A theology of singing in church

A good way to get some blog traffic is to talk about something controversial. I first learned this when my article “What should I do with my hands during congregational singing” sparked some fiery discussion a few years back.

Singing

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Although my convictions have not changed since I first published that article, my understanding of the theology behind singing has developed significantly. This longer article is an attempt to outline a more in depth and theological approach to singing in church.

For the sake of full disclosure, this article is an adapted version of an essay I wrote in 2013 for Moore College. So it’s a little longer than usual. To make it more “blog friendly” I’ve taken the footnotes out, but if you want the technical version you can get it here. At the very least, my plan is to give this article to the musicians who serve in our church plant next year. But beyond that, my prayer is that this article helps the church more broadly.

God’s people have always sung

First things first, God’s people have always sung. In the Old Testament, they sung of salvation (Ex. 15), of victory (Judg. 5), of champions (1 Sam 18:7), and of deliverance (2 Sam. 22). They sung before the ark (1 Chr. 16:4), in battle (2 Chr. 20:22), and in the temple (2 Chr. 29:28). Most significantly, they sung from the Psalms.

In the New Testament, Jesus sung (Matt. 26:30), the apostles sung (Acts 16:25), churches are commanded to sing (Col. 3:16), and as Revelation makes clear, those in heaven sing too (Rev. 5:9). In short, God’s people are a singing people and they will continue to be a singing people for all eternity. So get used to it!

Before digging a bit deeper, it’s worth asking why Christians are so into singing. Seriously, why do we sing (as opposed to just talk)? According to Rob Smith, “when we sing, we sing words with meanings. Those words not only facilitate the communication of cognitive content, but the singing of them helps communicate their emotional content as well.”

In other words, singing helps us engage with the emotional dimensions of our humanity in a way that speaking doesn’t. I don’t know about you, but that’s certainly true of my own experience. It’s probably also why you hear signing at sporting events so often! Singing gets the blood pumping!

But why do Christians sing?

The Bible gives more explicit answers to this question. The two most helpful New Testament passages that address this issue are:

‘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 heart.’ (Colossians 3:16)

‘Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.’ (Ephesians 5:18-19)

I find it fascinating that each passage addresses both the horizontal and vertical dimensions that take place when Christians sing:

  • Horizontally- Christians ‘address one another’. Singing is an opportunity to ‘teach and admonish’ others as we affirm the truths of the gospel. I think Christian “worship” culture often misses this.
  • Vertically- even though we address, teach and admonish one another, we do so as we ‘sing to God’, ‘making melody to the Lord’. Singing is not just to others, but also to God.

What are we actually doing when we sing?

Here are three helpful words to describe what’s going on when Christians sing:

  • Praise- this is probably the most obvious element of singing. When we sing we tell God (Ps 57) and others (Ps 46) what we love and admire about him.
  • Prayer- whether we realise it or not, many of the psalms are prayers. This means that when Paul tells the Colossians and Ephesians to ‘sing psalms,’ he is in effect telling them to sing prayers. These may be personal (Ps. 55) or corporate (Ps. 85); requests (Ps. 83), thanks (Ps. 138) or even confessions (Ps. 51).
  • Proclamation- songs can be used to teach (Ps. 119), exhort (Ps. 100), admonish (Ps. 95) and evangelize (Ps. 67).

Pretty much every song you sing at church will fall into one of these three categories.

What biblical precedent is there for different types of singing? 

Some people seem to think that the only legitimate way to sing in church is as a congregation. And even then, the music and song leader have to be turned down so it doesn’t feel like a concert or solo. While there may be some wisdom in this, the Bible is far from one dimensional when it comes to singing in church.

According to Peterson, “although some biblical praise was sung by believers together, individual singers and choirs seem to have had a significant role in Old Testament gatherings for worship. This pattern suggests that there is a place in our gatherings also for corporate singing, for individuals ministering in song and for choirs.” Psalm 136 also appears to be a call and response song.

Now at this point the Bible nerds (probably the only one’s who’ve managed to read this far) might rightly ask, ‘But how much should New Testament believers copy the practices of Old Testament Israel?’ This is an important question, but I think it’s got a simple answer.  While many of the Old Testament shadows have been fulfilled in Christ, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that singing in the assembly should have far more continuity than discontinuity between the Testaments.

So what does all this mean for me and my church on Sunday?

Let me suggest five simple ways in which this theology might drive our practice in church:

1. There should be singing in the Sunday gathering- While it’s certainly possible to imagine individual circumstances where singing may not be appropriate for a time, it seems to cut against the grain of Scripture to disregard singing altogether. As we’ve seen, Christians are not only commanded to sing, but it’s integral to who they are as the people of God. This may be individual, congregational or choral, but either way, there should be singing.

