I am learning that the most important aspect of corporate worship music is not what is on stage being played for the congregation; it is what is being sent back by the congregation: singing.
If you have attended a church service recently, no matter the denomination or theology behind it, at some point in the service, you probably sang a song.
Some churches sing one or two songs, while others sing as many as they feel like for a couple of hours. And this is not new — as Keith Getty wrote in the introduction of his book Sing! “The church has been, and is, and always should be and can be a joyfully singing Church... singing is part of what we exist to do."
The Church and Singing
However, there are some dark (or quiet) spots in the universal Church's history when it comes to singing. There was a time when the leaders (or "clergy" as they were called) of the established church actually discouraged congregational singing: causing worshipers in those churches to “lose their voice,” as I like to call it.
Then, as a result of believers pushing back against that heretical leadership, some people were persecuted or even martyred (such as Bohemian Jan Huss and the more well-known Martin Luther). Thankfully, the Church moved beyond that later on.
But then, in recent years, church leaders across the world were telling people not to sing or keep their songs to themselves because it might spread germs. Of course, the preacher could still preach uninhibited, the deacons could pray, and the band could sing up front, but many congregations were not allowed to sing, and some were not even invited into the room. Again, that has thankfully passed for most churches.
While those examples of “quiet times” in the church might seem a little unique or extreme, there has been yet another enemy of congregational singing that has been lurking in the shadows of church sanctuaries and slipping under church pews for a long time (and definitely before my time). This serpent against singing is so subtle that it might even seem pious or religious; it is called preference.
Now we all have preferences about everything — especially music. But our preferences become weapons of destruction against unified singing in our churches when we elevate preference over deference. Deference could be described as humble respect for someone or submission to someone.
Those two words are not opposites at all. Instead, they run beside each other. When preference is winning, we have division. When deference is winning, we have unity.
It saddened and frustrated me years ago when I first began leading worship music, and I witnessed something so beautiful and emotionally moving as singing praises to God become the point of contention, disagreement, and fighting for Christians.
While I recognize that I missed the major “worship wars” (an unfortunate title for the arguments and splits in churches over musical or stylistic preference) because it was a few years before my time, I have certainly dealt with the aftereffects of it.
And even more than that, I have had to deal with issues that were swept under the rug because they were just ignored many years before.
Think about this: it is rare for someone to bring up a concern about the content of a song and the biblical faithfulness of its lyrics, while it is very common for someone to bring up a concern or be contentious over preference such as style, rhythm, mix, perceived volume, instrumentation, repetition, arrangement, song length, lyric presentation, and vocal leadership.
The Importance of Congregational Singing
Praise God that so many churches have moved beyond this and (from what I can see) have embraced the kind of upward focus, musical variety, meaningful worship, and brotherly love and respect (or deference) that I believe God wants us to have. I would say that is the case with the church that I am part of.
So, whether it is the “clergy” (or church leadership), government, or our own preferences that threaten our church’s singing voice, we must keep in mind how critical our singing actually is. Here is what the Apostle Paul said about it:
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 (Colossians 3:16, ESV).
Leading up to those imperatives to sing in that verse, Paul wisely recognizes that there will be disagreements about our "doxology" (or how we arrange our worship to God). He instructs believers that when they have contentions about these things to:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3: 12-14, ESV).
I love how he describes what happens when we are bound together and unified by love for one another: we are in "perfect harmony." I don't think I have ever sung a "perfect harmony," but I do know that when a group of singers gets anywhere close to a good or great harmony, it sounds amazing, and it moves our souls.
And Paul is saying here that this type of togetherness is what we can and should have. And congregational singing is a big piece of that. It is the staff on which our notes hang.
But a church that does not sing has amputated one of its most important corporate spiritual disciplines.
Why Does This Matter to Us Today?
Over the last couple of years, I have begun to really learn to appreciate congregational singing more than anything else. I still love artful expression as well as musical excellence and good production, but I am learning that the most important aspect of corporate worship music is not what is on stage being played for the congregation; it is what is being sent back by the congregation: singing.
When God's people sing, we are expressing their praise to God (vertically), we are encouraging and ministering to one another (horizontal), we are communicating the goodness of God and the beauty of the gospel to others (outward), and we are declaring and reminding ourselves of truth and God's promises (inward).
Singing is such a wonderful spiritual discipline. So, Church… let's sing!
For further reading:
What Is the Purpose of Singing Hymns?
Why Does Worship Involve Singing?
What Is the Biblical Significance of Singing?
Why Do Christians Sing Praise and Worship Songs?
Why Do We Raise Our Hands in Worship
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/northwoodsphoto
Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, church planter, and now Pastor of Worship and Discipleship at Cheraw First Baptist Church in South Carolina. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking, and his YouTube channel. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.