How Can I Keep from Singing? An Appeal to Christians to Sing the Faith

[1] On Cantata Sunday of this year (May 2, 2010), my husband and I gave our farewell sermon to the congregation at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Fürth, Germany, based on Isaiah 12:21 and the hymn by Robert Lowry (1826–1899) “My Life Flows on in Endless Song.”2 The last line of the refrain asks, “Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” In preparation for that sermon and since then, I have been thinking about what it really means to sing: Why do — why must — we sing as Christians, not only the Alleluias, but also the Kyries?3 What does the liturgy require of me? Does it matter how or if I sing? And what is occurring theologically in worship when I sing? In this essay, I would like to find answers to these questions, in the confidence that “through liturgy and song the people of God participate in […the mission of God in Christ for the world], for here God comes with good news to save. And through liturgy and song, God nourishes us for that mission and goes with us to bear the creative and redeeming Word of God, Jesus Christ, to the whole world.”4

[2] As Christians, especially as evangelical Lutherans, singing is intrinsic to our faith. Our Christian history has given us a rich heritage of song. More specifically, singing is intrinsic to our human story. The trait which separates us from all other animals is our innate ability to communicate through spoken and sung language. Martin Luther tried to comprehend the complexity of the human voice and its ability to make music. He states:

…you will find that from the beginning of the world [music] has been instilled and implanted in all creatures, individually and collectively. For nothing is without sound or harmony…. And yet, compared to the human voice, all this hardly deserves the name of music, so abundant and incomprehensible is here the munificence and wisdom of our most gracious Creator….5

Still more important, however, is the fact that, as Christians, we have a reason to sing: We believe Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. And, if this is true, then we also believe we must live out this truth by participating in the “mission of God in Christ for the world.” We do this first and foremost through worshiping God.

What Is Worship?
[3] We have been rescued from ourselves through Jesus Christ. This salvation is entirely God’s gift and not deserved or earned. Our response to this gift “makes clear who is the giver of that and every other gift and challenges the world to respond to who he is.”6 Out of gratitude for this salvation we are compelled to praise, to thank, to honor, to offer the very best of ourselves to this God, who has offered himself for us. The word worship comes from the Old English meaning “to create (scipe) honor and worthiness (weorth).” God calls and enables us to worship him through baptism. Our Christian worship attempts to honor God and bespeak his worthiness. The German word Gottesdienst conveys perhaps more accurately the dual nature of worship: God’s (Gottes) service (Dienst) to humans and human’s service to God.7 I prefer to interpret this “service” as offering — God offers us salvation; we offer God our gratitude with our very selves. Through participation in worship, God nourishes us and gives us what we need to proclaim the good news.

Why Do We Sing in Worship?
[4] Throughout history, humans have communicated to God through ritualized patterns of speech-song combined with ritualized actions. Our specific Christian worship patterns developed directly out of Jewish worship practices. The typical form of worship as a Christian community in the first century was synagogal (Acts 19:18) and domestic (Acts 2:46; 20:7–12).8 After Christians separated themselves from the synagogue worship, Jewish scriptures were read at home gatherings. Thus celebrations of the Word and Eucharist were influenced musically both by the synagogue and the home.9 Since the earliest domestic assemblies focused primarily on the reading and recitation of liturgical formularies,10 musical instruments were used sparingly, if at all. More significant “to the history of liturgical music is how these elements of synagogal worship…were rendered.” According to scholars,

in ancient times reading or public speaking and singing were not as clearly distinguishable as they are today. In other words, the scripture readings and prayers must have been proclaimed with some degree of melody. Foley explains that “the audible nature of all reading presumed rhythmic and melodic features that today would be more quickly classified as music rather than as speech. Public speaking, too, presumed a kind of chanting in cadence that fell some place between modern categories of speech and song.”11

[5] This type of chanting, also known as “recitative,” was performed through cantillation, the recitation of a text underpinned with musical tones. The music acts as the vehicle of proclamation. These biblical texts would have been chanted by a presider. We assume participation of the “lay” assembly at this time in the singing of biblical psalms, which formed part of the Christian worship, for already in the first century, the Apostle Paul admonished the Colossians “to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).12

[6] During the second century, Christians began composing their own psalms and hymns. Through nonbiblical psalms and hymns, the early Church was able to sing to the Lord songs that “proclaim directly his person and mystery.” Tertullian witnesses to this practice in his Apologeticum: “After the ritual handwashing and the bringing in of the lights, each one is invited to stand and sing to God as one is able: either something from the holy Scriptures or of one’s own making.”13 Individuals sang their own spontaneous words and their own spontaneous melodies. At this time, the entire liturgy was musical; no part of the liturgy was spoken. Participation of each member of the assembly was expected from the beginnings of Christian worship, according to his or her ability. And singing was the means Christians used to praise God. Worship in the early Church was a basic, human, simple and authentic offering back to God of what one had been given from God: a voice to use in praise of the Creator.

