“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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Posted in Cultivating Mission, Spiritual Fornation, Worship and Mission
18 comments on ““I Don’t Like Singing”: What Don Miller Misses About Singing in Worship?
  1. Tim Hallman says:

    Clearly Don is connected with other Christians in community, just not through a Sunday morning gathering. Is it possible to worship God and give thanks to him a part from singing? Eucharist without music? Sure.

    I wonder what role Eucharist plays in Don’s spirituality with Christ.

    He is also connected with other people like him who are Christ-centered but church-decentered. Is he succumbing to a form of individualistic pietism that evangelical churches ironically promote.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with you and your wife about blatant emotional manipulation! Eeww! What a slimy feel to get in a worship service . . .

    Alas, I have an undergraduate degree in church music, so I can deconstruct a worship service and tell you about each component part. I got my degree more than twenty years ago, but it still happens. I still analyze more than worship on Sunday mornings. Then, on top of that, I went to seminary AND took homiletics. You can imagine my ratings of sermons. (I used to–humorously–consider holding up numerical scores, similar to Olympic-level competition, but I figured that would not be kind) I did blog about this tendency in December. (If you have time, here’s the link. http://matterofprayerblog.wordpress.com/2013/12/26/o-come-let-us-adore-him/)

    This is not to say that I dislike singing in worship. No! I love singing in choir, singing parts (currently, I am the tenor section at my church), and even congregational singing. I just don’t like being slimed! Blatant emotional manipulation! Thanks for a thoughtful post. @chaplaineliza

    Through my

  3. Jason Smith says:

    I think Don’s blog post is shaded by his reality – i.e. being a Christian celebrity. How does a Christian celebrity live the life of following Jesus in community? Could Don Miller ever do that well anymore?

  4. Thomas Arth says:

    I believe St. Augustine is often attributed with the quote ‘qui contact his orat’ which translates basically ‘the one who sings prays twice.’ I don’t think congregational singing is meant to work anybody up or manipulate any emotion or sentimentality. It’s an act of worship. It gathers the voices of everyone gathered (if they participate) in praise and thanks and adoration. It joins our voices to the songs of the angels, and the music of the spheres. I don’t think it’s just some option that you can insert somewhere in the order of service. It’s part of what makes worship worship. Otherwise it’s not a congregation gathered for worship, it’s an audience watching a performance.

  5. Thomas Arth says:

    That’s ‘qui cantat bis orat.’

  6. Mike Crowl says:

    Of course singing/worship can be manipulated like anything else. I’ve been involved in worship stuff for over 35 years, so I’m very aware of its problems. And I know there are always people in a congregation for whom singing isn’t something they do easily. Having been brought up in a Catholic Church where singing was just normal, and then later as an adult having spent 15 years in a Pentecostal Church I’m very much attuned to singing. I believe it’s one of the gifts of God to human beings in general. The argument is more about what’s done with it in church than about whether it should or shouldn’t be there.

  7. Martin says:

    Sing / don’t sing, meh! My deeper issue with Don, and the reason I’ve stopped following him on FB is his contention that because singing doesn’t move him, he is excused from attending worship.

    SELFISH MUCH???

    Seriously, how self absorbed? Is it possible that the local expression body of Christ to which he (sort of) belongs may be missing some essential “limb” (1Cor 12) when he is absent?

    Is there possibly something that God wants to work in his life that happens through corporate worship?

    Is it possible that Heb. 10:19-25 may actually be the basis for the 21 century old tradition of meeting together for worship on the day Jesus was raised from the dead?

    Whaddya think Fitchest?

    • Mark Loeffler says:

      Martin or anyone else – What would you guess the other members of whatever church he was attending are missing (essential limb) by him not being there?

  8. Chris says:

    Can a believer truely be Christ-centered and not Church-centered?

  9. Great post. Speaking as someone who is often unmoved by singing in church and who also hated the slick emotional manipulation of a lot contemporary worship, I agree with you. I think for me the immediate response to Don’s argument about learning styles is that it’s reductionistic and misses the point. It falls prey to the way of thinking that sees everything in terms of the quantifiable, but, as you’ve articulated here, there are other ways of understanding and experiencing reality, in this case submitting myself and “my learning style” to the reality of Christ who transcends the limitations of what is measurable and quantifiable.

  10. Dan says:

    It’s funny reading your words about music in church meetings as I feel the same way. In our Sunday gatherings we have music as it is a way many people express love and praise to God, but I kind of hide in the corner not singing. I like hearing the voices but not everyone connect with Christian pop worship. Even some pastors of the very church. But I know so many do, so I want them to have time and music which helps in that as our church gathers. I can see music as unintentionally emotionally manipulative or sometimes intentionally, but I also know there are beautiful things about singing and it can be done without that.

    The post about Don and “going to church” and all is interesting – I am an advocate of house churches, medium size, mega, traditional or pop/lights if disciples are being made and we see new life and people coming to faith and growing in their walk with Jesus. But it seems to me that no matter what size or form or tradition one has, there are some basic things like weekly gathering together seems to be the prescribed way or at least regularly, taking the Lord’s Supper, assigned elders to a local body, church discipline and church care etc. Without those things, is it really functioning in a healthy New Testament way? We are of course instantly part of the universal church when we trust in Jesus, but seems then without that participation in a formal community we then miss the beauty of how the church should function. Any thoughts on this?

