Some Thoughts on Congregational Singing

I’ve been in pastoral ministry now for right at two years and I often reflect that time. I get asked lots of questions from friends who are in the ministry and friends who are training for the ministry and that too often has my reflecting on my time serving at Cheerful Hope. I most often get asked about preaching. I preached my first sermon when I was 14. When I think of ministry I think of the ministry of the preached word. When I was a candidate for the pastorate I thought about preaching, I was questioned about preaching, I had to preach a trial sermon. The word is central and has primacy in worship. We read the word as a call to worship on Sunday mornings and I preach verse by verse through a passage of scripture. But that isn’t the only place the word of God shows up in Lord’s Day worship. It also shows up in our singing. 

I felt the call to gospel ministry when I was a teenager and knew I was supposed to preach. I didn’t know where and to what capacity I was to preach, but I knew that was what I was supposed to do. The Lord granted me the occasion and affirmation to preach. But, one area I wouldn’t have ever seen myself was in the position of leading people in congregational singing. Yet, when I was at the College at Southeastern I was involved in a church plant and when the gentleman who was leading us in song left the church I fell under the conviction (along with another friend of mine) that we should learn to play guitar. I never really took of with guitar. I learned three chords (which is about all you need for a lot of church music) and one, maybe two songs. I also bought a djembe and loved playing it even if I lack rhythm one really needs. I always piddled a little bit with guitar and learned a couple chords here or there. I played one song once at another church and played djembe and sang some. But I never really used it until I found myself at Fruitland Baptist Bible College and a member of Christ Covenant Community Church. When our congregational leader wasn’t going to be there one Sunday I volunteered to lead. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with leading, singing, or playing. But the Lord and people who understood the purpose of singing were gracious.

I look back and see this as an act of providence preparing me for where I am now at Cheerful Hope. I find myself now leading our congregational singing every week. I’m certainly not the best guitarist or vocalist. I don’t have very good timing. But what I do have is: a biblical mandate for worship and how it is supposed to be conducted, a myriad of good biblical music, and a wonderful group of folks who are willing to sing. (I’d also add a great group of people who have been willing to learn.) 

When I think of congregational singing I think of the words of the Apostle Paul in Colossians 3:16-17, “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. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” 

This text has shaped what I’ve tried to do in congregational singing. First off, the music we sing needs to be the word of Christ. Music that is biblical is honoring to God. Man-centered songs with bad theology (even subtle bad theology) teach us to be man-centered and heretical.

Music teaches. I don’t remember all the sermons I’ve heard in the 25 years I’ve been to church. They have certainly made an impact in my life for which I am grateful. But, even after not singing the hymns of my childhood until I heard them 10 years later in chapel at Southeastern, I remembered them. Music teaches, it sticks to us, and if it teaches and it sticks to us it needs to teach us well. As we sing we need to sing music that is sound doctrinally. We also should sing the scriptures themselves. I love singing from the Psalter, though I don’t have much experience doing so. 

Music teaches and admonishes, but who does the teaching and admonishing according to the text? Each other. When we sing we are confessing corporately and teaching each other the things that we sing. When I sing, “Jesus paid it all,” I’m admonishing everyone else in the room with the doctrines or justification and propitiation. Isn’t that beautiful? It is also dangerous, if we aren’t singing sound music, we’re admonishing one another with falsehood. Or if we are singing man-centered music we’re admonishing one another to be man-centered. That’s why it is important what we sing. 

It is also important how we sing. I’m willing to sound like the old man with ear plugs in his ears at the back of a sanctuary at a concert for a moment. To admonish one another and to teach one another we must be able to hear one another. I’ve been to events where we are as a congregation singing, yet even singing at the top of my lungs I couldn’t hear myself. I can’t admonish or teach my brother if my brother can’t hear me. We must use the instruments of worship that we use as instruments not objects of worship. Not only must our instruments not drown our voices, our voices must be loud enough to teach and admonish. I encourage everyone at church to sing loud. I’m persuaded that the best instruments we have in congregational worship are the ones God gave us. We need to hear one another as we sing corporately, it is corporate singing after all. 

I’ve also learned to play a lot of different songs in the past two years. I’ve not mastered playing them, but I’ve learned them. The folks at church have also learned them. Paul doesn’t prescribe one type of song alone. We sing a lot of different hymns at church, some in the old Broadman hymnal, and some that aren’t. We sing hymns written 700 years ago and hymns that have been written in the last 10 years. We sing Issac Watts and we sing Chris Tomlin. We sing Charles Wesley and we sing Charlie Hall.

We sing, and we sing together. That’s what I’ve learned about congregational singing. We sing as Paul says, with thankfulness in our hearts to God. Our singing and your singing should be songs of thanksgiving, they should be songs of praise, they should be songs that are sound, they should be songs of admonition, songs of teaching, songs of the Father, songs of the Son, and songs of the Spring. They should be songs that are sung and sung together for the edification of the saints and the glory of God. If we’re missing either of those things we need evaluate how and why we do the things that we do. 

“Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

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