Who Can Still Sing?
[7] Much has changed in two thousand years. As worship in the early church moved from the house church to the basilica, other musical forms were required to fill the acoustic space of the grand halls. Professional musicians and trained choirs were engaged to fill the church with music; liturgical music became more complex, and the singing roles of the presider and lay diverged. Lay participation became limited to sung responses and the singing of hymns. Chupungo sums up: “It did not take the Church very long to abandon the ‘recitative,’ which is so congenial to…active participation.”14

[8] Our post-modern culture no longer values the art of singing, especially not the singing of liturgical and sacred music. Learning to sing or play an instrument is considered too time-consuming and tedious in our society of instant gratification. Then there is the prevalent pressure of perfectionism in this age which discourages us from learning something for its own sake. Learning to sing in order to praise God is not considered important in our competitive world. We would rather leave the singing to professionals and sit back and “consume” — worship vicariously — because we are too ashamed of not knowing how to sing.15 As Gabe Huck says, we live in a culture in which we are surrounded by music (and noise), but “robbed of song.”16 But perhaps the more grave and destructive issue underlying our inability to sing is the confusion our culture perpetuates in matters of faith. If we do not know what we believe about God, then we will not know how to worship him.

[9] Unfortunately, not only the average parishioner, but also many pastors I have encountered under the age of 60 are products of this disastrous cultural development. In Germany, where I have been a pastor for eight years, candidates for pastoral ministry do not have to know how to sing. If a pastor cannot sing, then he or she will avoid the sung parts of the liturgy, will not chant psalms or sing the Eucharist. If the congregation does not have a singing leader, the sung liturgy cannot be learned or passed on. The congregation will “unlearn” and forget how to sing their responses. A congregation that is already self-conscious of its (in-)ability to sing well will become even more unsure of how to praise God if the leader cannot show them how. A vicious cycle has emerged. I am convinced that pastors must be trained in singing. It is vital to the future of the Church. I am also convinced that anyone can learn how to sing with proper teaching and practice. God gave us voices so that we may use them.

[10] This does not mean that we have to sing well or beautifully as Christians in order to praise God. I am even more convinced that God is not concerned so much with the artistic quality of our praise as with the intent behind it. If we are ashamed to sing, then we do not feel worthy to praise God. Our pride stands in the way. And a silent mouth cannot worship God. But if we are sincerely willing to try to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord” (Ps. 98:4) and “to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16), then the door opens to God’s kingdom and the dialogue of worship begins. We should let go of our inhibitions, listen to the music carefully, listen to our neighbor in the pew (who just might be able to sing), and allow ourselves to be swept up by the music and the words of the liturgy and hymns. This is the first step toward real participation.

Why Should We Sing Today?
[11] Here it is important to consider the very power music has to connect us emotionally and spiritually to the divine and to each other. Music acts as a bridge between the sacred and the profane, the worldly realm and the heavenly realm. Luther states:

Thus it was not without reason that the fathers and the prophets wanted nothing else to be associated as closely with the Word of God as music. Therefore, we have so many hymns and Psalms where message and music join to move the listener’s soul….17

Because the body is involved — our breath and voice and mind — in combination with the enactment of our liturgical rites, it becomes possible to physically engage in the spiritual.

[12] Gordon Lathrop explains the theology behind our singing thus:

The music of the community, surrounding these interactions and marking their rhythms, is intended to “sing Jesus Christ” (Ignatius of Antioch, To the Ephesians, 4:1). In him, Christians believe they have come into the harmony of God, with all its great room for dissonance and single voices, a harmony only suggested by any of our holy songs. Inserted in the musical mode of the meeting, coming into the song that supports the central actions, one is inserted in the primary theology of the liturgy.18

Our participation in the liturgy of the congregation allows us to enter into the threshold of God’s kingdom; through worship we enter into a dialogue with God, receive his salvation, and respond with confession, praise, and prayer. The first line of Lowry’s hymn describes this dialectic of worship beautifully: “My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation; I catch the sweet though far off hymn that hails a new creation.” In singing our songs of worship, whether Alleluias or Kyries — because in worship there is room for both! — we transcend the mystery and bring a piece of God’s kingdom back into our daily life.

[13] Singing “transports” us not only to God, but connects us to the people with whom we are worshiping. Singing builds and strengthens the assembly. Don Saliers explains that the acoustical properties and musical characteristics of prayers, readings, as well as the spoken parts of the liturgy are what form the worshiping community:

The sounds of worship often carry the emotional power and the memory of association when the actual words or texts cannot be remembered. This is obviously the case with hymn tunes and the musical settings of various texts — psalms and antiphons, for example. The remembrance of the words is carried and prompted by the melody and sometimes the harmonic and rhythmic elements.19

The music and texts we have sung in worship always connect us with a specific time and a place and a people. Singing unifies us within the Body of Christ to worship God with one voice, past, present and future.

