Worship without Singing

The Guidance has been issued by Her Majesty’s Government for the re-opening of churches for public worship, and now it's clear that we won’t be able to sing for quite some time yet. And yet for Pentecostals (and many other charismatics and evangelicals), singing tends to be a major part of what we do when we gather to worship together. I’ve already seen chatter online about whether it’s possible to worship without song, or whether churches should open in July when it will be possible in England and Northern Ireland (NB there is still no date for the opening of churches for public worship in Wales and Scotland) or wait until later in the hope that it’ll be possible to sing then. Others have been asking what we’d do in church if we can’t sing.

So, I thought it might be useful to think about worship without singing and to draw some wisdom from Pentecostals of the past for ways they encouraged worship without song.

Can we worship together without singing?

For many of us, singing and music is so closely associated with worship that the two almost seem inseparable. After all, the typical term for someone who leads a congregation in song these days is the ‘worship leader’ and the ‘worship team’ is the name we end up using for the musicians. And yet, throughout history and even in many places around the world today, Christians worship without music. After all, if you’re worshipping in secret in a place where Christians are persecuted, singing would just draw attention to where the Christians are.

We know well the Bible verses which encourage us to speak ‘to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord’ (Eph. 5:19), and to ‘let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord’ (Col. 3:16). Yet, we easily forget that, in their context, these verses are not addressing corporate worship. Yes, Christians are to sing, but we don’t have a command that we must sing every time we gather to worship. And the early church recognised that. After all, the major difference between the earliest descriptions of Christian worship services after the end of the New Testament and our services today is that they don’t mention singing or music at all.

Singing is a good thing, but it’s not a necessary thing for Christian worship. As Colossians 3:16 shows us, the importance of singing for Christians doesn’t lie in the music, but in the Word of Christ. Singing is good, because it’s a way of letting the Word of Christ dwell in us and building one another up in God’s Word.

But isn’t it while we sing that we encounter God’s presence?

It’s easy to get confused about the relationship between our musical worship and the presence of God. Sometimes well-meaning people use confusing expressions like about our sung worship, like ‘ushering people into the presence of God’ or they quote Psalm 22:3 in a way that makes it sound like the Lord draws closest to us in our sung praises. These aren’t actually Pentecostal ideas though (they come from the Latter Rain Movement and then entered Pentecostal churches through the Charismatic Revival). Pentecostals had been worshipping, and singing, and encountering the presence of God long before people started to try to tie God’s presence to the singing. Early Pentecostals warned against confusing God’s presence with the singing, and advised against too much singing in meetings to stop the musical part of our worship swallowing up all the rest.

God has promised to meet with us in His Word and at His Table. He hasn’t promised that He’ll always meet with us in song. Yet the Lord is gracious; He hasn’t bound Himself to sung worship, but in His sovereign grace He does often graciously meet us there.

In the Bible, singing is associated with the Word (e.g. Colossians 3:16). The Lord does promise to meet with us in His Word. And so, a big part of the reason that we often encounter the presence of the Lord while we sing, is because we are singing biblical truth.

So, yes, it’s a sad thing that we can’t sing. But we can still know the powerful and gracious presence of the Lord, because He has bound Himself by His promise to His Word and His Table, and He’ll continue to meet with us there whether we can sing or not.

In what ways can we worship without singing?

Pentecostal worship has always been about a lot more than singing. (And if we’ve sometimes let it be reduced to song, we’ve let it become terribly impoverished.) Early Pentecostal leaders warned against the danger of singing and music swallowing up and drowning out the rest of our worship. And so, they constantly encouraged other ways of worshipping. As Donald Gee put it, ‘if we are “in the Spirit on the lord’s day,” every constituent part of the service will be truest worship, and it is a mistake to say “Now let us enter into a time of worship” as though it were only one part of the meeting.’

So, what did early Pentecostal leaders recommend we do in church to worship without singing?

1. Worshipping God with His Word

Reading the Scriptures was one of the most important parts of their worship. Donald Gee suggested that, not only should Scripture readings be read by individuals, but that the whole congregation could join together to worship the Lord with His Word by reading it aloud together ‘all in union, or the leader and the congregation taking alternate verses.’ This works particularly well for the Psalms (we used to do this often at our Breaking of Bread services in college), but Gee says that it’s also a good practice with ‘other well-chosen passages from both the Old Testament and New Testament.’ Kongo Jones points out some other Scriptural songs we could read together, such as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).

2. Worshipping God in Prayer

Prayer is a vital part of Pentecostal worship, and we must never let it be reduced to a mere means of transitioning from one part of a service to another. W.A.C. Rowe said that time needs to be given in every Pentecostal worship service for spontaneous prayers of thanksgiving and praise. When I lived in Belgium, they had a very helpful practice to encourage people who weren’t used to praying out loud during worship to begin. As the Communion was being distributed, the pastor would encourage everyone to pray out loud in turn, just a one sentence prayer of thanks. It might simply be ‘Thank You Jesus for dying for me,’ but everyone learnt to lift up their voices in thanks to the Lord as part of worship.

Sometimes where services have space for spontaneous prayer people complain about other people’s long prayers (and this might even be part of the reason the practice has been abandoned in some Pentecostal churches), but Donald Gee warns that ‘complainers of the long, dry prayers of others do not always realise that they are largely to blame through their own tardiness to take part.’

