Why do we sing in worship services?

So why do we sing in worship services? My Unitarian Universalist tradition comes out of Calvinism, and we started singing because John Calvin said we should sing the Psalms — you know, sing because it’s in the Bible. Well, now we’re post-Christian, and some of us are very critical of the Bible, so why do we sing in worship services?

I think many Unitarian Universalists sing in worship services because it’s a chance to promote their favorite theological doctrine. Shades of John Calvin! The humanists in our midst like to sing songs that extol the virtues of humanism, and they pout when there are songs that mention God. The theists and Christians in our midst want to hold on to the tradition of Unitarian Christianity and Universalist Christianity, and they pout when they have to sing songs that don’t mention God.

Maybe this is why I like to sing with the Pagans and the New Age types. They just sing, and it’s powerful, and changes the way you think and feel. They know that “sustained singing is an ancient technique for creating altered states of consciousness through hyperventilation, elevated blood oxygen, and cranial and somatic vibration” (Marini, Sacred Song in America, 93). They know you don’t have to be a trained singer to get all these benefits. And the Pagans know that you when you sing about topics like birth and death and the ultimate meaning of life, you will be transformed. I also like to sing with Sacred Harp groups for exactly the same reasons. Not because I am in complete doctrinal or theological agreement with Pagans, New Agers, or Sacred Harp singers, but because I want to sing with people who don’t care what you sound like and who know that singing is supposed to transform you.

A recent article in the Portland Oregonian makes this point eloquently. Read it and — well, yes, read it and weep. I did. I wish typical Unitarian Universalist hymn singing affected me like that….

10 thoughts on “Why do we sing in worship services?

  1. mskitty

    It made me weep too, Dan. I love to sing with my congregation, with my friends, and all by myself. There is that moment when the harmonies swell or the single voice deepens and mellows that feels transcendent. When I hear my congregation singing with gusto and smiles on their faces, I feel lifted up.

  2. Jeremiah

    Music in general is often overlooked in worship services. Many churches get by solely with a piano now and a Music/Choir Director who is lucky to be employed quarter time. I want to see a UU Praise Band and a huge choir and soloists and everything! I am even willing to (gasp!) sacrifice Joys and Concerns if it means having more music.

  3. Dudley Jones


    Just for the record, I am a non-atheist and I love all kinds of UU music. The best UU music is as thrilling and inspiring as any I have encountered.

    The only time I recall pouting it was when people laughed at a picture of Jesus. It was one of those ones where Jesus looks like someone from Northern Europe. It was a derivative of the Warner Sallman pcture, and our congregation thought it was hilarious. It was what I grew up with, and the laughter is something I still have not completely processed.


    Best wishes

  4. Amy

    Beautiful story. This is what singing should be like in church, and sometimes it is.

    they pout when they have to sing songs that don’t mention God

    I have never heard a complaint of this kind from a theist or Christian. I do hear from people who leave because they never, or hardly ever, hear about God in church, but I have never heard them object to humanist hymns being part of the mix, the way humanists will object to a single theist hymn. This is not just a reflection of intolerance on the part of humanists–it’s also partly a result of what you might call the additive nature of theism–but intolerance is part of the picture.

  5. VB

    What a terrific article — a heartfelt and articulate memory of the healing power of music in community. Thanks for much for sharing it!

    One night, rocking my newborn to sleep, I found myself wishing I had some deeply moving song to sing, something that matched my profoundly grateful mood. I wanted something about the wonder of creation or something. The only ones I could think of were shaped-note hymns of my youth, and none of them were songs I could sing wholeheartedly. I wanted something with that emotional impact, but without the wretchedness of sin and the redemptive blood.

    I was so ecstatic a few years later when a friend invited us to a UU congregation. But I’m afraid the music was … lacking. Weak-kneed Christian hymns with clumsily bowdlerized lyrics, for the most part. None of the theology of the shaped-note hymns, but none of the spirit, either.

    Dana Decker (UU pop band-leader in San Diego) tells a hilarious story about his first visit to a UU congregation, after having worked in Christian praise bands for years. He was so excited, figuring our progressive theology must be matched by some awesomely progressive music. He was mightily disappointed, but he set out to do something about it.

    @Jeremiah: So, there ARE a few UU praise bands (San Diego, Albuquerque, Providence), and I have found the experience of singing with them very uplifting and spiritually satisfying. There’s no reason why our faith shouldn’t be expressed with the joy of Sacred Harp, gospel, rock and roll or hip-hop. Well, no reason other than tenacious clinging to tradition, often at the expense of a more robust and invigorating spiritual life. Sometimes I get so impatient….

  6. Jeremiah

    @VB: Those sound pretty great. One of the challenges in New England is having a “new” religion in old buildings with old members. When a major tagline in a church is some historic old thing in it, or who designed it, or some other totally irrelevant piece of drivel, finding the new is lost in the desire to forever steep in the what was.

    I am VERY impatient!

  7. Dan

    Jeremiah and VB — Honestly, I’m not a fan of praise bands. The ones I have heard tend to sound like wedding bands — generally competent musicians, but too loud, and too centered on the musicians rather than the singers. Most praise music is pretty hard to sing, too. Now if there were a praise band based on a punk rock aesthetic — D-I-Y music, full-throated lusty singing — I’d be on board with that.

    Generally speaking, I’d also say that one problem singing with instruments is that Western instruments are tuned in equal temperament, which mean harmony parts are never really in tune with each other. When you sing a capella, voices tend to slide into just intonation, which creates lots more overtones — and the overtones, in my experience, can be one of the most healing parts of music. So no matter what instruments you use (unless you’re one of those lucky churches to have an organ in meantone temperament or equivalent instrument), it’s always good to promote at least some a capella singing.

  8. Jeremiah

    Dan – punk rock aesthetic? I’m in!

    My main concern with music is just a fear of experimentation from time to time. I find that music, like with anything else, once settled into predictable routine, often fails to inspire and attract new participants.

    We actually had an a capella group perform for us in a service a couple of weeks ago, and it was something to behold. You definitely need a strong choir that practices frequently to make it happen on a regular basis.

    I wasn’t aware of the whole meantone temperament configuration. I guess we’re stuck with our old Hooks and Hastings for now. :-)

  9. Dan

    Jeremiah @ 9 — You write: “ou definitely need a strong choir that practices frequently to make it happen on a regular basis.”

    Yes, that helps, although I think it’s possible for a congregation to build a strong culture of singing. Some years back, I preached at the Storrs, Connecticut, UU fellowship, membership about 60. Their singing blew me away — they had a choir of maybe 8 people, so it wasn’t the choir — it was just everyone in the congregation singing their hearts out.

    This may actually be easier to do in a small congregation? I wonder….

Comments are closed.