Hymns Without Borders: Why Singing Can Strengthen Our Unity

by | Nov 22, 2022

A popular bumper sticker declares, “Make music, not war.” It’s a nice thought, but this idealistic sentiment may seem naïve in a world where bloodshed shows no sign of slowing down. The 20th century brought unprecedented growth in the amount of music produced and preserved for posterity, but this same period also saw the highest war-related death toll in history.

For Christians, though, the notion that long-time enemies could exchange their weapons for musical instruments is not a far-fetched dream. It is a reality as ancient as the New Testament church.

I recently witnessed this firsthand. Seated at the piano on one of music’s most hallowed stages, the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, TN, I played along as two believers, Milena Kabodko and Elizabeth Klimchuck, lifted their voices together in the same song—one in Ukrainian, the other in Russian.

Amazingly, the song they sang was one I knew well. Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a new melody and additional lyrics to Ada Habershon’s hymn of assurance, “He Will Hold Me Fast.” My reason for rearranging the song was personal: its message, that God’s sustaining grace is stronger than our fickle faith, ministered deeply to me during a season of doubt.

I had no clue that years later I would hear fellow Christians from Eastern Europe lead a hall of thousands in this same song of hope. Russian missiles were exploding over Ukraine, but no war could silence these sisters in Christ, united in their conviction that Jesus is the true King of kings. Each note they sang echoed as proof that the waters of baptism are stronger than the bonds of blood, nationality, ethnicity, and language.

Paul told the church to harness music’s God-given power: “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).

This verse is often cited to show that singing is a rich tool for spiritual growth—and it is. But the broader context shows that singing also strengthens unity in the church.

The congregation in ancient Colossae comprised folks from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Just a few verses earlier, Paul teaches them that “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11). He was not suggesting that faith in Christ erases our earthly distinctions. Rather, it supersedes them. In Christ, the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has been obliterated, paving the way for peace and reconciliation for all who trust in him for forgiveness of sin (Ephesians 2:14–16).

This doesn’t mean that unity in the church is easy. But it is possible. Paul goes on to tell the Colossians to bear with one another, forgive one another, let the peace of Christ rule in their hearts, and “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12–15).

Why did he have to give such instructions? Because a motley group of sinners from historically opposed ethnic and cultural backgrounds was bound to experience friction.

When Paul tells the Colossian church to sing the word of Christ, he’s not beginning a new section of the letter. He’s telling them precisely how to walk in love, peace, and reconciliation.

Christ values our unity so dearly that he paid for it with his own blood. Music itself doesn’t make us one. But for those whom Christ has united through faith in him, singing songs of the Lord helps us cultivate and enjoy the unity that he has established.

Of course, music alone cannot heal the divisions that exist among many believers. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quip that 11:00am is the most segregated hour in America is probably still true today. Still, singing is one tool the Holy Spirit delights to use. Some churches are in fact singing their way into a deeper and richer unity.

For example, in his recent book On Worship: A Short Guide to Understanding, Participating in, and Leading Corporate Worship (Chicago: Moody, 2022), H.B. Charles, Jr. tells the story of how his majority-black congregation, Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL, merged with a majority-white church in 2014. The “marriage” of these two churches came with growing pains, but Charles incorporated hymns from a wide variety of musical styles and thus helped foster unity. What a refreshing contrast to the so-called “worship wars” of past decades.

Another example is Word of Grace, the church in Washington State that both the Russian and Ukrainian singers I met at the Grand Ole Opry House attend. Each Sunday they gather to obey Colossians 3:16. Their singing, marked by love and peace, is a different sort of worship war—it is a battle against the tribalism and ethnocentrism that mark the spirit of this world.

The style of music usually performed at the Grand Ole Opry House is named after a place: the “country.” Country music represents and embodies a certain location, even if it is idealized and romanticized: the American countryside.

The song we sang on the Opry stage represents a different location: the “better country” of the new heavens and the new earth that is to come (Hebrews 11:16). Our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). When Ukrainian and Russian believers sing “He Will Hold Me Fast” together in this world, we hear a preview of the sweet harmony of eternity, a world where hatred and conflict will be no more.

In that new world we won’t need any more bumper stickers. The war will be over, and the song of peace will never end.

 


Prayer Requests:

  1. Pray that believers would cherish the unity we enjoy in Christ more deeply than the markers of meaning and identity prized by the world.
  2. Pray that local churches would cultivate rich congregational singing across lines of culture, ethnicity, and background, and that in so doing, the watching world might see (and hear) a compelling example of the power of the gospel.
  3. Pray that pastors and song leaders would have wisdom to lead their churches to foster a mindset of laying down individual preferences about musical style for the sake of the good of the whole congregation.

 

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Author

  • Matt Merker

    Matt Merker is Director of Creative Resources and Training for Getty Music and Director of Congregational Singing at Edgefield Church in Nashville, TN. His hymns include “He Will Hold Me Fast” and “Christ Our Hope in Life and Death.” He is the author of Corporate Worship: How the Church Gathers as God’s People, 9Marks: Building Healthy Churches (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021).

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