Thoughts on RUF's Philosophy of Singing, Song Choice, and Leading
by Brian Habig
RUF Campus Minister at Vanderbilt University
RUF Campus Minister at Vanderbilt University
God's people have always been a people who sung, so it seems more appropriate to ask for a defense of why we wouldn't sing together as a ministry. Singing together is biblically commanded and edifying to the brethren.
In singing together, we engage in corporate worship, not stated worship. That is to say, our worship of the LORD is never to be seen as a replacement for stated times of meeting for worship in local churches; it is, though, corporate worship in the sense that we are engaging in worshipful song (see below) and doing so corporately (together, as a group). The only exception would be on those occasions when a retreat or conference treats its Sunday morning meeting as a stated worship service, in which case the singing (as well as all the other aspects of the service) are done under the oversight of a teaching elder in the PCA.
Worship at its core is the proclamation of the glories of the One to whom such activity is due. Note the language of the worship of Jesus Christ presently occurring in heaven: "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!" (Rev.5: 12). We are proclaiming and rejoicing in His "worth-ship" (from which our word "worship" is derived).
Accordingly, this has implications for the sorts of songs that we make use of as a ministry. It is not enough that a song merely mentions God or Jesus Christ, or that it picks up on biblical themes about Christian living. We strive to use those songs that are lyrically God-centered rather than man-centered. In addition, we strive to use God-centered songs that are theologically strong and substantial in their content (the more God-centered they are, the more this should hold true!). This accounts for why R.U.F. tends to make use of hymns more than gospel songs, psalms more than choruses. We welcome gospel songs and choruses that are God-centered and substantial in content, but we also strive not to compromise our standards in the interest of what is easier.
Lyrics are not the only criteria for song choice. Songs should also be excellent in their accompanying music. Since Jesus Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth and rules over all (Mt.28:18; Eph.1:20-22; Phil.2:9-10), He is the Lord of music as well. Therefore, we want to make use of tunes that are of good quality and capture something of what the lyrics convey. This has several implications. First, this means that in some instances the original tune for a hymn or song will be used, since it is so appropriate for the message it accompanies. In other instances, though, a new tune will be used, since the old one may be so alien to our way of singing that it has the net effect of quenching the hymn, psalm, song, etc. of its potential for helping us worship. Second, this also means that as a ministry we strive to help students begin weaning themselves from more child-like tunes (which will almost always be more familiar) and to begin developing a "taste" for more substantive ones. This is a difficult area and sometimes unavoidably subjective, but feedback from those who are both younger and older helps to inform our decision-making.
Leading is both a solemn and joyful task. It is solemn in the sense that one is entrusted with the responsibility of leading and assisting in the worship of our Almighty Father and King, and it is joyful in the sense that such worship is to be just that -- joyful!
As one leads the singing at a meeting of R.U.F. (large group bible study, Sunday night meeting, weekend retreat, summer conference, etc.), one plays a large part in what sort of spirit the singing will be done. If the leader conveys an attitude of apathy and routine, then the attitude will probably be "contagious" to the group being led. On the other hand, if the leader adopts a false sort of excitement as he leads singing, the group will either be put off by what they (rightly) perceive as insincerity, or they will be pressured into a mistaken understanding of lively worship (i.e., "If I'm fired up, then I must be in a worshipful frame of mind"). Both extremes are to be avoided! There is nothing boring or routine about worshiping the Living God, our Heavenly Father, with song -- we will enjoy it for an eternity! Accordingly, we want to do everything possible to avoid directing attention to ourselves (as song leaders) and to direct the group's attention to the God whom we are worshiping. How is this to be done?
Some practical hints for song leading:
1) Pray before engaging in song leading! Ask the Holy Spirit not only to enable and empower God's people to sing worshipfully, reverently, and joyfully, but also for His blessing on those leading as well. Pray that He will prevent you from becoming so preoccupied with the task of leading that you yourself are not singing unto the Lord!
2) Preparation beforehand will bless both leader(s) and those being led. This will involve several aspects:
a) Make sure that all the guitar players know the correct chords, and that any song leaders know the correct tune!! This may sound like stating the obvious, but since many campuses sing the same songs with subtle differences, these differences can emerge in the midst of song leading and confuse the group. Get these wrinkles ironed out beforehand.
b) Make sure all instruments being used are in tune. If possible, tune the instruments in a quiet room before leading.
c) Make sure either overheads are within everyone's sight or songbooks are within everyone's reach. If using overheads, print the lyrics as large as possible, and have someone move the overhead up as the song progresses.
d) Make sure sound equipment (if any) is working and ready.
Again, these may sound like obvious steps, but they are often neglected, and we are striving not to hinder worship.
3) The leader needs to lead decisively. This doesn't mean taking on a bossy persona; it simply means the leader needs to know what singing is to be done, how that singing helps us worship our Father, and what the group is to do. Both timidity and bossiness are inappropriate; leading is to be done humbly yet decisively.
4) Avoid wordiness! The group neither needs nor wants a sermon between each song. If it seems that pointing out a particular lyric or appropriate verse of Scripture will contribute to the group's worship, then do so concisely. Also, don't chastise a group for its singing; an appropriate exhortation ("let's sing out on this one") is adequate.
5) Don't neglect your own soul. This may be the most important aspect of song leading. If the leaders are not feeding on God's Word, how will they direct others to the God who reveals Himself in His Word? If they are neglecting private worship in their own closets, how will they be equipped to lead public worship? There is no substitute for genuine nearness to God.