Of making many books on worship, there is no end. Surely all has been said and done? But given that ‘sung praise’ (we will come to the use of the term ‘worship’ later!) is so essential in our churches, and such a vital part of Christian life and ministry—as well as being such a divisive and vexed topic—and, knowing the qualifications of the author for writing such a book, I looked forward with anticipation to Rob Smith’s latest. I was not disappointed.
I loved this book. It is academic, historical, practical, contemporary, Spirit-filled, God-glorifying and Christ-centred.
It seems somewhat unfortunate to have a book on congregational singing come out just at the time when the practice is banned! But perhaps it is providential—reminding us of the necessity and importance of sung praise. Although this is a publication of the evangelical Anglican publishing house, Latimer Press, it is a book that will be of interest and help to any biblical Christian. The purpose is best summed up in the citation from George Whitefield at the beginning:
That we all may be inspired and warmed with a like divine Fire whilst singing below, and be translated after Death to join with them in singing the Song of Moses and the Lamb above.
It is because I was inspired and warmed that I loved this book. It is academic, historical, practical, contemporary, Spirit-filled, God-glorifying and Christ-centred. This has clearly been a labour of love for Smith, and the result of a lifetime’s work. As a praise leader, songwriter, writer, theologian, preacher and singer he is well suited to write on this subject.
Come, Let Us Sing is divided into three parts: “Why God’s People Gather” (a theology and history of public worship); “Why God’s People Sing” (looking as the use of the Psalms, singing as prayer and preaching, and singing in both the Old and New Testament church), and; “Helping God’s People Change” (educating Christian pastors, equipping Church musicians and encouraging Christian congregations). The four appendices that follow are worth the price of the book alone. They look at Lament, Psalm singing, Music, Emotion/Bodily Expression, and Music and Lyrics.
Reclaiming Public Worship
Having come from the background of a church which until recently sang only unaccompanied psalms I was aware that each church tradition has its own shibboleths about public worship. Since coming to Sydney, it appears that referring to the public gathering of the church as ‘worship’ is one of those amongst Sydney Anglicans. If you want to get a reaction just light the blue touchpaper by referring to ‘meeting for worship’ and wait for the explosion! Smith does not ignore this elephant in the room and suggests that perhaps there has been an overreaction to a wrong tradition that saw worship as only that which took place in church buildings. He asks whether we have lost something if we have given up the traditional view of speaking of a Christian meeting as a ‘service of worship. I am inclined to agree. Regaining the concept of ‘public worship’ whilst not losing the broader idea that all of life is to be worship, would greatly assist the churches in Australia—and beyond. Smith suggests we speak of “congregational worship”. I hope this will not be regarded as heresy!
Smith suggests that perhaps there has been an overreaction to a wrong tradition that saw worship as only that which took place in church buildings.
What about the implications of sung praise for evangelism? “Our public praise of God (particularly, but not only when sung) inevitably has an evangelistic dimension to it, for it bears witness to who God is and what He has done.”
For me, although I long ago gave up the principle of “exclusive” psalm singing, I believe passionately in “inclusive” psalm singing. It seems an absurdity and indeed almost insulting to our Father, that he has given us a book of inspired songs and prayers—which we refuse to use! Smith makes a powerful and unanswerable case for including the psalms as a regular part of our sung praise. As he writes, quoting John Chrysostom:
Learn to sing psalms, and thou shalt see the delightfulness of employment. For they who sing psalms are filled with the Holy Spirit, as they who sing satanic songs are filled with an unclean spirit.” (p.122).
Space is limited but suffice it to say that the whole book is filled with gems like that. In fact, it is what I call a “rainbow” book because it has been so filled with highlighters. For example, quoting Yip Harburg, the lyricist who wrote the songs for the Wizard of Oz:
Words make you think a thought; music makes you feel a feeling; a song makes you feel a thought. (p.127)
An Essential Book
To summarise; Come, Let Us Sing, is an essential book for every church leader, and a good one for every Christian too. Smith states that his intended readership is pastors and teachers, but also music directors, song leaders and church musicians of every kind; as well as Christian congregations. It supplies what is sometimes missing—the psalms, lament, cross traditional fertilisation, and a practical theology of worship.
Smith neatly summarises his own book:
- The people of God are called to gather together both to glorify God and to edify one another.
- The people of God are called to sing together as a way of praising God, praying to God, and preaching His Word.
Come Let Us Sing, reminds me of Tim Keller’s book on prayer—which is the best book I have read on prayer because it is largely a compendium of all the best books I have read on prayer. Smith’s book is the sung-praise equivalent. I long for the day when in Australia’s churches we will hear the words “come, let us sing” and will be able to respond in spirit and in truth. In preparation for that day, it might be a good idea for churches to purchase multiple copies of Smith’s book and read, study, pray and put into practice:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)