Lots of Christians today, without realising it, have started to treat singing as a sacrament. Now, I know that the word “sacrament” doesn’t trip off most Christians’ tongues. I doubt you instinctively think of it like that, but I think it gives a useful handle to describe what’s often going on subliminally in people’s heads.
What is a sacrament?
Well, sacraments are physical things God has given to his church to sign and seal his love to us. They’re like divine “kisses”. So, the Holy Spirit takes the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Table, and uses them to strengthen our connection to Christ, through faith. They work by taking what God has verbally promised, and then “sealing” those promises to us non-verbally. Now, sacraments are full of mystery; they’re not magical, and don’t “work” without faith, but the Bible uses strong language to describe what they do to us. For example, in Romans 6:4, water baptism unites us to Christ in his death (“all of us… were baptized into his death”). Or what’s the consequence of eating and drinking the bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner? 1 Cor 11:27 says we’ll be “guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord”. Clearly the sacraments are designed by God to produce intimacy and “communion” with Jesus Christ (see 1 Cor 10:16); they have a very close relationship to him.
Isn’t this exactly how lots of Christians treat the singing? Maybe you’d describe the singing as the part of the service that the Holy Spirit particularly uses to “connect” you to God. Practically, this view is reflected in the idea of a “block of worship”. This is a relatively new idea in the history of worship. This is the name given to the time spent in singing, ranging from 15 minutes to an hour in different churches. It requires a “worship leader” to oversee the “block”, backed up by a band, and it creates a unified musical experience. The “block of worship” contrasts a pattern of worship where the service is punctuated by the congregation singing individual songs (“the hymn/prayer sandwich”). In this “block”, the songs facilitate a journey into God’s presence. They transport the worshipper. Singing causes something to happen. So, for example, Bethel Church (a very significant musical influence on evangelical churches) say: “Music. It’s all about His presence. Worship creates a space for us to experience the tangible presence of our good Father”. And “Our worship teams usher in the presence of God”. Hillsong (another huge influencer) tells their “worship leaders”: “Your primary service to the church is to lead them to the presence of God”. Peter Ward says: “…as the Mass is for Catholics and the sermon is for Protestants, so the singing of songs is for Charismatics”. Maybe you can’t put your finger on it; maybe you can’t verbalise it, but is singing the key point when you expect to experience God’s presence? This is to treat the singing like a sacrament.
Another way to see this is to compare how Christians today treat music to how Christians in the past treated the Lord’s Supper. In the 16thcentury, the Protestant Reformation split into three camps, with rival understandings of the Lord’s Supper. Martin Luther insisted Christ’s physical body was present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Table. Zwingli insisted Christ was absent from the Table, and it was only designed to be a memorial. John Calvin argued that Christ is present in the bread and wine, but mysteriously by his Spirit, not physically. These divisions were not easy to fix and generated very strong reactions. Most Christians today scratch their heads over these debates, and cannot understand why Protestant churches divided over this issue, but they can understand why churches have divided over music in the 20thC. Not many Christians today would avoid a church if it had a low view of the Lord’s table, but they would avoid a church that still used an organ and a hymnbook. So, not only has singing become a “sacrament”; in the process, it’s actually shoved one of the God-given sacraments out of the way.
Ordinance or sacrament?
But, quite simply, singing is not a sacrament. This isn’t meant to bash singing, at all. There was singing at the birth of the old creation (Job 38:7). There was singing at the birth of the new creation (Luke 2:13-14). And there will clearly be a lot of singing at the consummation of the new creation (Rev 5:9-14). In the meantime, as we journey towards that day, we’re commanded to sing (Col 3:16). So, singing is clearly a God appointed ordinance, but it’s still not a sacrament. While there have been lots of debates over the number of sacraments, no one has ever argued that singing should be included in their number. Why? Because singing is simply not a place where God has promised to “come down”. The Bible describes Christ as the actor in baptism – he is the Baptist, washing us clean (e.g. John 1:33; 3:22; 4:1). It describes Christ as the actor at the Lord’s Table – he is the host, feeding us with his body (e.g. 1 Cor 11:23-25). Christ is also the preacher, who speaks his reconciling word to us through the ministers he sends out (Eph 2:17). But, while Christ is a singer (see Heb 2:12), he isn’t singing to us through an earthly worship leader. Instead, as the head of his church, he leads us in heavenly worship, by filling us with his Spirit through his Word and sacraments. Quite simply, there’s no Scriptural evidence that in our singing, God is making a move towards us. That’s what he does in the sacraments, but not in our singing. Rather in our singing, we’re expressing gratitude and praise to him for all that he’s done for us in Christ (Heb 13:15). In other words, singing is an ordinance, not a sacrament.
So, if your intimacy with God is centred on singing, rather than having the gospel preached to you and sealed in the sacraments, you’re missing out big time on opportunities to encounter God. If forced to choose between singing and taking part at the Lord’s Table, we ought to opt for the Lord’s Table, which comes with rich promises of Christ’s presence attached. While it is a wonderful gift, let’s be clear that singing is not a sacrament.