The reader may already be familiar with Keith and Kristyn Getty as contemporary Christian musicians who specialize in writing modern hymns. Probably the most famous Getty hymn is “In Christ Alone,” co-written with Stuart Townend. This particular hymn was involved in a controversy a few years ago that illustrates how seriously the Gettys take their theology and their job as songwriters. The Presbyterian Church (USA) asked for permission to change one line of the lyrics from “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied” to “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” This request might seem innocuous but it indicated that the PCUSA did not agree with the penal substitution theory of the atonement, which is a traditional cornerstone of evangelical theology. Getty and Townend stood their ground and refused to allow the change, and the PCUSA decided to omit the hymn from their hymnal.
The Gettys’ earnestness about their faith is abundantly evident in their new book Sing! This 150-page pocket-sized volume is overflowing with rich insights about the role of singing in our spiritual lives. Given that the Gettys are professional musicians and minor celebrities, you might think that their book would focus on how to ramp up the musical performances in your church to a more exciting and professional level. In fact, the opposite is true. In the prelude to their book, they write:
Early on in our time touring, we began to hold leadership lunches as part of our stay in a particular city. These were basically conversations over food about church music, for pastors and music leaders in that city. Over time, we noticed the attendees would ask thoughtful questions about song style, song choice, songwriting, production, relationships, training, sound, and so on—but there was one question we were rarely, if ever, hearing as they reflected on their own churches: “How did the congregation sing?”The Gettys’ philosophy is that singing should permeate the lives of everyone in the congregation. Singing should not be something that the professionals entertain us with once a week on a Sunday morning, while the rest of us listen and applaud. We are created, commanded, and compelled to sing, not just in church but in our daily lives, because singing meaningful, gospel-centered songs and hymns nourishes our souls, and witnesses to the world.
The Gettys are well aware that not everyone likes singing, and are sensitive to those for whom singing is painful, or who insist that they cannot sing. To the latter, the Gettys say:
But if you can speak, you can physically sing. The truth is that God designed you to sing and gave you everything you need to sing, as well as He wants you to. He’s far less concerned with your tunefulness than your integrity. Christian singing begins with the heart, not on the lips (Eph. 5:19). …
One of our band members, Zach White, recently told us of the inspiration his dad has been to him and his siblings when it comes to singing in church. Mr. White is always the most passionate singer in the congregation, despite only having three notes he can actually sing (all lower than his namesake, Barry), and none of them in tune. But it never holds him back. He has grasped what congregational singing is, and is not, about.The Gettys do not even exempt those who literally cannot sing.
There are those of us who may have vocal constrictions that come through health struggles or have been there since birth. If you cannot speak but sing by signing with your hands or through whatever means God has given you, you bless the community of believers as we join with one heart and one voice until the day all tongues will sing to Him. We are so grateful for the work of signers who enable to whole congregation to so meaningfully engage in the lyrics we sing.Having addressed that potential objection, they go on to give a multitude of reasons to sing. They point out that Matthew 26:30 reports that after the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn.
As He walked towards His arrest, Jesus sang. In the depths and heights of his passion, Jesus sang. Imagining the Lord Jesus singing with His followers a few short hours before the agony of the cross is an incredible and humbling thought. Even as He approached the darkest hour, our Savior was singing and leading these men in singing. Even on the cross itself, He famously quoted from a song, a psalm, that He would have grown up knowing. The songs He was trained in as a child sustained Him and, we might say, shaped Him through His most anguished moment of suffering.While the Gettys say that we are commanded to sing and are compelled to sing, they are quick to explain that this does not mean that we are to force ourselves to sing out of duty or obligation.
We are compelled to sing. Compelled. What a strong and convicting word that is! Paul used it when defending his reasons for being so passionate about presenting an unblemished gospel to the church in Corinth. “For Christ’s love compels us,” he wrote, “because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor. 5:14–15). …
We are not compelled to sing out of thin air. Something—or rather, someone—stirs us to. When we were first learning to lead people in singing in our early twenties we heard something very helpful to us: Worship comes as a response to revelation.
