Last week, we considered the first two principal purposes of congregational singing, namely, to help us praise and to help us pray. We need constant reminding that God truly deserves our praise, that God repeatedly demands our praise, and that God deeply desires our praise. Since many of the songs we sing are prayers, “let us then be conscious of what we’re doing when we sing such songs, and let us thank God with the depth of gratitude and gladness that ought to accompany the prayers and praises of those who ‘were by nature children of wrath’, but have been loved with an everlasting love, saved by grace through the blood of Christ, and adopted as the children of the living God.”
We continue this week with the third principal purpose of congregational singing, as adapted from a 2012 article by Rob Smith entitled The Role of Singing in the Life of the Church.
3. Singing and Proclamation
Finally, we turn to the subject of singing and proclamation. As well as being a form of praise and a form of prayer, singing is also a form of proclamation. The Scriptures reveal that the life-giving word of God is ministered among the people of God not only by Bible reading and biblical preaching, but also by the singing of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16). This does not mean that the sung word is meant to eclipse the spoken word, or that singing should replace the public reading of Scripture and preaching and teaching (1 Tim 4:13). The sung word is not to rival the spoken word in the church’s preaching ministry, but is designed to function as its handmaid and complement. Martin Luther said, “Music is a vehicle for proclaiming the Word of God… The gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming [God’s word] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.5
The apostle Paul was of the same mind. This is why he emphasized the teaching function of congregational singing. For one of the chief things we are doing when we sing together is instructing and exhorting one another. This is clear in Ephesians 5:19 where Paul speaks of our “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” It is even clearer in Colossians 3:15-17 where Paul writes, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Here are three points of practical application to ensure that this works out in practice in the way that God intends:
- First, we must always sing truthfully. That is, we need to make sure that we’re singing God’s truth. Now, of course, it helps if the tunes are appropriate, enjoyable, singable and memorable. It also helps if the words have a certain poetic flair. Nothing can substitute for a faithful articulation of God’s word. The balance and focus of Scripture ought to be reflected in our songs, so that the things of ‘first importance’ remain central in our singing.
- Second, we must always sing clearly. This point is really an extension of the first, highlighting the need for our songs to communicate Scriptural truth in a way that is intelligible to the people who are singing and hearing them. This doesn’t necessarily require a ‘lowest common denominator’ approach or the removal of all archaisms, for words and ideas can always be explained and all of us grow in our understanding of the things we sing over time (as we do of the things we read in the Bible). Nevertheless, if the word of Christ is to dwell richly among us, the songs must communicate effectively to, and be able to be understood by, the people gathered.
- Third, we must always sing fervently. This, I take it, is the reason why Paul adds the word “richly” in Colossians 3:16. For it is clearly possible for churches to let Christ’s word dwell in them poorly or ineffectually, not only by singing songs which are untrue or unclear, but (and this would seem to be Paul’s point) by singing them feebly or half-heartedly; that is, without either a profound sense of thankfulness to God or the intention of actively teaching and encouraging others. Paul makes the same point in Ephesians 5:19 when he urges believers to address one another and make melody to the Lord “with all your heart”! This, as we’ve already noted in our reflections on praise, requires deliberate engagement on our part, for communication takes effort.
What is singing in church? Praise, prayer, and proclamation!
In giving us the ability to sing and make music, God has given us a very great gift. In calling us to utilize this gift in our church gatherings, he has provided a way of praising him, praying to him and proclaiming his word to others. This not only unites us together in our prayers and praises, and not only helps us to teach and remember his word, but assists us (both personally and corporately) in embracing the emotional dimensions of the truths we sing, so that we might love and serve God in the fullness of our humanity, with heart, soul, mind and strength. This, then, is a gift to treasure dearly, use wisely and protect carefully.
Brian Evans, Music Director