Why on earth do we sing?

Posted by Brian Doerksen on 13 January 2014

Why do the people of God sing? Think about that for a moment. Singing is one of the peculiarly wonderful marks of the people of God around the world and throughout history.

Maybe in the modern age the question should be, “Why don’t we sing anymore?” For the most part, people of the world have moved from singing to listening to other people sing for them. Think about how many viewers watch shows like American Idol, which is all built on evaluating and listening to other people sing. Our world loves to be entertained by singers, and I am astounded by how much fame and fortune we give people who can sing well.

The lost joy of singing is likely one of the downsides of the modern age of technology and electricity. In the past, if people wanted music, they actually had to gather around the piano and sing. Either they had to produce the music themselves, or they had to be physically present at a concert to hear the latest songs.

So for us as the family of God, singing is one of the things we need to cherish and continue to encourage as we gather. I have heard people criticize the modern worship movement—that instead of singing our songs of faith, our services and gatherings are becoming too much like rock concerts. As someone who enjoys and even plays rock music in the broadest sense of the term, I actually concur with that criticism at times. The attention can get way too focused on the band. The volume can get too high, to the point where you can’t hear yourself sing.

One of the things we have done at our local church is meet in the round; the congregation faces each other in four sections like a diamond, and the band stands off to one end while the speaker is on the other end. The physical setup really helps underline that the gathering of our local church is not a concert. People gather to fellowship with each other and worship God. Being in the round actually helps people hear each other sing, and I encourage our sound team to keep the overall amplified sound at a medium level so people can still hear themselves and other people around them singing.

When I go out with my band to other places and do one of my worship concerts, I always try to have a good portion of the time where people are simply singing along with us. The sound is full (it needs to be to have energy!) but not overbearing. And usually the highlights of those events are when the band really dials down and we can clearly hear everyone singing a song that they love together.

Belonging to the family of God means that we belong to a singing family! That’s what we do when we gather together! We do it because we love singing—but most of all we do it because we love God, and it just seems like one of the most powerful ways to express it. And as we sing, we sense God’s presence and pleasure.

He loves hearing His people sing.

The human ability to sing is actually part of what makes us distinctly unique in all of creation. We are designed with vocal chords that can be developed and trained to carry a tune. We can sing! What a gift!

At a recent worship conference we were having a roundtable discussion of new trends in worship, and people were describing all kinds of funky and creative ways to express their worship. They suggested a mixture of ancient things and new hybrids of creative expression. At one point I raised my hand and added my little contribution: “I can almost guarantee that in the future, one of the main ways we will express worship will be”—people leaned forward to hear the profound thing I was going to say (okay, that part was just in my imagination)—“in the future we will express worship by singing songs.” There was silence ... and then a kind of relieved sense of “Yes, that’s right.” In our quest to be trendy and creative, we can miss some of the most important things because they are so obvious!

God’s people sing! They always have, and they always will. And what is it that makes us sing? What causes words to be lifted out of simple prose and speech and launched heavenward with melody? The sheer overflow of our hearts! Our songs spring from the intensity of emotion and conviction that cannot be contained.

I can still remember clearly the day when Brenton Brown and I started singing this song. Actually Brenton had started it on his own, and I helped him finish it in a surprising and funny way.

Brenton is originally from South Africa, and in the mid-1990s he moved to Oxford, England, to study at the university. I met him at a Vineyard event in 1997, and he became one of the emerging worship leaders I mentored while we lived in England.

Around the beginning of 2000, shortly after we had moved back to Canada, Brenton came over for a visit to catch up with our family and to do some co-writing. On this particular day things were not going so well on the home front. Isaiah, our “Made in England” souvenir, was not a happy baby! My wife was in the kitchen, trying to make the family dinner, and Brenton and I were trying to be creative and write songs in my home office.

Finally, in exasperation, Joyce brought crying Isaiah to me—put him in my arms and said, “You look after him for a while!” (Ironically, as I write these words, Joyce has left to run some errands, and I am looking after our now ten-year-old Isaiah in the very room where this story took place. Because of his special needs he can’t be left unsupervised for too long.) So I headed to the living room to try to calm Isaiah down by sitting in the rocking chair. I sat there with him for a while, but he was still crying and still very fussy.

A short while later Brenton burst into the living room with another idea. Now, being the clue-less single that he was at this time, he didn’t get the direct and indirect messages that our songwriting session was over for the day! Isaiah was crying on my lap and not very impressed with the noisy singing going on, and I was looking at Brenton with a look that said Perhaps now is not a good time ... and he just launched into his idea anyway: “I have this idea for a song that I haven’t played for you yet—I have a strong start to a verse, but I have no chorus ...” (All you songwriters out there can relate to this situation!)

And to my disbelief he started singing before I could tell him to shut it down: “‘Your love is amazing, steady and unchanging. Your love is a mountain firm beneath my feet. Your love is a mystery— how You gently lift me—when I am surrounded, Your love carries me ...’ And that’s all I have!”

And so with Isaiah squirming and fussing, I called out just to get Brenton off my case: “Why don’t you do this for the chorus?”— and I sang out the melody literally as you know it—“Hallelujah ... Hallelujah ... Hallelujah ... Your love makes me sing,”—and then sang it again!

Brenton looked at me and said, “No way!”—and I said, “Yes way!”

I immediately began to fight for the idea. I told him that I actually had been waiting for a fresh song where we just would sing the word “Hallelujah.” It’s such a rich God word, and I thought this would be a fresh, upbeat way to do it!

Well, I am still singing this song ... and Brenton is too, along with other recording artists and worship leaders! It’s been so fun to see the joy and celebration this song has released around the world— a very special gift for me, because my songs have tended to land more on the intense and intimate side.

What I intuitively did in that moment was I connected the God word with the concept of love in the verse—it’s the love of God that causes these God words to burst forth!

And these words of worship that stir in us are such gifts.


This is an extract from ‘Make Love, Make War’ by Brian Doerksen (published by David C Cook). Reprinted with permission.

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