“I Don’t Like Singing”: What Don Miller Misses About Singing in Worship?

2I confess: earlier in my life I have had a strong distaste for congregational singing in worship. And so when Don Miller (in this post) basically confessed the same thing earlier this week, I read with interest. Miller seems to think it’s a matter of ‘learning style.’ He says he’s not an auditory learner but a kinesthetic learner. He learns by doing. No need therefore to “go to church.” Church is everywhere. And so, he no longer feels guilty about not going to church.
My problems with singing in worship are slightly different than Don’s. For years, it seemed to me that when I entered the worship gathering, the music would start, and then, like magic, I was supposed to feel something, something good. It was obvious that the worship band was ‘working up’ the crowd. They were leading us into being close to God. And yet this often felt like a “feel good pep-rally” to me (this quote from chapter 4 of The Great Giveaway). I’m not much for feel good pep rallies. It reminds me of sitting around a camp-fire signing kum-bay-yah. It feels like souped up sentimentality. It’s not real. So I feel manipulated. Worse, I feel guilty that I just can’t go there that easily.

At the large mega churches seeker services they got rid of singing almost altogether on Sunday mornings. Evidently the mega church leaders felt the seekers coming to their services didn’t like the singing either. But then on Wednesday nights, when committed Christians went to church at the mega churches, they really amped up the singing. So I would always come in late. But I nonetheless loved some of the musical performances which were actually supposed to be performances. I actually do love good music (which evidently Don Miller does too). So it’s not about learning style or taste in music. It’s the strange manipulation of emotions I couldn’t handle.

Years ago, when I and my wife planted a church (Life on the Vine) I had to ask why sing?  For us we could not compete with the lights-out rock band feel good pep rally that was offered as standard Sunday morning fare in the large churches. But, frankly I really didn’t want to (for all the reasons mentioned above).

Instead I became convinced that the Sunday gathering was about the real presence of Christ in our midst. It is a formative encounter.  It is a centering. Yes, I believe Christ comes to be present here in our midst in the Lord’s Table and the proclamation of gospel in our midst. He promises to be there. This is a visceral corporate act of submission to His reign and presence in the proclaimed gospel and Eucharist.  Yes God is everywhere at work. Jesus is present in the world by the Spirit, but there is something special (“real” in the physical… er sacramental … sense)  about His presence in the bread and wine that enables us to see him, feel him, know him, hear his voice in the rest of our daily lives.  This past Sunday morning at Life on the Vine, the leader of worship got up in the middle of the gathering before leading us in a prayer and said “We sit before the presence of Christ in our midst (long pause) … Let us submit ourselves to him.” Boom! Nailed it!

Evangelicalism, especially the kind I imagine so prevalent in Nashville TN where my bro Don Miller is from, doesn’t take the Eucharist with the same sensivity.  The focus in most evangelical churches is cognitive. It’s about 45 minute sermons, where the Bible is taught and we sing some songs that coordinate with the lesson (to reinforce it cognitively or something?). But I go to the gathering for something completely different. I go to be in His special presence, His real presence of forgiveness and new life in the Spirit by the bread and the wine, and the earth crashing, mind transformative, imagination funding proclamation of the gospel – the world as it is under the Lordship of Christ. In these two acts, Jesus becomes specially present. His voice is heard. It shapes my senses for the rest of the week. If I want teaching I go to a Sunday school class.

Singing then is not about learning for us at Life on the Vine, like it appears to be for Don Miller. It is about submitting my mind, body and soul corporately with my friends to return praise, thanksgiving for that which we have just seen, heard and received at the Table and from the pulpit. It transforms the soul by reorienting the soul. It is a wholistic response to God. Sometimes of course this response can be with a lament when it makes sense (say in Lent). But it always ends with thanksgiving.

This is why the majority of singing at Life on the Vine occurs after the proclamation and Eucharist at the end of the gathering time.  We are responding to what we have heard and received. The musician leader always starts the “praise and thanksgiving” by saying “We have just heard …….., let us respond ….” I don’t feel manipulated because actually there is always something heard or received from God to which I am invited to respond to God with. This act of singing trains me in the practice of returning thanks to God and praising Him for His greatness, faithfulness etc. etc. This practice transforms my way of being in the world. It makes possible me receiving the whole world and my whole life as a gift from God.

I’m an admirer of Dom Miller and his writings. I admire his artistry. I don’t know him. And I certainly don’t blame Don or anyone else who lives in Nashville and goes to church there for thinking music is about learning in worship. It’s the music capital of the Christian music. Nashville probably exacerbates the evangelical tendency to make music all about the amping up of emotional experiences? I hate that!! But in my opinion (which I gladly submit to the readers of this blog), Don’s rejection of singing should have nothing to do with learning styles. That is just not what returning praise is about.

Don Miller’s post speaks to me about the bankruptcy of the evangelical worship service turned towards the individual where the standard of measurement is producing a meaningful worship experience, a consumer product that you can’t get at home. (Again, I’ve written extensively about this is ch. 4 of The Great Giveaway). If I were Don, I’d dump that too. But being trained to respond to God in praise and thanksgiving is fundamental to the Christian life, it shapes our emotions and recasts our souls. I do it now even though I sometimes still hate it. And I feel differently afterwards. Maybe not right away. But it’s cumulative.

What do you think? What am I missing here? Join me and Don in this really important conversation?

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