Part 1: Finding our worship voice – the sound of the harvest

This post was contributed by worship leader Mike Hale.

When it comes to congregational singing, some of the best advice I've ever heard is that each congregation needs to find it’s own collective ‘worship voice’. In other words, it is important for each unique collection of humanity to discover the music, songs, instrumentation and methods that best enable the offering of thanks, praise, and testimony in that particular setting.

Through Christ and the Spirit, the Triune God has entered into creation and the life story and relationships of each individual and group. So, yes, there is unity in Christ. But because of unique individual, family, cultural and congregational relationships and histories, each collective ‘worship voice’ will not sound identical to a ‘worship voice’ in another setting, though each sings the common, yet ever-new song of redeeming love, an echo of the New Song of the Lamb in the heavenly realm.

This ‘worship voice’ of gathered humanity is not static, but lives, breathes, and goes through changes in seasons of celebration and suffering, as people age and die, and as babes and newcomers arrive to add their own unique relational experiences to the mix—and as the times and cultures around us change.

Reminds me of an insightful book by Dr. Nathan Corbitt, The Sound of the Harvest: Music’s Mission in Church and Culture (1999 Baker Books). It’s been years since I first read the book, but I especially appreciate the way Corbitt explores the elements that make up what he calls the ‘sound of the harvest’.
As diverse as God’s fearfully and wonderfully made creation (Ps 139:14), music is always cross-cultural. Its meanings are so bound to the people and cultures who make it, we often fail to see our commonness because of our strangeness. God’s song of redemptive call and purpose are found in every place.

Some of us choose to live in terrariums and never know this beauty because we sing with ethnocentric tongues as opposed to those of celestial angels. Dominant cultures spread their music like the pervasive kudzu vine. Carried on the floods of digital technology, the gentle songs of remote cultures and ancient hymns are washed away to the gutters of history like musical deadwood because we perceive them to be irrelevant to our experience or too difficult to learn.

Yet as a plant is born, bears fruit and dies, music also exhibits a life cycle. Bound to the context of its original cultural garden, which is ever changing and dynamic, music finds not an immediate death, but a fading relevance to the people who call it their own. New music is born with a cross-pollinated and grafted heritage from tradition and eventually finds its way into the marketplace of the city street. It is from the streets of our lives that we both share and borrow our musical experience. (pp. 7-8)

Surrounded as we are in almost every culture by music, Corbitt ponders what might be unique or even holy about the music and songs of Christians, and describes meeting a woman who caused him to reevaluate his views of music ministry.
By many human standards her music wasn’t beautiful, but it was God’s singing in the new life of a believer—the sound of a spiritual harvest...
Born in the garden of the heart, harvested in the spirit of the soul, and manifested in the beat of the street, music is the expressive voice of the Christian faith.
Christians of every gifting, social class, race, and ethnicity are called to be faithful to God; and communicate, by expressing their own spiritual harvest in the beats of the streets, expanding and growing in the fullness of a kingdom still yet to come. (p. 30)
Note that Corbitt does not limit the discussion to music within the walls of a church meeting, but thoughtfully explores and expands into a more holistic view.
Christians must embrace a holistic ministry that includes music making at every level of life experience, including places outside the church sanctuary. Music making is not a secondary activity and ministry for Christians. Nor does a holistic music ministry make music making a utilitarian tool for manipulating people into conforming to our purposes. While I have focused on the functions of music within a few recognizable categories…. God is not bound by our categories. The Spirit of God can lift the human spirit, convict of transgression, or heal the grieving soul through any music, in any context. (p. 341)
Corbitt tells fascinating stories of people making use of music for creating unity, proclaiming, preaching, teaching and healing, and he fully discusses the use of voice, song, instruments and musicians.

How about you? When it comes to congregational singing, has your congregation come to fully recognize and utilize its collective God-given ‘worship voice’? What does the ‘sound of the spiritual harvest’ sound like in your church?

Your comments and participation are most welcome.