Music is a beautiful expression of creativity and creation that can be composed and enjoyed by humanity. And, in the Christian Scriptures, music is utilised to both facilitate and act as an expression of praise and adoration to God. In this short post I want to briefly reflect on some truths related to what singing in the church community is meant to look like. I may do a more extensive treatment of music in church at some point, but here are some thoughts for now. There are three passages in the New Testament where we are explicitly commanded to sing as a community:
16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. ~ Colossians 3:16-17 (NIV)
18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
~ Ephesians 5:18-20 (NIV)
13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.
~ James 5:13 (NIV)
The motivation for singing
Notice how in the Colossians passage the Apostle Paul says that singing is an expression of what it means to let the ‘message of Christ dwell’ in us richly. In the Ephesians passage the Apostle Paul also writes that singing to each other is an expression of what it means to be ‘filled with the Spirit’. We also see in the James passage that singing songs (specifically, of praise) is an outpouring of joy. So we sing because we are commanded to, and because it is how Christians actually express their being Spirit-filled followers of Jesus Christ. It also comes out of happiness in God and thankfulness before Him. We’re going to come back to this aspect shortly.
When my non-Christians friends visit church, one of the oddest aspects of the service is when we stand up to sing. But singing and making music in our hearts is part of what it means for the Christian community to be a community. Music and song is a distinctive of our witness and gathering.
Notice, also, that we are called to sing ‘psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit’. Different commentators have tried to explain the difference between these 3 titles, but suffice it to say that, at the very least, Christians are called to sing with a variety of sorts of songs (beyond just the psalms in the BIble).
The Horizontal dimension
We see from these passages that singing in community is meant to be directed horizontally (to each other) and vertically (to God).
On a horizontal level, singing facilitates words that are to both teach and admonish (warn, rebuke, correct) one another. Do you get that? Christians, singing in church, are meant to be teaching, warning, rebuking, and correcting one another. This is why the words of the songs matter.
And this is why music ministry in a church setting is not meant to be an afterthought, but is intensely serious. We take the preaching of the Bible seriously, but the music that we sing must also be taken seriously because it is a teaching ministry of the church. Choosing songs matters. What purpose is this song playing in the runsheet of our service? How is this going to reinforce or transition what is coming before and afterwards? And how, as a musician or singer, am I contributing to the teaching of the congregation?
This also means that when we sing in church we are singing to each other. So if we can’t hear each other then we aren’t performing this function (for instance, if the volume of the instruments are so loud that we can’t hear the voices of the congregants). Instrumental arrangements of music are expressions of adoration to God, but they are also able to help carry the words and stir up feelings that reinforce the beauty and truth of what is being sung. Just think about how different songs stick in our memories because of the melodies that accompany them. Indeed, it’s important to practice as a music team to ensure that the instrumental accompaniment and singing don’t distract the congregation or confuse them as to when and what they are singing. But the instrumental music cannot be focused upon to the detriment of ignoring the lyrics of the song. And we need to be able to hear the lyrics as the members of the church sing to one another, teaching and admonishing each other.
The admonishing of the congregation occurs as we sing a song and realise that our thinking, feeling, or actions aren’t in line with what God wishes for us. For instance, when I sing the song ‘Before the Throne of God Above’ I may see the lyric:
When Satan tempts be to despair, and tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there…who made an end to all my sin.
Singing this to one another in a community admonishes those who have forgotten that they truly are completely forgiven for their sins. It encourages those who are overwhelmed with guilt. It corrects those who think that Satan is right in his accusations.
In that sense, then, we must also remember that the horizontal dimension of singing means that our church communities are being taught theology as we sing. We are saying things about God. Remember that singing also comes out of letting the message of Christ dwell in us richly, meaning that our songs are to be in line with the Gospel message and truths of Scripture. A wise man once said “if you want to know where a church is headed theologically, listen to what they sing on Sunday.”
The Vertical dimension
Not only do we sing horizontally, to each other in community, but we are also singing to God in praise and thanksgiving. All three passages speak of singing songs of praise, and in Ephesians and Colossians it specifically mentions giving thanks to the Father in the name of Jesus Christ. Let’s expand on these concepts.
‘Praise’ is defined as an expression of admiration, or approval, in some aspect. For example, if I say to someone “your new haircut looks good” then I am praising their haircut. I am expressing admiration, or approval, of their stylistic choice. ‘Praise’ must be saying something about some aspect. What that means is that if I said to someone “I love you” then that isn’t praise. I haven’t said something about them that I approve of, or am admiring, but have in fact said something about me. It’s not wrong to say to someone that I love them, but that isn’t praise. (Though, I will admit, there are ways in which the phrase ‘I love you’ may be utilised in a way to praise some aspect of someone. For example, sometimes the phrase is used when we wish to say we approve of something someone has done). We praise God when we speak of His excellencies, and point to His glory. We praise God when we speak of what He has done and proclaim His beauty.
We don’t praise God by telling Him what we will do in response because that isn’t saying something about Him – instead, that would be saying something about us. However, we could call this ‘thanksgiving’. ‘Thanksgiving’ is a response of gratitude to something that someone has done, or something that has happened. So if I thank God for what He has done, and say how I will live in light of it, that can count as thanksgiving. It’s literally the ‘giving of thanks’ which can be expressed in word and deed. So, on a vertical dimension, our songs to God are to be filled with praise and thanksgiving for who He is and what He has done. If we don’t have content to be praising or giving thanks for then our songs will be empty. So this should affect the ways in which we choose our songs.
Approaching the Father in the name of Jesus Christ means that our songs are expressions of worship in the sense that we are expressing words of adoration and honour to Him (This is in line with Psalm 29:2 and Psalm 100:2, where the singing of songs is linked directly to worshiping God. I won’t go into a full treatment of the complexities of ‘worship’ here). It’s interesting that the idea of coming to the Father in the name of Jesus Christ is evocative of the language of prayer, but more accurately we should say that it is referencing the fact that Jesus is our great High Priest who gives us access to God (cf. Hebrews 4:14-16). When we sing as a church community, we Christians have an audience with God, and are grasping hold of our privilege to approach Him.
So sing boldly. Sing joyfully. Sing, knowing that your Father in heaven is listening to everything because you can approach Him in the name of Jesus Christ. Sing with gratitude in our hearts, knowing that God cares about our reasons for singing and the heart behind it as well.
I want to finish this blog post by expressing my thanks for all those who are involved with helping their local congregations sing and make music for the Lord. I pray that all my sisters and brothers would take music ministry as seriously as many of you do. Thank you for helping to facilitate this teaching ministry within our church communities. And thank you for helping us to praise the Lord.
May this post encourage you, and help you to think through what it means for us to be doing this for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.