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Review – Come Let Us Sing – Rob Smith

Singing is a crucial part of Christian worship and life.  Yet many of us are currently banned from doing so.  It seems a strange time to write about this but Rob Smith’s new book is essential.  Every church should have a theology of worship and every church leader and indeed members should also have a good theological understanding of what we are doing when we sing praise.  This book is the best I have read on the subject.  I would encourage you to get a copy.  The following is my review for The Gospel Coalition Australia – you can read the original here. 

Review: Come, Let Us Sing by Rob Smith

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)

Principles of Psalm Singing

Judge Not: When Dissenters Become Dictators

 

10 comments

  1. True congregational worship needs to be delivered from the domination of the “praise and worship team” which has dominated much evangelical public worship since the 1980s. Let us return to the Psalms in quality settings appropriate for the 21st century.

    1. What’s wrong with a “praise and worship team”? Is your criticism based on theology or just on musical taste?

  2. When glorification of God and mutual edification is happening in singing and gathering Smith’s assumptions in his summary are true. But this comes with a caveat – prophetically there is this precedent where gathering and singing has missed the mark in Israel’s history.

    “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
    your assemblies are a stench to me.
    Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them.
    Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
    I will have no regard for them.
    Away with the noise of your songs!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
    But let justice roll on like a river,
    righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24).

    Assemblies, gatherings a stench and away with the noise of songs?

    What if there is a move of God in the midst of Covid-19 and declining church attendance for prophetic voices which may have been swamped out previously to now start to be heard?

    And what if God is using this at least in some part to get the church to shut up and listen, to usher in righteousness and justice where this has been neglected?

    I hope what Smith says can be true for all churches (and of course this is possible) but to assume this is always the case is to not get the full picture.

    I realise this can be a difficult pill to swallow in these interesting times where for many of us church is a place of comfort, an oasis in difficult times. At the same time biblically looking at Israel’s history, Paul’s pastoral letters, and for many, experiences in contemporary church there is a cautionary tale to be had as well as a celebratory one about Christian gatherings and singing.

  3. I would add the book “Sing” by the Gettys to the essential list, as it is grounded in good biblical common sense, and they are renowned for writing hymns which are theologically sound, easy for congregations to follow, and are even at present concentrTing on the Psalms!

  4. It is true that music and singing are gifts of God, and are an integral part of Christian life. But there is a problem with referring to singing in church as worship. Words are important, and misuse of words can produce confusion of concepts.
    So, first, nowhere in the New Testament does it suggest that the purpose of Christians meeting together is to worship God. Second, nowhere in the NT is the word worship used to mean singing. In the NT, worship has two main (related) meanings: 1. To bow down in the presence of God (or an idol); 2. To serve God –“You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.”
    Likewise, in the Old Testament, worship is never confused with singing or praise. According to The Jewish Virtual Library, the words for worship mean :
    1. hishtaḥawah, “to prostrate oneself,” the most frequently used (86 times);
    2. ʿavad, “to serve”;
    3. yare’, “to revere”;
    4. sheret, “to minister,” especially in a cultic sense;
    5. darash, “to seek, inquire”;
    6. sagad (Heb.), seged (Aram.) (both in Daniel), “to bow.”
    The misuse of the word worship is a problem because it devalues true worship. Ministers will often pay lip service to the notion that all of life and work should be seen as worship, but always seem to come back to the idea that real worship is in church. This only adds to the notion of a spiritual/physical dichotomy – what we do in church is spiritual – we are coming together to worship God; whereas what we do Monday to Saturday as a bricklayer or housewife is somehow less so.
    So my appeal is to get back to a Biblical use of words, which is to emphasise that what we do Monday to Saturday is worship, and that singing together in church is singing.
    There is a harsh corollary to the above which is that the idea of a “worship group” or “worship leader” is wrong-headed. No such ministry is suggested in the NT and, once worshipping God is understood to mean serving God, the notion of a worship leader becomes strange to say the least.

    1. Yes – I am used to this line of argument – and it does, and has done so much harm. Your simplistic black and white narrative is not helpful – setting up strawmen so that you can argue against them. Your somewhat bizarre notion that singing together in church cannot be described as ‘worship’ is not biblical. And please don’t confuse ‘singing is worship’ with ‘singing is the only worship’.

  5. An acid test is how we pray, praise and respond to the Lord privately. Christian gatherings can induce negative traits and uses as well as positive ones, as Adam reminds us above. Scriptural glimpses into heaven mention some of that good, corporate adoration. Phil is correct, worship is much, much more than praise and singing. Getting back to the meaning of the original language is helpful. Paul’s directive to “pray without ceasing” is perhaps a better expression of worship than the glorious gatherings in which I have been a part. The Lord’s teaching indicates that the best worship is in secret (e.g. widow’s mite; man who beat his chest and prayed).

    1. Yes – it is true that worship is much more than praise or singing – but then no one was saying otherwise. But worship does include praise and singing – that’s the point. ANd the Lord’s teaching does not indicate that the best worship is in secret. The two examples you give were not done in secret!

  6. Sorry to demure but I do not see the ‘worship’ used anywhere in the NT as a description of what happens in a gathering of believers [I am willing to discuss the use of the word in Revelation but the clock is ticking] . Romans 12 directs us to present ourselves to the Father in the worship of faithful, Christ- focused living which is shaped by truth fed discipleship. In our gatherings we sing truth, read truth, listen to truth, pray directed by truth and nurture each other in truth so being strengthened in our ‘together-ing’ the better to walk the days between.

    With all the caveats and qualifications in the previous discussions I do not see any engagement with the essential NT point that Christian worship is not in the Tabernacle but in our daily walk .

    I’m not ‘into’ singing preferring to listen and focus on a word or phrase that usually stays with me. I greatly value any of the musical traditions that bring word-soaked meditation and praises so blessed, for example, by CityAlight. This evening I am off to baby-sit our church youth band (in the church field). They are really good musically and at 74 its great to have to reflect on the content their repertoire of quality songs. My concern for some of them is that they might well be singing beyond their experience carried along by good music and the ‘hurrah’ of the event – but this is, hopefully, a part of their growth into maturity and why I find it such a joy to pray for them by name day by day.

    I hope that I am not being unfair when, looking at much of the previous discussion, I hear the voices of those who are church-event focused. Our worship leader in the Holy Spirit, being brought into the Father presence by the work of the Son where we present what is good, acceptable and perfect.

    I am looking forward to any of the wisdom, reproofs and rejoinders that might come – and as I used to say to my students, I’ll be interested to see your exegesis.

    A random comment about singing the psalms: In the mid 70s to mid 80s my wife and I began our missionary service in a remote area of Indonesia working with a church founded by one of the conservative Dutch missions. In those days it was Psalms only and with few books around these were led from the front line by line. It was slow but I gave me deep respect for this tradition. On our times back at home one had to bite one’s tongue as to some of the things being sung in church in those days. How good to see the more recent ‘new’ songs so well filled with truth / Bible focus.

    Oops it’s nearly 5pm and band practice is at 7. Thank you for patience in reading all this.

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