When Christians Sing of Hope: Glenn Packiam’s Worship and the World to Come

It is the Battle Cry of a Battle that has Long Been Won

Sam Bush / 8.20.20

Among the positive effects of quarantine is a refocusing on what is temporal and what is eternal. Remember the Iowa Caucus? Remember the Oscars drama from last year? Neither do I. The unrelenting passage of time will always remind us that most of our concerns don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but something like a pandemic really sets the vanities ablaze. When the ash settles, only the truly important parts of life remain. One absence that is becoming more and more palpable is that of singing in a church with other worshipers. It turns out, corporate worship still matters and it’s something many of us have been deeply missing.

I recently attended a birthday party for a 93-year old parishioner who, until a year ago, had hosted sing-alongs in her assisted living apartment. Every month, she used to prepare lunch for over ten people (you know, at the age of 92) before her guests pulled out a hodgepodge of instruments for an amateur pick-a-thon. The vocal performances would range from embarrassed to overbearing; the playlist ran the gamut from “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” to “How Great Thou Art.” It was, by no means, the coolest gig in town, but that’s what made it so refreshing. Once inside this apartment, to be human was to simply be someone who ate food and sang songs.

At one point during the birthday party — after months of not gathering — one woman let out a long sigh before lamenting, “I just really miss singing together.” And so we did — “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound …”

Having been deprived of in-person worship for nearly five months, I, too, am feeling the effects of not worshiping with people. Singing is an essential part of well-being, a kind of portal that lifts you out of yourself. When the music is worshipful, it’s not only a temporary cure for self-centeredness, but an invitation for the Holy Spirit to make his presence known. It’s an experience I haven’t had in a long time. While the hymns themselves contain the power of God, it’s impossible to sing at my laptop with the same vigor with which I sing in church. As with all Zoom experiences, I usually remember what’s lacking more than I experience a proper substitute.

In his new book Worship and the World to Come: Exploring Christian Hope in Contemporary WorshipGlenn Packiam puts into words what is, for most, a spiritual and emotional experience. He explores worship in essentially every aspect, from the early church’s approach to its eschatological themes. It’s a refreshingly down-to-earth work written by a veteran worship leader and songwriter who cares deeply about how worship relates to people. Packiam writes:

Christians sing in weekly worship and in dark prison cells, when hearts are buoyant and when hope seems lost, Christians sing. When Paul and Silas sang, the ground shook and the prison doors flung open. Christians awaken the dawn of the Age to Come with a song. Even when it’s midnight in the world.

His description brings to mind a handful of images throughout history when hymns brought light into darkness — British and German soldiers singing Silent Night during a World War I Christmas Day truce; Martin Luther King speaking of how the freedom hymns gave people new courage and a sense of unity during the Albany Movement.

And yet, Packiam gets to the heart of the meaning of singing. Christian worship is not meaningful because of mere sentiment or a sense of togetherness. It is the battle cry of a battle that has long been won. While its music is often inspired, the melody’s ultimate purpose is to be a vehicle for the gospel. In doing so, form and content unite — the music draws us out of ourselves, transported into the feeling of the song, while its gospel lyrics point us further to the one who will rescue us. Packiam speaks eloquently of the power of Christian worship through the ages:

Christians sing because we are people of hope. In the face of fear, in the shadow of death, in the midst of suffering and pain, the Christian stands tall. We are shaken but not moved, pressed but not crushed, down but never out. Christians are those who believe that because Jesus was raised from the dead, the worst day will not be the last day. Christian hope is resurrection and new creation, and it makes all the difference in the world. […]

Christian hope is uniquely shaped by resurrection — by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and by the promise of our own future resurrection. […] Our worship together witnesses to the world that there is more than what we can see, more than this moment, more than what we can do on our own. Our worship together is a way of rehearsing our hope in order to embed it deep within us.

At this present moment, all I can say is that I miss those “rehearsals” where hope of Christ’s resurrection is embedded deep within me. I miss experiencing the joy and the courage that comes from proclaiming the gospel through song. Packiam is wise to remind me, however, that worship is not the gospel itself, but a response to the gospel. While we may not sing as boisterously from our living room couches, we are free to sing wherever the gospel may be found — which is to say anywhere and everywhere. Yes, even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.