Reflections on Singing with 12,000 People

| April 17, 2018

Last week, the night before Together for the Gospel began, someone asked Ligon Duncan what advice he’d give the first–time attender. He replied, “I come here to sing.”

The last time I personally attended T4G was 10 years ago. But every year it’s been held since, a number of folks from our congregation went, returning with some version of Dr. Duncan’s comment. Of course, while they’d tell me about the sermon(s) I needed to stream and show off the stacks of books they received, inevitably their visage would visibly brighten as they recounted the joys of singing with thousands of gospel–loving people. Last week, after a 10–year hiatus I’ll blame on 10 years of seminary, I joined 12,000 other men and women to hear a number of sermons. And to hear 12,000 people sing in a gym. Here are 5 reflections on that experience.

1. Thank God for Song

Martin Luther once said, “A person who . . . does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of donkeys [edited] and the grunting of hogs.” My wife’s family and my own both live on farms. I’ve heard that sound. I’ll stick with music.

Psalm 92:1 says, “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High.” When I studied music in college, one of my professors asked our class, “What is the highest art form in the world?” After some debate, he persuasively argued that the opera held that distinction, mainly due to the combination of literary aspects in the libretto, artistic aspects in the staging, thespian aspects of the actors/actresses, and the obvious musical aspects of the singing.

However, I’d put opera in a distant second. When the Creator of the world tells his image–bearers that which would be good for them, the argument ceases. The highest of art forms on the planet is the redeemed congregation singing praises to its Redeemer.

2. The Human Voice is the Greatest Instrument

I won’t bore you with the details, but most instruments in the West are tuned to something called equal temperament. This is because unfortunately if you tune a piano perfectly in one key (say E–flat), it won’t be perfectly in tune in some of the other keys. To correct this imperfection, most instruments are tuned to equal temperament––a series of small compromises in each key––to enable the instrument to play beautifully, though somewhat imperfectly, in all 24 keys.

I remember my secular music professor explaining this concept one time and then matter–of–factly asserting that the human voice was the only instrument that could perform every key perfectly in tune. In my secular university classroom, he said so without wonder. I worshiped. Steinway, Gibson, and Stradivarius masterfully make instruments; but they too come in a distant second.

Bob Kauflin said one time this week to the 12,000 voices that surrounded him, “It’s my joy to accompany you.” That’s what he did. He accompanied; he didn’t perform. I wonder if he even had the capability to stop a song once he started us. After that initial piano chord, 12,000 men and women were off to the races, employing the greatest instrument in the greatest art form with the greatest of songs.

3. It’s Not Always Been the Songs, It’s How Churches Sang

Just last week, a man stood in our baptistery at South Woods and said something along these lines about his recent conversion, “For the first time, all those sermons about the grace of God I have heard before made sense and felt real, rather than being merely religious words. I started enjoying coming to church, and even singing.” I resonated with him. I remember thinking as an unregenerate guitar–playing teenager how uncool it was to sing. At its best, it was effeminate. So instead, I just crossed my arms and judged the inadequacies of the musicians on stage. Then God saved me. That very week I lost my voice singing at a youth camp accompanied by mediocre musicians.

I say that to say a host of men and women my age probably reacted to the half–hearted singing in the churches they grew up in. In further reflection, I wonder if those churches weren’t half–full of men and women who did not have the song of God filling their affections. Spurgeon said, “Fine music without devotion is but a splendid garment upon a corpse.” This past week, it didn’t matter if the song was old or new, voices resounded.

4. Thank God for Songwriters and Worship Pastors

This probably puts on display my ignorance, but when I was consistently leading worship back in the early 2000s, I’d never heard of the Gettys, Bob Kauflin, or Matt Boswell. In fact, I’ve sworn my friends from that era to secrecy regarding the abysmal songs I led them in. I just didn’t know better; or at least that’s how I assuage my conscience. However, in the last ten years, God’s graciously given us a rich repertoire. We sang many of those songs last week. We ought to thank God for songwriters committed to the gospel, to thoughtful lyrics, and to God–centered worship.

When Michelangelo encountered men and women calling the Pietá genius, he replied, “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” Having spent a third of my life attempting to become an excellent musician only to end up a mediocre one, I’m thankful for those who hone their craft to aid us in worshipping through music. The person who led your singing last week probably spent significant time laboring over a piano or a hymnal praying and thinking through the songs they’d lead you in. And how exactly to lead you in them. I thank God for those members of Christ’s body.

Conclusion

12,000 people singing and giving thanks to the Lord is far from quiet. It’s an immersive experience of worship I’ll not soon forget. However, just because it’s louder doesn’t make it truer. In fact, if you were to ask me what singing moment affected me most in April of 2018, it wouldn’t be something from T4G. Actually it was on April 1st, Easter Sunday, when I saw a brother I dearly love––who’s walked through some difficult days––unable to keep from very slightly pumping his fist while singing about the resurrected Christ. He didn’t do it to be seen; he was on the back row. I only saw it because I’m on the platform. Further, he’s no showman. Yet his singing, and his belief in the words he sang, deeply edified me because we’ve walked together for years. While singing with 12,000 last week was wonderful, I’d still rather sing with 12 I know.