Engaging with the ministry of song
A book review by Philip Percival on Rob Smith's book 'Come Let us Sing'.
There is no doubt that in the past few decades we have seen a revolution in church music, with evangelical congregations faced with a multitude of new songs, new technologies, and new stylistic and theological influences. While much of this change is positive, shaping a contemporary (or even a traditional) music ministry in the light of such influences, without a solid theological grounding, might seem a formidable (if not foolish) task. In this respect, Rob Smith’s ‘Come, Let Us Sing: A Call to Musical Reformation’ is a welcome and significant new book on the theology and practice of congregational singing.
Smith’s argument can be summed up in two statements:
The people of God are called to gather together both to glorify God and to edify one another.
The people of God are called to sing together as a way of praising God, praying to God, and preaching His Word.
These ideas will not be unfamiliar to those who know Smith’s previous works on Church music. However, to those who are new to (or have neglected) thinking about this subject, the central theological chapters will be invaluable in helping shape a biblical understanding of Christian singing. Equally helpful is the way in which Smith’s theology leads to application. A good example of this is in his concluding thoughts on the theology of praise, where he warns of the danger of normalizing, if not spiritualizing an apathy towards the expression of praise within our churches. This, he suggests, is a form of idolatry, revealed in a contradictory attitude toward the God we claim to worship against the God we actually worship.
What of the ‘call to musical reformation’? Smith makes it clear at the outset that his approach to Christian singing is within the Reformed tradition and as such we should expect ‘the reformed church to be always reforming.’ Drawing from his historical overview he brings out four recurring temptations which present modern day challenges to churches in their singing:
i. to sideline the practice of congregational singing
ii. to lose the clarity of the Word of God in our songs
iii. to deprive the congregation of its central role in singing
iv. to fight and divide over secondary matters
Smith’s suggested reforms, which follow, are to educate Church pastors, to equip Church musicians, and to encourage Church congregations to engage with the ministry of song. For musicians, in particular, he wants to see a ‘service mindset,’ an ability to choose suitable songs, and a proper understanding of the relationship between the various forms of Word ministry. If there is an evident priority given to the spoken Word in Scripture, then the sung Word, he contends, is to reinforce and respond to it. Our songs, he claims, are our teachers. ‘By them we teach and admonish both ourselves and each other, instructing and reminding one another of vital gospel truth and the appropriate response to them.’
Whilst aimed at three specific audiences: pastors, music directors/musicians and congregations, the thoroughness of Smith’s theological analysis would suggest that it is with the first two of these groups that this book will find its most natural readership. While not an unworthwhile undertaking, it will nonetheless require a serious investment on the part of the average congregation member to engage with the nuanced arguments around corporate worship and the detail in Smith’s biblical exegesis. Notwithstanding, this is a rich and invaluable resource to help churches shape their singing around God’s word.
Philip Percival, Music Minister, St Ebbe’s Oxford/Emu Music
To buy Come Let Us sing click here