I waited patiently for the LORD; And He inclined to me and heard my cry. He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, And He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. -Psalm 40 (ESV)
One of things we, as musicians and service leaders, will often struggle with is the idea of ‘meeting people where they are’. Of knowing our congregations to the extent that we can serve them not only in the style in which we sing, but in what we sing.
And of course this is something we want to strive for, to serve our church family the best we can, but there is only so much we can do to serve everyone at once. The range of situations and emotional states in a church of 30 will be ridiculously diverse, never mind if your church has numbers in the 100s! We will never dead on hit the mood of everyone at once.
Which I guess is why every now and again, rethinking what we are actually doing as we sing is so helpful.
Are we actually wanting to ‘meet people where they are’ emotionally, or are we wanting to help them get to where they should be?
I don’t know about you, but in coming to church, I sometimes struggle with feeling just a bit cold and numb. I walk into church and look around and feel like I’m the only one who isn’t excited to be there. Who is basically operating through a fog. Who actually feels pretty far from the Lord at that moment, and far from the reach of His love. And who feels the need to put on a facade, (particularly if I’m at the front playing), to seem uber cheerful and joyful.
And I’m sure I’m not alone. Think of your friends and family. How many struggle with depression. How many are finding life really, genuinely hard. How many suffer anxiety and grief and loss and doubt and apathy. How many just have personalities that mean they are pretty level headed and unflappable, with a smaller emotion range than more creative types often show?
Are we meant to come into church and feel like we can’t admit these things? To feel like we can’t join in the singing and praying, because we haven’t gotten our lives together and the songs are just missing the point and we are failing to respond as we think we should… Surely you have to be feeling joy to sing with joy?
When we join together to sing praise to our Lord; the Lord who even when he feels far away, has never actually left, the one who says, ‘I am here and always will be, regardless of how numb you feel’, that is our chance to refocus away from the overwhelmingness of a confusing, potentially painful time in life, and on to Him.
It’s not about us and where we are emotionally, it’s a tool to remind of the truths that we know, truths that have just become a little buried by all the stuff going on.
‘My God gave up everything for me…’. (Romans 8:32)
‘His love is steadfast… ‘. (Psalm 136)
‘He does not change…’. (Lamentations 3:23-23)
‘Eternity is certain…’ ( Ephesians 1:11-14)
Think of the Psalms, so often they start with the Psalmist crying out in utter confusion, or even anger to God. “Lord, WHY….?!’
(There are many Psalms that fit this mould, but the one popping into my head is Psalm 22.)
And what does the psalmist then do in the face of feeling utterly alone? He reminds himself of what he knows is true, and tells himself again and again that even though his world looks like it’s crumbling, God is in control. God is good. God has a plan.
So this is what we do as we sing. We remind ourselves of truth. We sing of the attributes of God we have just learned about in the sermon. We tell ourselves of what we know to be right, even if at that moment we don’t feel it.
So we should never shy away from encouraging our congregations to sing things that maybe they aren’t right there and then feeling, because the Word says that feeling is secondary to knowing… and hopefully, the more we sing truth, the more we will believe it and the more we will feel it!
John Piper and Bob Kauflin answered questions a few years ago* on praising with joy even in the midst of depression that I found really helpful. Piper himself struggles with depression, and he said this:
“It is not uncommon for believers to have flatness of emotion, broken heartedness for sin, or any other grief.. being satisfied in God is not a description of any particular outward emotional state…. you can be satisfied with God and weeping your eyes out at the death of your mother.”
Piper talked on about this idea of how as a Christian, we have a hope that lifts our gaze above this world, and a deep-rooted, maybe hard to find ‘seed of contentment’…..
“And the form it might take is, right now I feel nothing; I am totally numb emotionally. But I have a memory that there was once a sweetness of affection, a sweetness of trust… and I by faith believe it’s still down there because theologically, the Bible says it… I now, in this room while everybody is singing and I don’t have any feelings… I am saying to Him, please restore to me the joy of my salvation.”
Praising the Lord together as a church family isn’t just about the joy we show on our faces (although hopefully, over time, regardless of how stoically ‘British’ we may be, that would come!). It isn’t about how mushy we feel as we sing or how tingly we feel as we leave. It is about real people, with real lives and real rubbish, coming together and in a sense shouting what is true at ourselves and our neighbours, so that little by little, it can start to seep in and feed the belief in the truth that lies deep within.
The psalmist in Psalm 40 quoted at the top, was stuck in that pit. We don’t know why or for how long, but the Lord lifted him out, and gave him a renewed ability to praise with joy.
So what’s the lesson for us as we seek to serve people?
1- Keep going! Don’t be dismayed if people struggle to sing, or look demoralised. We have an awesome job. We, second to the preacher, have the opportunity to help ground truth in our brothers and sisters minds (so be sure and sing truth!!). To take what the bible is saying and plant it even deeper. So that maybe during the week, when things seem hard, and the sermon seems far away, maybe some of the words sung will still be floating around in head’s…
2- Don’t be ashamed to try and help the congregation respond as they should. There is material in this point for a whole other blog post, as obviously we don’t want to emotionally manipulate. But it is right to respond in relation to the passage, maybe with thankfulness, or sober recognition of sin, or joy, or whatever the application has been. And therefore it is right to sing those truths, even if we don’t feel them yet.
Maybe as musicians, it’s vital that we take a lead on this, to be able to admit that we are sometimes struggling to genuinely feel what we are singing, but showing we are working on that, and using the opportunity that corporate singing presents to preach truth to ourselves and others.
3- Thank the Lord that our frequent inability to to feel the appropriate response to his awesome grace, doesn’t in any way negate it!
“….The great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, his love for us does not. It is not wearied by our sins or our indifference…” – C.S Lewis: Mere Christianity
1 Peter 1: 6-8 In this [certain hope] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith-more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire-may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. (ESV)