But spontaneous prayer isn’t the only way we can worship God together in prayer. Jesus commands us in Luke 11:2 to say some specific words when we pray, so it’s a good thing to obey Him and pray the Lord’s Prayer together. (In Matthew 6:9, Jesus says that we should pray ‘in this manner’, and so use the Lord’s Prayer as a pattern for our prayers, but in Luke 11:2, He also tells us ‘when you pray, say’ these words. So, the Lord’s Prayer is both a pattern for prayer and a set form of prayer that we should pray.)

We could also pray some other Biblical prayers out loud together. Or even some appropriate prayers which aren’t actually Scripture. This isn’t a non-Pentecostal thing. For example, in the early years of the Apostolic Church, there was a specific prayer which was printed on the back of every Apostolic Church publication to be prayed by the members of the church, whether at home or in services.

Donald Gee also points to another type of prayer that we can join in together as a church: ‘If he deems it helpful the leader of the meeting may well invite all to a brief time of SILENT united prayer and adoration.’ Silence is not a bad thing in Christian worship, and perhaps in our lack of music we will discover more of the power of silence in the presence of the Lord.

3. Worshipping God with the Contributions of the Congregation

One of the most important Scriptures for early Pentecostals in thinking about worship was 1 Corinthians 14:26: ‘How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.’ Kongo Jones wrote that this is ‘the Apostolic form of Christian worship … There is nothing monotonous about this service, but every member contributing his share, as led by the Holy Spirit.’ As the form of worship set out in Scripture, early Pentecostals insisted that this was ‘the only true one for every age.’ This type of worship, where the members of the congregation make their contributions, Jones says, ‘is so simple, so spiritual, so divine, [with] plenty of variety, yet perfect unity, leading to oneness of mind, humbleness of spirit, and purity of heart.’

David Allen admits that ‘people can get it wrong from time to time’ with their contributions, but warns that this ‘does not mean that the meeting should be stage-managed from the front.’ Rather, ‘it is appropriate for everyone in attendance to prepare their own hearts and to speak … or keep silent with due consideration for the body.’

This might have fallen out of practice in your assembly, but this could be an ideal time to explain this type of worship and encourage people to pray for a Scripture to read to benefit the body, or an appropriate testimony, or a short devotional thought or encouragement in the Lord, or to be used in the gifts of the Spirit. Your services aren’t going to be as slick as they were before all this happened anyway, so why not use the opportunity to reintroduce a good, biblical, and authentically Pentecostal form of worship.

4. Worshipping God through the exercise of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Flowing on from that last one, we’re also worshipping as the assembly is flowing in the gifts of the Spirit. What did the crowds hear when the disciples spoke in tongues on the day of Pentecost? ‘We hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God’ (Acts 2:11). They heard God being praised and magnified for His wondrous works. Healings, miracles, prophecies, words of wisdom, words of knowledge, interpretation of tongues, and the discernment of Spirits all bring glory to the Lord as well. As Kongo Jones explains, through this form of 1 Corinthians 14:26 worship, where the various members of the assembly move in the gifts of the Spirit in Scriptural order, the saints will be edified and sinners will be converted (1 Cor. 14:24-25).

5. Worshipping God in Teaching and Preaching

The worship outlined in 1 Corinthians 14:26 includes doctrine or teaching. Sometimes we can forget that teaching and preaching are also forms of worship. The preacher worships God in his faithful preaching, and the congregation worship in their listening to the proclamation of God’s Word. In Acts 13:48, we see that as people hear the true preaching of God’s Word, they glorify the Word of God. In other words, as Jesus is proclaimed from the Scriptures in preaching, we rejoice in Him and worship Him in our hearts as we listen. As Donald Gee puts it: ‘true worship continues throughout the preaching if it is entered into aright by both speaker and listeners.’

Preaching and teaching are essential to the corporate worshipping life of the church. Even if all we could do in gathering together was to pray, hear the Bible read, and listen to the preaching of God’s Word, this would be good and proper worship. The Lord meets us in His Word and works powerfully by His Word; so let’s have confidence in His Word and let His Word do its work.

6. Worshipping God by confessing our faith

We can also worship the Lord by confessing our faith together. Throughout the centuries, Christians have read the Creed together as a church on Sundays as part of their worship. It might not be something that’s so familiar in our tradition, but it is a good way to unite our voices together in worship when we can’t sing. (We even sing songs based on the Creed in church, so why not use the Creed itself?) Either the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed can be used to worship God by declaring our faith together. (For more on Pentecostals and the Creed, see this post. And for a short video exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, have a look at this.)

7. The Breaking of Bread

Half of you will be amazed that I managed to keep this for last instead of putting it first on my list. But, well, 7 is the perfect number! The Breaking of Bread is the Holy of Holies of Christian worship (and especially of Pentecostal worship), and if singing was all that we couldn’t do I would definitely have put it at the top of the list. However, it’s here at the end, not because of a lack of importance, but because the Guidelines from Her Majesty’s Government for the reopening of churches in England would appear to make a full celebration of the Lord’s Supper very difficult (if not impossible). This is not the case in Northern Ireland, so for Northern Irish assemblies the Breaking of Bread can probably go back to the top of the list. We’ll have to wait and see what the case will be in Wales and Scotland when churches are given the go-ahead to reopen there. When things become a bit clearer over the next few days/weeks I’ll write a bit more about how the Breaking of Bread could function as a major aspect of our song-less worship in those countries where it is possible. (The lack of singing might even help us to recover the sacrament from some of its recent marginalisation in some places.)