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 Hopelessly out-of-date.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We know that if a practice is Scriptural, it is never out-of-date even if other churches disagree.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!