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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

When We Join in Song
September 12, 2013

The Bible’s great liturgical storehouse called the Psalms closes with a grand invitation, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:6) Lifting up our voices to the Lord together in song does more good than we can possibly imagine.

One of my favorite presbytery-related events is our annual Executive Committee (EC) retreat. More good things have happened at those retreats than I can begin to recount. This year we realized that one reason our retreat is so energizing is that we sing our hearts out together in worship. We raise the roof in song, and in the process our spirits are raised and the burden of our work is lightened. As this year’s retreat concluded, an EC member suggested that we share a little taste of that with the presbytery when it next meets, so the EC report at our May meeting began with the whole EC belting out one of the songs from its retreat.

Another great thing we do each year as a presbytery is to sing together the national anthem at one of the Pirates’ games, under the masterful direction of Michael Frank, Minister of Music at Oakmont Presbyterian Church.  And this year, the Pirates have given us even more to sing about!

Several years ago the General Assembly constituted a new “Committee on Congregational Song,” which this month completes its task as it ships the marvelous new hymnal it has prepared for the church, Glory to God. (Check it out here.) The mission of the committee was deceptively simple – help the church sing together better. Alas, too many churches have become more like auditoriums of people listening to professional musicians than gatherings of full-throated participants in worship. I have often wondered about the relationship between faltering congregational singing and dwindling church participation. They certainly do have a striking correlation, if not a causal relation.

As a child I was told, “The family that prays together stays together.” That may be even truer when the prayer is sung! Imagine a church where we sang more and debated less. Just imagine!

When we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” what are we praying for? The primary image of God’s kingdom coming in fullness, as recorded in Revelation, is that of throngs joined around God’s throne singing God’s praise. It is a choir of people “from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9) – people who would otherwise be in separate camps – united tangibly in song.

Well, it turns out that being united in song isn’t good just for getting folk to cooperate or for making them more productive. A few weeks ago I heard an NPR story reporting a recent University of Gothenburg study of physiological changes that take place in choristers when they sing together.  The researchers discovered that when folk sing together, their individual heart rates slow down and becomes synchronous with each other, and their blood pressure drops. (Honest, our choral directors didn’t put me up to writing on this topic – though I’m sure they’d be delighted to welcome more people into their ministry of de-stressing the church!)

I received a letter expressing concern that the time our Executive Committee spent singing to the presbytery robbed us of valuable minutes that would have been better devoted to some of the serious business before us. Why waste time singing when there is urgent work to be done? Perhaps the right question is, rather, can we afford to try to tackle the difficult work before us without first getting our hearts in sync and our blood pressure down?

African slaves in the deep American South discovered that singing together helped get them through what might otherwise have been unbearably difficult toil. It was one of their songs, incidentally, that our EC sang to presbytery. I don’t mean to liken presbytery’s work to that of slaves – it would be a gross disservice to both to do so – but I wonder if we might find ourselves in a better frame to do some of the hard work we face if we argued a little less and sang a little more. Come to think of it, that may well be true also for each of our sessions, committees, and congregations. And even if we didn’t get more efficient in doing our work, just getting our hearts in sync and blood pressure down may well be benefit enough.

“O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Psalm 34:3)


The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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