each to be genuine and earnest about our hymn singing.