A few weeks ago, I attended a talk on immigration from a Catholic perspective. The speaker was a gifted, accomplished woman who had spent more than a decade as a United Nations consultant on the issue.
She described her collaborations with diplomats; she cited statistics, demographic trends and historical precedents with fluency. Her faith radiated through her gentle yet earnest exhortations to live out the Gospel by treating immigrants with dignity and compassion. And she even managed a few quips of gracious humor in the process.
During a question-and-answer segment, one participant shared how moved she’d been by the speaker’s words, which had helped her to better understand her own work with migrants and refugees. Others in the audience nodded; the room seemed to glow with goodwill.
Yet as I looked around — and then back at the speaker — all I could think was, “This dear lady is preaching to the choir.”
No one in the audience was insensitive or hostile to the plight of migrants. On the contrary, from what I could gather, most were already involved in some sort of outreach to those seeking a new homeland. They were singing from the same hymnal as the speaker. But the shrill voices that cried out for migrants to be detained and deported hadn’t been blended into the ensemble, so that harmony all around could prevail.
Of course, in the shouting match that passes for modern debate, it’s seemingly impossible to engage those who hold opposing viewpoints in meaningful dialogue. As a result, we often end up in echo chambers, battered by repetitive choruses that dull our ears and hearts. In a sense, we all end up preaching to the choir.
Sometimes, though, that’s actually not a bad thing — if the preaching is inspired, and the singers are humble.
In his First Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul urged his readers to “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thes 5:11). For the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, such affirmation keeps us spiritually supple: “Encourage yourselves daily while it is still ‘today,’ so that none of you may grow hardened by the deceit of sin” (Heb 3:13).
And a few quick text messages or social media likes aren’t sufficient here; we need actual face-time: “We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works. We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25).
Our coming together should strengthen, not strain our collective voice: “When you assemble, one has a psalm, another an instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Everything should be done for building up” (1 Cor 15:26).
We don’t know if he was a tenor, baritone or bass, but St. Paul was certainly a fan of choirs as well as preaching. Having been beaten and imprisoned at Philippi, he and Silas sustained their spirits by “praying and singing hymns to God” in the dead of night (Acts 16:25).
He recommended the practice in his letter to the Colossians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16).
If love calls both the text and the tune, preaching to the choir can inspire songs that others — even those with the harshest voices — will be drawn to join, and we will indeed be able to “sing to the Lord a new song” (Ps 96:1), one that truly glorifies him.
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