We don’t have to be in a church building to understand we are wired this way. When Ireland beats England in rugby (always a beautiful occasion), Keith and his dad cheer till they’re hoarse. When we stand on the precipice of the Grand Canyon or at the jazz festival of Montreux at the foot of the French Alps, our eyes and hearts feast upon it. When we hear that a couple whom we love has become engaged, we exclaim our joy out loud. Praise is prompted by—compelled by—the revelation of something glorious.
And the gospel is the revelation of the most glorious truth in history. One of the songs we used to sing and play together when we first met was the spiritual “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” and there is a particular line we love: “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free.” Such a simple but oh so profound a thought. We sing because we are free.The Gettys explain that singing has spiritual value for us as individuals, as families, and as a congregation. Well-chosen songs with meaningful lyrics can remind us daily of what God has done in our lives, and can help keep our minds focused on eternity. They cite Keith’s grandfather as an example.
Keith’s grandfather used to arrive at Sunday worship a good forty-five minutes early. He would sit down in the place where he always sat and would flip through his hymnal and pray as he prepared for the service. Those songs held him. They taught him. They rehearsed the truth for him. They kept him looking forward to what was eternally real—what had always been true from before the foundation of the world, and what would remain being true for the rest of his lifetime and beyond. And when he was in his nineties, and was unable to remember his own family’s names, much less accomplish even the most basic, everyday task, he could still recite or respond to the words and melodies of those hymns.
Those were the songs he had sung and carried with him throughout his life. Locked inside the folds and wrinkles of his long-term memory, he was able to retrieve them when everything else had become confused. And they brought him considerable peace, even at the most difficult stages of his declining years. For him, as for many, life’s greatest battles were at the end. He had his songlist for that time prepared, and it carried him into glory.Some of the best and wisest passages of the book are about congregational singing. The Gettys rightly criticize the attitude of people who complain that they are getting nothing out of church. Instead, they say, “We should never have been in church merely or primarily for what we get out of it, but what we give to it.”
Singing as one united church body reminds us all that we are not defined by the rugged individualism promoted by modern society. To “keep the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3) was a hard thing to do in the first century and required “every effort” from every church member; it’s still a hard thing today, it still requires effort from you, and it still finds its expression and its inspiration in a church’s gospel-fueled singing. We all share the responsibility of our singing together. Our singing (even when it joyfully falls off pitch) should always, unapologetically, contribute to our sense of family and community and never be rushed through, mumbled through, or handed over to the “professionals.”Congregational singing also provides a witness to others. Some may think that to attract millennials, the church needs to create a concert-like atmosphere, but the Gettys argue that “our churches need to do the exact opposite.” Furthermore, it is a mistake to try to appeal to seekers by playing down the deep truths of the gospel.
The point is this: being vague and gospel-lite in congregational songs is not the way to be “seeker friendly.” Communicating the gospel in a way that informs the mind and engages the emotions is. The gospel is the church’s central lyrical distinctive. We should not be shy about it. As you stand and sing in your church this Sunday, you do not know who is listening, and you can never imagine what the Lord might be doing.There is much more valuable material packed into Sing! than can be adequately summarized here, especially practical advice about how to read the Psalms, how to cultivate singing in your children, and (in the “bonus tracks” at the end of the book) how to implement the lessons in the book if you are a pastor, elder, worship leader, musician, choir member or a songwriter. Each chapter also ends with discussion questions, which makes the book ideal for small groups throughout the church to study. Every time I thumb through the book, I am amazed at how much good stuff they managed to cram into so few pages. Let me conclude this review by quoting the postlude.
This book that you have read has a very simple aim: that you would sing truth, and sing it as though it is true. As you wake each day, and as you walk through your day, we pray that the lyrics and melodies of your faith will ring around the spaces where you live your life. As you walk into church next Sunday, we pray that you will be excited about sharing in the privilege of lifting your voice with God’s people, to “sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” And as you sing, we pray that you would experience the awesome joy of knowing that you are joining in with the great song of praise that resounds through every age, that stretches throughout this world and into every inch of creation, and that is being sung, right now as you read, in the very courts of heaven.
Will you sing?