Why do we sing in church?
Is it because it’s fun? Because it’s tradition? Because it feels good?
It may be all of these things for some of us, but this is not why we do it. We sing in church because the New Testament commands us to.
“Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
- Ephesians 5:18-21
“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”
- Colossians 3:16
From these two brief passages we learn at least five key truths about God’s intentions for our musical worship:
- Every member is commanded to sing out loud, not just a select few.
- We are to be taught and admonished through our congregational singing.
- We are to sing various types of songs.
- Our singing is to be motivated by gratitude to God for who he is and what he’s done.
- Our singing in this way is an expression of being filled with the Holy Spirit.
With these five truths in mind, the worship leader can choose songs with intentionality, aiming to help the congregation obey Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3. Below are 5 guidelines that will help in that process.
Singability Over Personal Taste
According to the two passages above, our musical worship is to be congregational. In other words, we could have the best worship team providing the best music on the planet, but if the members of the church are not singing to one another, we fail to offer the musical worship God desires.
This means that one of the primary questions we should ask when selecting songs is: is it easy to sing? If it is not, it may be a great song for personal worship. But it is not the best choice for congregational worship. This can be difficult for those of us who love good songwriting, as we will have to say “no” to some of our favorite songs and “yes” to songs that may not be as artistically interesting. Yet these are worthy sacrifices, because they empower the entire congregation to obey God’s commands to sing to one another.
Both Revelation & Response
Colossians 3:16 also show us that we should teach one another through our singing. This means we should very carefully consider the lyrics of the songs we sing, as the truths we rehearse through actively singing a song are far easier to remember than those truths we receive through passively hearing a sermon. Our time of musical worship can instruct the congregation through 1) songs of revelation and 2) songs of response. Songs of revelation are those songs that teach biblical truths about who God is and what God has done, songs of response are those that teach us how to respond biblically to who God is and what God has done. In general, the broader evangelical community tends to primarily choose songs of response and the reformed community tends to choose songs of revelation. Yet the Psalms are rich with both, and our church services should be as well.
Both Familiar & Fresh
In order to faithfully obey Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 your church needs both songs that familiar and songs that are fresh. Familiar songs are necessary to ensure the congregation (and not just the worship team) can sing the song aloud as God commands. The more often a song is repeated the more easily the congregation can sing it loudly and joyfully. Fresh songs are also necessary in order to ensure the congregation wants to sing the song aloud as God commands. As we all know, there eventually comes a point when familiar songs become tired songs and the congregation no longer finds joy in singing them (speaking for myself, I may no longer want God to “open the eyes of my heart” if it means I have to sing Paul Baloche’s song again). To minimize this, it is important to regularly introduce new songs into the repertoire (the same Baloche recommends adding 2 new songs per month). Of course, once a fresh song is introduced the goal is to turn it into a familiar song (Baloche again recommends singing a new song 3 times within the first four-week period it is introduced to help move it from fresh to familiar).
Both Traditional Hymns & Modern Choruses
Both passages not only command us to sing as a congregation, but also to sing different types of songs as a congregation. In our culture the two general categories of congregational worship songs are 1) traditional hymns and 2) modern choruses. Both have advantages and disadvantages. For example, hymns have the advantage of covering a greater diversity of themes and connecting the congregation to the Universal Church in other places and times, while having the disadvantage of being verbose and using dated language that is difficult for some to understand. Worship choruses have the advantage of connecting with the musical and cultural expressions of many in the church, while having the disadvantage of being at times lyrically simplistic or overly “poppy” for some in the congregation. This is why we should include both in our worship sets, though how many we choose to use of each will depend heavily on the makeup of our congregation.
In keeping with the theme of singing diverse types of songs, we should also aim to include both mid- to up-tempo and mid- to down-tempo songs in our sets, as well as songs sung in the first-person singular (“I”) and songs sung in the first-person plural (“we”). The Book of Psalms models both by including both songs of celebration and of lament, and songs written both from the perspective of an individual and the perspective of the community.
Storytelling Over Personal Taste
If we are responsible for creating a worship set of six songs, the easiest thing to do is simply to pick the six songs we most enjoy singing. But doing so does not help us obey Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3. Instead, we should choose our songs with a focus on teaching one another about our God and how we ought to respond to him (Colossians 3:16). There are multiple strategies we can employ as we pursue this goal.
First, we can spend the week reading and reflecting on the biblical text our pastor will be preaching from. In prayer, we can then ask the Holy Spirit to help us select songs that will emphasize the themes of the passage and our proper response to them. For instance, if the theme of the sermon is suffering, it would be wise to choose songs that give us perspective on how to respond to Christian suffering (a famous example would be “Blessed Be Your Name”, though one of my personal favorites is “When the Tears Fall”).
Second, we can arrange the songs of revelation/response and songs of down-tempo/up-tempo in a way that reinforces the story God is telling through the preached Word. For example, I have found it helpful to open the service (before the sermon) with songs of revelation that affirm things about God’s character that will be covered in the sermon and close the service (after the sermon) with songs of response that model how we should respond to what God said through the preaching. Similarly, I have generally used down-tempo songs to lead into the sermon (as they calm our hearts and help us focus on what God is about to say) and out of the sermon (as they provide us space to meditate on what God just said), while using up-tempo songs at the conclusion of the service that we might leave the gathering celebrating the grace and forgiveness we received from God that day.
Of course it is not necessary that you follow my application of Colossians 5 and Ephesians 3, but it is essential that you reflect on these passages and determine how God would have you apply them and obey them in the context of your corporate musical worship.
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Cole Brown is a Humble Beast author and speaker. He is the founding pastor of Emmaus Church, a multi-ethnic church in Portland, and now serves as a missionary helping plant churches in Mexico City, Mexico. Connect with him on twitter or facebook.