doing it acappella

Most of you reading this blog know I regularly attend the Sermon Seminar conducted in May of each year at the Austin Graduate School of Theology. However, I was unable to attend last year and, consequently, missed hearing one of my favorite authors, Marva Dawn, speak. While at the seminar, she was interviewed and an excerpt of it was published in AGST’s most recent bulletin.

I was literally copying/typing that very article for the purpose of blogging it today when what should arrive in my e-mail but an article penned by my good friend, Dan Williams, which made good use of this interview of Marva Dawn. Dan, thanks for saving me some typing and for adding some good thoughts along with those of “Dr. Dawn.” Dan is the preaching minister for the College Ave. Church in El Dorado, AR. Now, without any further ado . . .
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With One Voice

Dr. Marva Dawn is a Lutheran theologian at Regent College and the author of the influential book, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time [and others]. She has written and lectured widely on the subject of worship.

Last year she was invited to deliver a presentation on “The Church and Culture” at the Austin Graduate School of Theology, which is associated with the Churches of Christ. An interview with Dr. Dawn was printed in the 2005 Fall-Winter issue of the Austin Graduate School’s quarterly bulletin. I thought you might be interested in the following exchange:

Question: What are some of your impressions?

Dr. Dawn: I love the way you sing. That says a lot.

Question: What do you think about our a cappella tradition?

Dr. Dawn: It’s just very impressive. You sing with great gusto, and you all are like I am. You memorize a lot and know a lot of hymns and resonate with them deeply.

Question: What would you say if Churches of Christ abandoned that practice?

Dr. Dawn: That is a shame. It really is a shame because I hear all the harmonies, and people nowadays don’t know how to sing that way. I love it. I experienced that in the Mennonites, singing a cappella, and I thought it was brilliant. I like accompaniments too, but an accompaniment should only support the singing, not cover it up, which is what a lot of contemporary stuff does. We always sang a cappella. My dad’s choir has always been. We didn’t sing in the congregation that way, because there was always an organ, but we always sang in four part. The advantage of the parts is that it teaches us fellowship; it teaches us to listen to one another; it teaches us to be in harmony in our lives even as we are in our music. And I think a lot of people today don’t think that way.

I appreciated Dr. Dawn’s remarks because they echo comments we often receive here at College Avenue. Most of our members come from a religious background other than the Churches of Christ, and many who were at first unfamiliar with acappella worship come to appreciate the fact that “We can hear what the people are singing.”

In our fellowship we sing without instruments for many reasons: it was for many centuries the original practice of the church (the musical term “acappella”, which denotes unaccompanied vocal singing, derives from an Italian phrase which literally means “in the manner of the church”); congregational singing visibly expresses the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9); it respects the boundaries of Biblical authority (Revelation 22:18; 2 John 9; Leviticus 10:1); and it allows us to more effectively “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19).

Perhaps most importantly, it is only one of a multitude of worship changes that came with the New Covenant (John 4:19-24, 1 Peter 2:5). The absence of instrumental music in the early church was neither accidental, arbitrary, or cultural. Numerous early Christian theologians explained it in terms of the spiritual nature of the New Covenant, as opposed to the physical sacrifices and ceremonies of the Old Testament.

As Dr. Dawn observes, however, it also “teaches us fellowship; it teaches us to listen to one another; it teaches us to be in harmony in our lives even as we are in our music.” In the New Testament the command to sing comes within a context of exhortations to unity within the body of Christ (Colossians 3:15-16). Under the Old Covenant, God’s people traveled to Jerusalem to worship in a physical Temple; under the New Covenant, all that changed (John 4:19-24). Now God’s people become the dwelling place for His Holy Spirit when they unite for worship (1 Corinthians 3:16-17) and our singing reflects and reinforces that new spiritual reality. As the apostle Paul puts it:

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-6).

Early Christian leaders understood this concept well. Around 110 A.D., a church leader named Ignatius wrote:

“By your concord and harmonious love Jesus Christ is being sung. Now all of you together become a choir so that being harmoniously in concord and receiving the keynote from God in unison you may sing with one voice through Jesus Christ the Father.”

Isn’t that a beautiful concept? When we join our hearts and our voices together in the singing of praises to God, we are expressing, in a very real and powerful way, our unity in the body of Christ.

Consider the practical consequences of an acappella theology of worship. In our practice no individual has to wonder whether they are “talented” enough to sing in the choir, because every Christian, young and old, is encouraged to join in the singing. [When inviting individuals to visit our worship assemblies, I sometimes humorously promise them that I will let them sing in the choir the first time they visit!] We do not have to worry about the music “covering up the singing,” because our voices are the only music. We don’t run the risk of being distracted by the ego of any self-promoting performer, and are not tempted to critique the ability of any off-key musician, because each of us is making the music in our hearts (Ephesians 5:18).

I do not imply that I would agree with every point of Dr. Dawn’s theology, nor she with mine. But her comments remind us that sometimes it takes the perspective of an outsider to appreciate what we have. The practice of acappella worship is based on broad Scriptural principles, long Christian history, and deep theological truths about what it means to be the body of Christ. I invite you to join with us this Sunday morning as together we “offer the sacrifice of praise” (Hebrews 13:15)!

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