2. Quality is more important than quantity- The common observation that our gatherings sing far more than those of the Reformation churches is not necessarily a bad thing. Shead laments, “Our greatest point of contrast with Cranmer’s church is the sheer quantity of music we sing.” Given that singing is a key way to let the ‘word of Christ dwell among us richly,’ far more important than the quantity of the songs we sing is their quality. This leads us to the next implication.

3. The songs we sing should reflect a diversity of praise, prayer and proclamation- In a 2002 survey of over 150 contemporary songs, Evans found that 71 per cent of songs were written from the individual’s point of view, and over half of them had to do with the individual’s relationship with God. This just goes to show the deficiency in our understanding about the corporate nature of singing and the role that singing can have as a ministry to one another.

4. Congregation members should not be afraid to express their emotions when singing- With the rise of the charismatic movement, many Christians are rightly concerned about emotionalism. Emotionalism means pursuing feeling as an end in themselves rather than as a response to the gospel. But as Bob Kauflin says, “the problem is emotionalism, not emotions.” To be sure, emotional expressiveness may need to be tempered so that “everything is done in order” (1 Cor. 14:40), but it may also be appropriate to challenge the almost stoic-like nature of congregational singing in some churches.

5. Technically, the language of ‘worship’ does not refer to congregational singing alone- this point doesn’t exactly flow from the argument above, but the Sydney “climate” demands I include it. Peterson says, “Although some of Scripture’s terms for worship may refer to specific gestures of homage, rituals or priestly ministrations, worship is more fundamentally faith expressing itself in obedience and adoration.” In light of this, terms like ‘worship pastor’ can be a little misleading. That being said, it’s not technically incorrect to speak of ‘worshipping God together in song.’ The appropriateness of doing so will necessarily depend on the congregation.

Conclusion

Singing is an important part of the Christian life. Singing helps us to express our human emotions, as well as praise, pray to and proclaim the glories of our great God. It is both an individual and a corporate activity, and is an important way for Christians to minister to one another. In the face of our culture’s love of all things musical, there’s a great need to reexamine the Bible’s teaching on singing and once more appreciate it for the wonderful gift that it is.

Question: how does the Bible’s way of thinking about singing compare with your own? Leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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12 thoughts on “A theology of singing in church

  1. Hey mate good read!! I was wondering if you have came across anyone who has surveyed the psalms to compare it to the 150 contemporary songs? That would be interesting, anyways well said good topic to tackle and I enjoyed reading it.

    • Great question Pat. I’ve been wondering the same thing. I haven’t done the analysis myself or found anyone else who has. It may well be in a commentary somewhere, though I haven’t found it yet. I think you’re right though. The answer to that question would be very illuminating. It would probably give a rough picture of what type of mix we should be aiming for in our own churches.

      Does anyone else know the answer to this question?

  2. Thanks for the article, Tim. I agree, singing in church is a controversial topic.
    Everyone seems to have an opinion and it is a real shame that an activity that is intended to unite us, can often divide.
    Perhaps a topic for another post:
    What should we sing?
    What’s the balance between traditional and modern?
    For me, the short answer is every church is different. But you can’t go wrong if you seek to honour God and build up His people.
    .

    • Thanks Bren. As you say, the “what should we sing” question will (within a few guidelines) definitely be different for different churches. I’m sure you’ve got thoughts on this Bren. Care to start the discussion or at least give us a few tips?

  3. Really appreciate this article mate, super helpful! Thanks for pointing us to Gods word in these matters.
    One thing that helped me was the “what are we actually doing when we sing?” section.
    I have recently been discussing with this with some band leaders from my church. The 3 P’s are such a helpful way to put it. I can see how putting a range of these in our meetings each week would be so helpful.

  4. Thanks Tim. Some great succinct thoughts there. Really appreciated the brief but powerful overview of singing in the Bible. I’m about to embark on my own final year project at QTC – a biblical theology of singing. Might have to steal some of your stuff.

  5. Hi Tim,

    What are your thoughts on things like moshpits during worship? Personally, I can’t bring myself to worship vertically when that kind of thing is happening in front of me. I used to join in as a youth because it was all for the ‘horizontal’ fun.

    • Thanks for your honesty Timothy, good question. I’m reluctant to make a blanket statement, since you probably need to factor in things like contexualisation and the overall purpose of the event. I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all type of scenario. I can imagine circumstances where it might be appropriate and others where it would not be.