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An A Capella Fella

Often when those of us in the Reformed Presbyterian Church are asked about our worship practices (someone just called me on the phone last week to do so), we can get a bit  red-faced trying to explain why we sing without musical instruments.  As people expecting a short answer listen to what must sound to them as convoluted explanations involving the Levitical priesthood and temple sacrifices, they can start looking at us in the same way we do those riding in an Amish buggy on the road in the middle of the summer.  Hopelessly out-of-date.

Internally we certainly overcome this feeling with our understanding of Scripture and the movement from the complex and visual to the simple and spiritual in worship that we find as we go from the Old Covenant to the New.  We believe the  instruments we now use are to be redeemed hearts and cleansed lips as we offer our praise (Ephesians 5:19; Hebrews 13:15).  Our understanding resonates with Calvin, who said in comments on Psalm 92:

(The psalmist) immediately addresses the Levites, who were appointed to the office of singers, and calls upon them to employ their instruments of music — not as if this were in itself necessary, only it was useful as an elementary aid to the people of God in these ancient times…We are to remember that the worship of God was never understood to consist in such outward services, which were only necessary to help forward a people, as yet weak and rude in knowledge, in the spiritual worship of God. A difference is to be observed in this respect between his people under the Old and under the New Testament; for now that Christ has appeared, and the Church has reached full age, it were only to bury the light of the Gospel, should we introduce the shadows of a departed dispensation.

We know that if a practice is Scriptural, it is never out-of-date even if other churches disagree.  Yet that still does not help people identify more quickly with what we are doing.

So what if instead of asking the questioner to open his Bible to II Chronicles 29:28 and starting in on an explanation of how the priests stopped playing when the sacrifice ended (a legitimate thing to do in a class but not so much on the street or on the fly), we just smile real big and say initially, “We sing without instruments, sort of like they do on the Sing-Off.”

Riding the wave of increasing popularity of a capella groups on college campuses, the Sing-Off is in its third season on NBC.  This show features groups from around the country using only their voices as they perform, then being critiqued by a panel of three judges.  Though of course styled after shows like American Idol, and having some language and modesty issues, the show is more homey in nature as it features the teams singing together at times, offering some great displays of musicology, cheering one another on, and even hugging and crying for the team that has to sing a “swan song” when it is voted off the show.  A church group called Committed, pictured above, won last year’s contest.

So instead of standing before our critics feeling like a gallon of expired milk soured with age, perhaps our singing is coming back in style and we did not even know it.  Perhaps the worship of the mega community church, parodied in the video below, is really not as cool and unpredictable as they think it is.  And perhaps the church is even helping to set a trend for once rather than just, as C.S. Lewis said, doing what the world did seven years ago.   After all, we may also want to remind people of the definition of a capella.  For it means “in chapel style” as it was historically used to designate the type of singing done in the church!

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Bruce Parnell #

    Thanks, Barry! On a related note I often answer the question, “Why do you sing the Psalms?” with “Because we love God’s Word.”

    November 1, 2011
  2. I had a friend who said he would begin coming to an RP church if we started to use instruments. In the past couple years, I have tried to be a bit more open with other Christians about a capella singing.

    Surprisingly, some people have actually said they liked the idea. Perhaps people are swinging back to this form because instruments can sometimes drown out people’s voices. In college, their have been worship services where I couldn’t hear myself because of how loud the instruments were.

    Also, a capella forces you to pay attention to what you’re singing and how you’re singing, even if you sound like me, a frog. That practical consequence has encouraged me a lot.

    November 1, 2011
  3. Thank you for these thoughts. Brandon and I have tried to take a similar approach when talking to people about singing Psalms. The past few months have been difficult in this area due to friends constantly bagging Psalm singing. We have decided the “red-faced explanations” are not useful at this point in the discussion and instead reply with a simple “you can’t go wrong with God’s word” or “singing the songs of Jesus is great!”

    The book Singing the Psalms of Jesus by LeFebvre and your post have been a welcome encouragement as of late.

    November 2, 2011
  4. Bruce: Amen! Simple answers initially are best.

    David: Thanks for sharing your experiences. I agree that a capella singing increases concentration on the text and tune.

    Meg: Good thoughts and Michael’s book is very helpful. I think telling folks, in a humble and gracious manner devoid of any note of superiority, that we are singing the songs Jesus sang in a similar way that He sang them is a powerful answer.

    November 2, 2011
  5. Coming from India, thE non-use of instruments in worship does sound bizarre. until you study God’s Word on this matter. I read Lefebvre’s book on the psalms and they opened me up to a new dimension of worship I had never been exposed to. Once the matter was settled in the mind, the urge to sing the psalms just grew and now in our family, we enjoy singing only the Psalms – they really do have something about them being God’s very Word. when all the other songs of the day grow old and fad-dy, the Psalms are new and fresh every time they are sung.

    The best way i understood the non-use of instruments today is in this way: Who says we don’t use them? Of course we do! We strum the chords of our heart (Eph5:19) and we are all tuned and skillful, in that, we all can play this instrument, and play it cheerfully and thankfully to our Maker. That is what i think, the levitical instruments pointed to.

    November 3, 2011
    • Sarmishtavenkatesh: Well stated! Thank you!

      November 3, 2011
  6. Adam King #

    Barry, thanks for the helpful reminder to be simple. I heartily agree that we don’t need to be ashamed or our practice *or* convoluted in explaining it to someone just finding out about it.

    Just a word of caution, however. It is one thing to point to the fact that people in the culture also sing a capella and therefore it isn’t so strange afterall (I think this is what you intended). I think we need to be careful, though that we don’t answer the question “why” by pointing to the practice of culture. When it comes to our reason why, whatever the culture is or is not doing is irrelevant. We sing a capella because we believe the Bible teaches us to do so.

    I’m *not* saying you are doing this but I think it is important that we don’t feel the need to legitimize our practice before inquirers by the pratice of the world. If we answer the question “why do you do this” with “well look, the world does it too…” they will not be (or at least should not be) satisfied.

    November 4, 2011
  7. Natalie #

    I enjoyed singing the Psalms when I was at Providence RP church last summer. In fact, I had a question: do you know what the Psalm and the melody is for the last Psalm that was always sung after the morning service? I really liked it, but haven’t been able to remember which one it was or what the tune was. Thanks :-)

    November 6, 2011
    • Natalie: I am not the pastor at Providence RPC in the Pittsburgh area, but I know him. So I asked Rut Etheridge, and he said it is “Psalm 72C, stanza 12 – we still use the Red Psalter.” Hope that helps.

      November 11, 2011

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