Pastoral duties, coaching little league baseball, and working to finish both the From Death to Life book and small group study guide have kept me from writing as much as I would like to as of late. Today, however, I was reading Psalm 100 and had some thoughts about corporate singing that I would like to share that I hope you find useful.
By corporate singing, I mean the time when the local church gathers to sing together our unified praises to our triune God who is infinitely worthy. In fact, Psalm 65:1 says praise is due Him. The Bible talks more about singing than some people might realize! It’s important to God, Who, by the way, is a singer Himself (Zepheniah 3:17).
So, with that, here are 8 practical thoughts on corporate singing. I don’t mean that I have a “Bible verse” for each thought, but that as a whole these principles are derived from Scripture. I hope they serve you well as you prepare for the coming Lord’s Day.
Corporate singing should be:
That’s a gimme, right? But the singing of the saints should be in accordance with what God wants us to sing. How do we know what the Lord would have us sing? Read the Bible! I don’t mean we can’t be creative. Creativity is part of the Imago Dei. But when creativity steps outside the bounds of Scriptural teaching, that’s a problem. Lines like “You didn’t want heaven without us,” “reckless love,” and “Ain’t it a shame to lie on Sunday when you got Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…” (all lines from actual songs), have no place in our corporate singing. Corporate singing should be Scriptural.
What I mean is not only should the Bible be our highest authority for what we sing but also how we sing. I’m not arguing for style here as much as attitude of heart. We are singing to the Lord in humble gratitude (Psalm 100:4). God has the right to demand how He is worshiped. This does matter. Too many think the “how” of worship doesn’t matter, only that we do worship. But when we worship unconcerned about the “how”, it may actually be that the object of the worship is not the God of the Bible, but ourselves.
I remember inviting a talented musician to lead a congregational meeting one evening several years ago, and that did not go over well. This was not because the man couldn’t play or sing. He could do both exceptionally well! Rather, it was because the congregation could not sing along with him. Congregational singing is not the time for a key so high it will break the glass. Nor is it time for rhythms that are too difficult to follow. This is especially true when all you have to look at is words on a screen which doesn’t communicate to you any sort of clear pattern to follow.
And finally, congregational singing is not the time for the music leader to show off his vocal range. Frankly, there are some songs, even very good songs, that simply are not made for corporate singing. They are fine to sing, but they aren’t good songs to try and sing together.
Just because a song is simple to follow doesn’t mean it has to have “simplistic” theology. Some hymns and contemporary songs are so dry that when you press them down you barely get the smallest drop of rich theology. Cut those songs. Sing the ones that are so saturated that when you barely poke them, the gospel overwhelms both you and those around you. I agree that we should sometimes sing songs about what “we do”. After all, the Psalms are full of lines and verses about what the writer is promising or desiring to do. But, keep priority in those songs about what Christ has done for His people. Too many songs about “I will” do this or that separate from what Christ has done will leave a church confused, run down, and in need of more gospel-saturated singing. After all, There is a Fountain – so sing it.
Let us ever remember that when we sing, we are singing to a thrice holy God. Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8 remind us that we serve a God who is Holy, Holy, Holy. There are two extremes to avoid here. The first, and maybe the most prevalent, is to remember that we are not in a concert setting. God’s people are gathering together to worship a God who is holy, righteous, just, merciful, and gracious. His steadfast love endures forever! But do not let this make you think that God is obligated to receive your church’s praise simply because you showed up on time. We are meeting with a holy God who has atoned for our sins in and through the person and work of Christ. He meets with us because of the mediation of King Jesus. He has sought us by drawing us to Christ in His grace through His Holy Spirit. Worship Him on those terms.
The second extreme to avoid is to remember that we aren’t attending God’s funeral either. Jesus lives! Reverence for God does not mean we must appear grief-stricken. For example, sometimes this mindset keeps young mothers afraid of their small children being too loud. Guess what? Small children can be loud sometimes. I’m not advocating unruliness, but just the reality that if a child makes a noise, it doesn’t “ruin” the service. In fact, many small children in the midst of corporate worship is a sign of life for a church!
This too can be taken to the extreme. You don’t have to have a music degree in order to assist your church in leading singing. However, let our singing be important enough that it is thought about prior to Sunday morning if at all humanly possible (and in most situations in America, it is possible). What I mean is, let our instruments honor the Lord by sounding the correct notes. Don’t get too carried away with this point. I don’t mean we can’t let “beginners” lead. We can and should. The point here is, let us put thought, time, prayer, and practice into leading well for the glory of God. Play skillfully (Psalm 33:3).
It’s quite unfortunate that singing has been such a divisive issue in many churches, mostly because of style. As important as we must remember the vertical aspect of our singing, we must also remember that there is a horizontal aspect. It is corporate singing. In our singing, we serve one another by singing loudly (I don’t mean obnoxiously). We serve one another by singing truth (Col. 3:16).
And, finally, we serve one another by singing others’ preferred songs. We might call this the Philippians 2 principle of singing (see Philippians 2:3-4). That is, we all have our favorite songs and style that we enjoy. But we can serve one another by thinking of the songs and styles they enjoy (that are theologically sound) and to sing them with joy knowing that we are honoring God and loving our brothers and sisters in Christ as we sing them together.
Bonus points for that word! The gist here is that the book of Psalms has 150 chapters for a reason. Paul says we should sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” for a reason. The singing of the church should be varied. This means that our singing should be varied in topic and style. Now, there are some “styles” that aren’t made for corporate singing. I enjoy Shai Linne for example. But even though his music is rock solid theologically, it’s not fitting for singing together (see point 3). However, there are a variety of styles that are conducive to corporate singing and I think there is biblical warrant to vary them at times. This, of course, will depend largely on your congregation.
I also mention varied on topic. Sometimes our singing is such that one would think the Christian life is always happy. It’s not. How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? (Psalm 13:1). Any person who has been a Christian longer than two weeks will admit to you that at times we feel the same way. It is appropriate to sing biblical songs that are an honest reflection of all of the Christian life. There are various aspects of Christ’s work to sing about. There are three persons of the Trinity to sing about. There are many important theological truths to sing about. May are corporate singing be varied.
Singing matters to God, and it must matter to God’s people. What (and how) a church sings is a true reflection of what it believes. May these 8 practical thoughts edify you on you journey in Christ. I’d love to hear more thoughts you have on this important subject.