What is Singing in Church? – Part 1
Over the years, I have been instructed and encouraged in the areas of worship and music by writers including D.A. Carson, Marva Dawn, Tim Keller, Kent Hughes, and Bob Kauflin. More recently, I have become acquainted with the work of Paul Tripp, Keith & Kristyn Getty, Rob Smith and Mike Raiter, and Philip Percival. These men and women of the faith have captured from the Scriptures and expounded upon what it is to worship God not only as an individual, but as a corporate body. These times of corporate worship include God’s people singing. What follows is adapted from a 2012 article by Rob Smith entitled The Role of Singing in the Life of the Church. The article will be in two parts: Part 1 will deal with Singing and Praise and Singing and Prayer and Part 2 will deal with Singing and Proclamation.
One of the chief things that Christians are renowned for, both historically and universally, is singing songs and making music. My intention in this article is to focus specifically on congregational singing (rather than Christian music generally), and to open up its three principal purposes: (1) to help us praise, (2) to help us pray, and (3) to help us proclaim.
1. Singing and praise
How should we think about praise? The first thing to note is that, according to Scripture, praising God normally has two faces or aspects to it: we can praise God to God and we can praise God to others. The second thing to note is that praising God doesn’t always have to take the form of singing. Indeed, it would be a mistake, biblically speaking, to equate praise with singing. Whilst praise normally involves words, everything we do should be for the glory and praise of God (1 Cor 10:31; Phil 1:11). But, thirdly, there’s no escaping the fact that singing is a vital form of praise. Many Scriptures (particularly many of the Psalms) bear this out. Not only do they link praise directly with singing, but they frequently speak of the two faces of praise in virtually the same breath. Consider, for example, the opening verses of Psalm 96:
Oh, sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!
The point could not be clearer. We sing to the Lord, blessing his name, and we sing of the Lord, declaring his glory.
The importance of singing the praises of God is evident from the number of times it is commanded in Scripture (e.g. Ex 15:21; 1 Chr 16:9, 23; Ps 5:11; 9:11; 30:4; 33:3; 47:6-7; 66:2; 68:4, 32; 81:1-2; 95:1-2; 96:1-2; 98:1, 4-5; 100:2; 105:2; 107:22; 135:3; 147:1, 7; 149:1, 5; Isa 12:5-6; 42:10; Jer 20:13; 31:7; Zeph 3:14; Zech 2:10; Jam 5:13). Now, admittedly, most of these exhortations are found in the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms. But given that the apostle Paul expects and exhorts Christians to sing the Psalms (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16), these commands have abiding relevance. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that praise, like all other aspects of Christian obedience, is a constant battlefront on which God’s people have to fight to be faithful.
Let me suggest three biblically grounded strategies to address our natural (fallen) reluctance to praise, honor and give thanks to God.
First, we need constant reminding that God truly deserves our praise (Ps 7:17; 18:3; 147:1). The triune God, who is our creator and redeemer, our savior and sanctifier, deserves every bit of praise you and I can muster, and then a whole lot more! Praise is his due, it is what he deserves for he is infinitely worthy and therefore it is entirely fitting that we praise him at all times (Ps 34:1).
Second, we need constant reminding that God repeatedly demands our praise. Psalm 47 is but one example:
Clap your hands, all peoples!
Shout to God with loud songs of joy!
Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
For God is the King of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm! (Ps 47:1, 6-7)
These are not mere suggestions, they are commands! But what beautiful, liberating commands they are. This is what we were made for, saved for.
Third, we need constant reminding that God deeply desires our praise. That’s why he described the people of Israel as “the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise” (Isa 43:21). That’s why he describes the church of Jesus Christ as those who have been chosen “for the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:12, 14). Praise is God’s purpose because praise is God’s desire. And he desires our praise not only because it is good for us, but also because it pleases him.
The clear implication of all this is that we need to heed the call of the Scriptures to be people and churches that give ourselves to praise. The God who has held back nothing from us, not even his only Son, deserves far more than the dregs of our attention and the leftovers of our affections.
2. Singing and prayer
We turn now to the subject of singing and prayer. For just as praising God is bigger than singing, so singing is also more than praising God. Singing is also a form of prayer. The book of Psalms, once again, is our prime example here. For a large proportion of the Psalms are, in fact, prayers (e.g. Pss 3-8, 9-10, 12-13, 16 18, etc.). What this means, then, is that exhortations to sing Psalms (such as those we have in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3) are effectively commands to sing prayers. This, of course, does not mean that the Psalms must only be sung, as if they should never simply be read, recited or chanted. But it is instructive to realize that they were sung—the laments as well as the praises, many by the whole congregation, although some perhaps only by the temple choir.
Singing plays a critical role in helping us to bridge the gap between cognitive knowledge and experiential knowledge, and (as many of the lament Psalms illustrate) in helping us process our emotional pain and so bring us to a point of praise (e.g. Ps 3-7). But, of course, we don’t have to restrict ourselves to just singing Psalms. Not only are there other biblical songs (and many other parts of the Bible that can be sung), but Paul urges the singing of “hymns” and “spiritual songs” as well. Whilst it is difficult to make hard and fast distinctions between the terms, “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”, taken together seem to cover the whole range of Christian congregational songs, from canonical psalms (at one end) to spontaneous songs (at the other).
Before we leave the subject of singing and praying let me also say something about singing and thanksgiving, for the simple (and entirely biblical) reason that whenever we ask God for things, we should also thank him for the things he has given. (Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19,20) Let’s 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 (Jer 31:3; Eph 2:8; Rom 8:15).
- Saturday, April 7th, 6:30 PM “An Apologetic for the City”
- Sunday, April 8th, 9:30 AM “A Globalized Cities Initiative: We are Living in a Very Strategic Time for Great Commission Ministry”
- 11:00 AM “The City-God’s Gift to Great Commission Christians.”
- 12:15 PM Potluck Luncheon and Panel Discussion
Conversational English Teachers – Stephen and Satomi Sakamotos, our missionaries to Japan, are looking for native English speakers who can teach English as a ministry of Ibaraki Bible Church in Japan. One of the positions is 1-2 years (a paid position) and one is for 6 weeks starting July 2018. Please contact Paul Dreiling (firstname.lastname@example.org