    • David Fitch says:

      Dan Kimball … I’m trying to vigorously suggest that something happens when we gather together around the Lord’s Table and proclamation that cannot happen with a single person in the woods praying with God. Nothing wrong with “the woods.” I do it alot … Also … I believe God has so ordained it that he begins to manifest the new realities of His Kingdom is a social sphere called to church … where people actually do gospel together i.e. forgiveness, reconciliation, renewal, sharing and loving, spekaing truth, growing and transforming lives as an arena of the Spirit and the gifts from which we inhabit and enagage the world… ecclesiology is not an afterthought of mission but the foundation of it .. or perhaps a better way to say it .. ecclesiology is mission … :) DF

  11. Anson Roberts says:

    Ahhh… a breath of fresh air. It has been a challenge for me to not turn completely cynical towards the modern worship experience – the manipulation resonates with me as well. I have felt my heart long for something more robust than a worship song that sings “Jesus loves me” 35x. The moments I have found that I am truly engaged in a musical “worship” time are typically in the singing of hymns, when it actually feels natural (maybe even necessary) for every person to sing/proclaim the words of that song. Those are the moments that have kept me from abandoning the musical worship time all together.

  12. darrell muth says:

    Don, its about our “storyline”. I pastor a church disposed to Don Miller’s thoughts on the singing of worship, come to think of it so am I. But I refuse to give up on the pursuit of the singing of worship. James KA Smith’s “Imagining the kingdom;how worship works” and “Desiring the Kingdom: worship, worldview and cultural formation”have been immensely helpful. He works from the premise that we are firstly afftective which in turn informs the coginative. That being so worship “works” by leveraging our bodies to transform our imagination, and it does this through stories we understand on a register that is closer to body than mind. if this is all so. All that to say, Don, worship informs and forms our storylines in ways we cannot fully comprehend.

  13. Andrew says:

    David,

    Sorry in advance for the book here.

    We must be careful assuming that there is a “natural law” to how things work. That we don’t need the church to find God and that we can do it in other places. The danger in this is that it falls into the assumption that without a community gathered, brought together by a baptismal covenant to reflect and imitate Christ, capable of holding each other accountable to embodying the life of Christ (which can only mean you need community, it cannot be done alone), you can know Jesus better. This of course is a false enlightenment assumption based on the concept of autonomous, rational beings. Donald Miller needs the church, but he may not need it as evangelicals have presented it. The structure of the church teaches us submission (much like a marriage) and in a community brought together by the sharing of the blood and body of Christ teaches us that we are tied to one another through Christ, we cannot simply walk away. Donald Miller embodies the mindset of Protestantism, which only makes it ironic that he is despised by many protestants. Donald Miller and the Church (doesn’t have to be evangelical) would do better to be prophetic to one another, instead of divorcing and going there separate ways. Protestants of course don’t know how to address this issue properly because they don’t know what they are protesting about anymore and are unable to use the language of unity properly because they cannot address their narrative in a way that is truthful.

    All in all, Donald has great things to address with the church, but he flies dangerously close to making the mistake of thinking it better we exist without the institution that Christ has sustained (and even before with the Jews) for 2,000 years. Communities that “aren’t the church” are fantastic, and certainly capable of developing Christian formation to an extent, but such a community has a low ceiling if they think they can make sense of their gatherings without the formational liturgy provided by the sacraments of covenantal baptism, the Eucharist, and corporate confession. These acts are acts of remembering our story, you cannot leave that story and expect what you are doing to make sense, as our story is necessary to define and form our lives together. Of course, you could argue that Donald and his friends do these things together, in that case, he should be truthful with himself and just say he wanted to start his own church (though I have my doubts a community that doesn’t use and understand the dynamic and impact of covenantal relationships is capable of addressing the sin in each others lives in a proper way, since they have no reason besides common interests to stay together.

  14. Eric Rivera says:

    David,

    I would love to hear your thoughts on musical worship and the need for worship leaders to be skilled vs un-skilled. I feel that at times when “worship pastors” require their musicians to be skilled it pushes a “worship by works” mentality as if someone who sings a little off key or someone who does not hit each chord correctly is less worthy to lead a community in worship at a gathering. The only argument I have heard for having skilled vs. un-skilled worship leaders comes from 1 Chronicles 25:7. From my understand the grace of God through Christ had not come yet during this period of time. Just as unblemished animal sacrifice was required for atonement would a mentality of unblemished “to the human ear” mentality be required of musical expression to the Lord? All our deeds are of menstruel rags Isaiah 64:6. What makes good sounding worship any better than banging pots and pans? “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7

    There is also the issue of the stage at corporate gatherings which I know many aren’t too fond of (or at least shouldn’t be in my opinion). There is a connection here because the best performative musicians are kept for the stage, and the less-skilled are kept for community groups/Bible studies in the home. Funny because it seems the same thing happens to women in church communities as well as the stage is fit for a man to teach, and a women is fit to teach in the home like a community group (depending on who you talk to). Or women who lead worship are not allowed to lead/teach, so how could they lead worship? There is a caste system in the church between men and women. If Christ came to make all things new why is there such a lack of grace for women to teach and lead in the Church?

    These are all running ideas that I’d like to do more research on. Might just be a FAT result of sin. Do you recommend any books or sermons on the topic aside from a lack of humility and an excess of pride in the Church? I write this as a follower of Christ and someone who is active in the Church. It’s been extremely difficult to find others who are just as disturbed as I am about this activity, especially in non-denominational churches, and mega churches…etc. ok all churches.

    Thanks,

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1 Pings/Trackbacks for "“I Don’t Like Singing”: What Don Miller Misses About Singing in Worship?"
  1. […] David Fitch wrote a response that’s worth reading. As a pastor this subject means a lot to me, I think more so given that I spent so many years as a Christian musician & worship leader. I resonate with Fitch’s characterization of submission as critical to worship; and that the lack of any good sense of the importance of eucharist as formative is a key deficiency for most evangelicals. Fitch says most of what I would want to say, however I wanted to add my two cents. […]

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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