I can’t sing. That’s not to say I’m completely non-musical, because I can play the autoharp well enough so that the folks I play with at church tolerate me without too much problem. But when I open my mouth, what comes out tends to resemble some passages of Gregorian chant: the same note, one after another. Except in my case, I’m supposed to be changing them.

So despite the fact that I love to sing, I keep it down when anyone else might be able to hear me, and especially in group settings such as worship. According to David Mills at First Things, that’s probably the right thing to do:

Some people believe sincerity the sole criterion. I’ve just had one of those fraught discussions of church music and you’re always at a disadvantage in trying to argue for some decorum in worship (e.g., people singing close to in tune) when someone responds that Miss Elma Mae Wombat just loves praising the Lord and so what if she does it out of tune and in a screech — God doesn’t care. Only a snob would mind.

The objection, a friend involved in the same discussion pointed out, isn’t snobbery. It’s that people can’t help but react to discord. Unless you can manage more obliviousness to the sounds around you than can the average man, Miss Elma Mae Wombat’s enthusiasm will disrupt if not destroy your ability to praise God in song yourself. There are people whose voices are less pleasant than the sound of fingernails scraping down a blackboard.

So I’m not sure that God doesn’t care. And not just in the sense that singing in tune represents something of the glories to which we shall come, and is a good in itself. Singing in church is a corporate act, which means more than everyone doing the same thing at the same time, but in their own way. The defense of Miss Wombat’s singing seems to assume that whatever anyone feels led to do must be okay, and everyone else can just deal with it. But most of us can’t deal with screeching.

I think he’s exactly right. In the American church, our instinctive individualism tells us that it doesn’t matter what effect what we do has on the people around us; we should just be ourselves and follow the Lord’s leading, and if His leading is to belt out “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” with all the tonality of a bull elephant that’s just been shot with a tranquilizer dart, so be it.But the corporate nature of worship is not incidental, but of the essence of what we do. We can each stay home and praise God as we warble “Are You Washed in the Blood?” in the shower, but we don’t. We come together with others, and lift a congregational voice in praise. That doesn’t mean that I, or you, or Miss Wombat, shouldn’t sing–it means that the effort needs to be made to be one with the whole body, and if that means sublimating, so be it.