I thought I might write a little piece on what I think it is that we are doing when we are singing. I take it that singing is a performative act, and as such it is very different to other forms of singing which are performance.
Of course, using such similar words doesn’t help, does it?
Performance singing is the kind of singing that dominates popular music, it is singing as an act of entertainment performed by the few towards the many, where the focus is on the artistry of the act. As performance, there is a dramatic aspect of the event, insofar as the performer takes on a persona, which involves a kind of suspension of authenticity.
Performative singing is a very different kind of speech-act: we are committing ourselves to the words we say, and in a sense ‘enacting’ them as we sing them. The psalms are our exemplars in this, in which we call ourselves and each other to praise, trust, lament, prayer, etc.. Most modern worship songs are primarily declarative – we are declaring statements that we (ought to) believe to be true. And if they are good declarative songs they focus on declaring the glories of who God is, and what he has done, most centrally who he has revealed himself to be in Christ, and what he has done for us in Christ.
This is one reason why I cannot agree with those who bring non-believers in for music ministries – they are essentially doing performance while the rest of the congregation are doing performative worship. While performance is a kind of dissemblance based on dramatic convention, doing performance in place of performative speech-acts is dissemblance without convention, and more akin to deception.
It’s also why I don’t think you should sing songs you don’t believe. There is something deeply inauthentic about such an act. It’s why when last week’s bad song of the week, “You Said” came up at church recently, I stood silent. Note that I mean we shouldn’t sing songs we don’t believe are true, not that we shouldn’t sing songs we ‘don’t feel like’ – the thing about singing is that in declaring, promising, etc., we may sing things we don’t ‘feel’ are true, but the very act of singing them is transformative of our own attitude, our own beliefs! Which is why getting songs ‘right’ matters. The way we sing is (part of) the way we worship, and so is formative of our Christian convictions and way of life.