About a year ago I had the privilege to attend the Doxology and Theology conference in Louisville, Kentucky. One of the aims of this conference was to help worship leaders and pastors "reform our ministry practices to conform fully to the scriptures." On more than one front, this goal was achieved in my own heart and has affected how I Iabor to lead our own congregation in singing the gospel.
Keith Getty, co-author of “In Christ Alone,” shared something which has stuck with me. Here it is:
"The holy act of congregational singing is exactly that. We write songs for the artist called 'the congregation'. The sound of music in our churches should be congregational singing."
The Holy Act of Singing
The Bible is so concerned with us singing God's praise that a songbook is included: the Psalms. We are encouraged in its pages over and over again to sing praise to the Lord (Psalm 5:11, Psalm 30:4, Isaiah 49:13, Psalm 104:33). One could take up the laborious, (but rewarding) task of listing every reference to singing in the scriptures, however what I want to do here is help us understand why God is concerned about our singing.
Why does God talk so much about singing? Because God wants us to sing.
I also think that it is important to remember that God is not asking us to sing. He's commanding us to sing. As Psalm 47:6 put it, "Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises!" We gather together to sing, commanded by God, for our good and for His glory.
Take a moment and think about that.
For his majesty, his sovereignty, his wondrous deeds, his wisdom, his mercy, his steadfast love, for Jesus, for the gospel and how it changes us; - for all these reasons, and more, God demands and deserves our highest expressions of praise.
Songs for the Congregation
Now the command to praise is carried out by the Church, the people who Christ died for (Ephesians 5:25) and whose lives have been hidden within the glory of His grace (Colossians 3:1-4). We are children, heirs, and co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). We are His bride, and are being sanctified and cleansed by His word (Ephesians 5:26). We are a unique people. With this in mind, what should songs written for the church sound like? Here are three distinctives for what I think makes a good congregational song.
1) Our songs should be sing-able
Before the advent of pop music and garage bands, music was often written for a specific instrument. This distinction was so important that the title of a musical piece often included the instrument that the piece was intended for (i.e. "Concerto for Piano in d-minor"). In our context, the instrument that our songs are written for is the congregation. What I'm suggesting is that the melody of a song should be able to be sung by most of the congregation at the expense of having a song that sounds amazing when sung in the rafters by professionals. The songs we sing during corporate worship are for all of us in the body, not just the people with “good voices.” This consideration is crucial when it comes to making our times of worship active and engaging. When the congregation is cut out of worship and turned into spectators we miss the point of worshipping together entirely.
2) Our songs should be transformative
Congregational music should not just be utilitarian. In fact, the songs we sing should be so incredibly beautiful that they blow our minds and give us a greater vision of God then we would have had without them.
Matt Papa, one of the authors of the song "Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery" has said:
"A song is a sermon people remember. People forget a sermon in a couple of weeks. They remember a song forever.”
This quote is not at all intended to diminish the power of the preached word of God, for it is through preaching that God grants us belief (Romans 10:14-15). Instead I mean to raise the bar in our minds when it comes to what our sung praise, confession, and rejoicing should accomplish. Simply because they will be remembered, the songs of the church should aid in our spiritual formation. They should teach, instruct, and lead us back to scripture with stirred affections. When we sing great songs, we have a great opportunity to store God's word and truth in our hearts by committing them to memory (Psalm 119:11) and returning to them often.
3) Our songs should sound like scripture
Colossians 3:16 encourages us to "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." Letting God's word dwell richly among us is exactly what our songs should accomplish. The Psalms are a great example to us because they deal with life and our relationship with God in every season. Tim Keller recently said, "Every situation in life is represented in the Book of Psalms. Psalms anticipate and train you for every possible spiritual, social, and emotional condition—they show you what the dangers are, what you should keep in mind, what your attitude should be, how to talk to God about it, and how to get from God the help you need." May it be said of our new songs, the ones we are introducing today, that they are training us for every possible spiritual, social, and emotional condition.
The Sound of the Church
This last point I want to attempt to convince you of is as simple and practical as it is important. This is it: the sound of the church is singing. There are two ways that we can bring this point home and they both have to do with volume.
1) The volume of our listening
It is easy to spend an exorbitant amount of money on high quality audio equipment. Between flown line arrays, recessed subs, digital consoles and staff that knows how to put it all together, the budget of a church could be spent in an instant on a system that indirectly encourages a performance/spectator relationship between those on stage and those in the pew. I have heard many say that the goal is to make a service loud enough that those who are unsure of their vocal ability can join along in the singing with a degree of anonymity. As brothers and sisters in Christ is anonymity what we should be striving for? We are gathered at the church specifically to identify together that we are dead in Christ Jesus and are raised in him to a new life (Romans 6:3-4). Do not misunderstand me, I believe that our sound systems should be adequate for the venue that a church is meeting in and they should allow the instruments to be accurately heard, but we should be careful to not encourage people becoming lost in a crowd with the feel of a concert.
2) The volume of our response
A louder sound system does not encourage a louder response from a congregation. Neither does a flawless stage performance. Instead, I have seen time and time again that exuberant praise erupts from a congregation stirred by hearing itself, with one voice, declare the greatness of God. We've already seen that God is commanding us to sing his praises, but scripture goes on to prescribe the way that we should sing by affirming loud singing and joyful praise.
"1 Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!
Praise befits the upright.
2 Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
3 Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts." - Psalm 33:1-3
We have a back room in our building where about 50-90 people gather bi-weekly to pray for the gospel work of our church. We have a short time of worship led with a single acoustic guitar. In those moments when singing is all that we have, we have found that it is more than enough. The greatness of God is echoing in the praises of His redeemed people.
May the voice of the church be raised together as we sing the endless glories of Christ our King!
"12 saying with a loud voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!” - Revelation 5:12