[14] Sadly, as the pastor, I am generally the only person singing (along with the organist) at a baptism or funeral. If I am singing alone while others are sitting in the assembly watching me — perhaps listening, perhaps not — where is the community? Song is for the sake of the community of believers. If we do not sing, not only will the traditions of our worship suffer, but also our sense of community will disintegrate. Consider what Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to say about why Christians sing when they are together:

The reason is, quite simply, because in singing together it is possible for them to speak and pray the same word at the same time…. It is the voice of the church that is heard in singing together. It is not you that sings, it is the church that is singing, and you, as a member of the church, may share in its song. Thus all singing that is right must serve to widen our spiritual horizon, make us see our little company as a member of the great Christian church on earth, and help us willingly and gladly to join our singing, be it feeble or good, to the song of the church.20

[15] Finally, we should sing because it is the language God has given us to praise and worship him. Without singing, we can not truly participate in the liturgy. Our baptism into the Body of Christ both entitles us and obliges us to participate in this worship. In the Lutheran Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament, The Use of the Means of Grace, Principle 51 emphasizes: “In every gathering of Christians around the proclaimed Word and the holy sacraments, God acts to empower the Church for mission.” And its background explanation (51 A) states: “Baptism and baptismal catechesis join the baptized to the mission of Christ.”21

If we cannot truly participate in worship, we will not be nourished. And without nourishment, how shall we be sustained in the mission to proclaim God’s Word to the world? Gabe Huck summarizes his thoughts about liturgy succinctly with the question: “How can I keep from singing?… If baptized, you can’t. Our ritual song is a rehearsal for life. I…come [to worship] to learn my part.”22


1. In the NIV translation of the Bible, Isaiah 12:2 reads: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” The Life Application Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991).

2. Cited from the hymn as printed in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, number 763. Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Pew Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).

3. Lowry’s hymn is an appeal to sing to God in spite of life’s hardships (“What though my joys and comforts die? What though the darkness gather round?”) and the sinfulness of Earth’s inhabitants (“Through all the tumult and the strife; above earth’s lamentation”). See refrain: “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that Rock I’m clinging. Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”

4. From the “Introduction,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Pew Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), p. 8.

5. Martin Luther, “Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae iucundae, 1538,” trans. Ulrich S. Leupold, in Luther’s Works: Liturgy and Hymns (LW), vol. 53, ed. Ulrich S. Leupold (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965) p.322–323. Luther exalts the quality of the air to carry the sound of music, and then of the bird’s innate musical abilities.

6. Marva J. Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), p. 76.

7. Ibid., p. 77. In German, this word can be interpreted grammatically to mean both “God’s service” (implying to us), as well as our “service to God” due to its implicit genitive case.

8. Anscar J. Chupungo, “Liturgical Music and Its Early Cultural Settings” in Worship and Culture in Dialogue (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation Department of Theology and Studies, 1994), p.104.

9. Ibid., p.105.

10. The reading of the Jewish scriptures, the recitation of the Shema (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4–7,9) and the Amida or eighteen benedictions.

11. Ibid., p. 106. Chupungo cites Edward Foley in From Age to Age: How Christians Celebrated the Eucharist (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1991), p. 9.

12. Ibid., p.108. NIV translation.

13. Ibid., p. 109. Chupungo cites Tertullian from the Apologeticum 39,18, Corpus Christianorum II/1 (1954), 153.

14. Ibid., p. 119.

15. For an excellent criticism of our culture and why it has almost extinguished our ability to truly worship God, see Marva J. Dawn’s book Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, as cited at footnote 6. See also Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985) and Robert N. Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

16. Gabe Huck, How Can I Keep from Singing? Thoughts about Liturgy for Musicians (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1989). See chapter 4, pp. 43–55.

17. Luther, p. 323.

18. Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), p.113. Lathrop cites the Greek text of “To the Ephesians” in The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1, Kirsopp Lake, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959), p. 196.

19. Don E. Saliers, Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), p. 161.

20. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), p. 59.

21. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “The Means of Grace Lead the Church to Mission,” in The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1997), p. 56.

22. Gabe Huck, p.39.

Allison Werner Hoenen

The Rev. Allison Werner Hoenen was ordained in the ELCA. She holds an MAR in Liturgical Studies from the Yale Divinity School/Institute of Sacred Music and an MDiv from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. She is on leave from call in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria to pursue her doctorate in Liturgical Studies with Prof. Hanns Kerner of the GottesdienstInstitut Nuremberg.