For many, singing at church is nothing more than a commercial break that allows for a smooth transition between the more important episodes within the service. When it comes to worship through song who really cares right? Why bother? Would it really matter if we just dropped it from the service entirely? At least then we wouldn’t have to stand there being disinterested and disengaged for so long.
If these thoughts and feelings strike a chord with you, you’re not alone. For many of us, when it comes to congregational singing, we relate to the experience of making declarations of truth to likeable melodies, but have minimal to no experience of being ministered to by the Holy Spirit. Worship through song really has become a take it or leave it kind of activity. But what do the Scriptures have to say for it? Could it be possible that those who have this attitude toward singing in church are missing out? Is it time for a reformation in our thinking regarding congregational singing, and thus a renewal of its practice?
The Scriptures testify to worship being an all of life activity (Rom 12:1-2). Given that corporate worship through song is currently an aspect of our lives, because of its place in our church services, how should we engage in the activity, so as to make it another aspect of our lives that is also performed in worship to the Lord? Or perhaps it doesn’t warrant being part of our lives at all? Maybe we should finally scrap the dead practice and eradicate it from our church services?
I would like to challenge us to consider the opposite. The offering of praise we collectively bring to God through song, when gathered together as a community in Jesus’ name, should not merely be permitted as a valid place in our church services, but as an essential practice, respected and valued for the unique way it brings glory to God and maintains our spiritual vitality.
The devaluing of corporate worship through song is probably the result of many factors. In my opinion, two significant reasons for it being devalued are: firstly, our simplistic view of what word-based ministry is; and secondly, the informality of our services, due to us having made them seeker-sensitive to the informal culture in which we live.
With respect to our understanding of word-based ministry we are guilty of placing listening to the word of God preached and responding to the word of God in song, in opposition, as if the two are at enmity with each other. We fail to see that responding to God’s word in song is in and of itself a ministry of the word, in the sense that it helps consolidate the word of God preached and God’s truth more generally into our hearts, by providing us with an opportunity to respond with thoughtful reflection, word-shaped emotion, joyous praise and physical expression.
Regarding the informality of our services, it seems our zealous attempts to contextualise the gospel for the broader, largely informal culture have gone so far that we have now lost much of our reverence for God, and this spills over into our singing. It is vitally important we take time to self-reflect on our current attitude and practice. We are in great danger of becoming mere hearers of the word instead of doers (Jas 1:22-24), puffed up with knowledge, having lost our heart of love (1 Cor 8:1).
Piper states in The Pleasures of God, ‘It is God’s supreme commitment to […] display the full range of his glory […], for the enjoyment of his […] people […]. This everlasting and ever-increasing joy of God’s people in [God] […] is the shining forth of God’s glory’ (pg. 339). How many people truly relate to the idea of attending church for the purpose of enjoying God? How many can testify to fully delighting in God through the hearing of the sermon alone? How many truly cherish the opportunity to experience God’s transforming, sustaining joy in worship through song?
Corporate worship can be a powerful forming experience for us, yet many of us walk in functional unbelief of this reality when it comes to practice. If our values and knowledge are formed by the social relationships and structures in which we find ourselves, then to be involved in a church where the majority of people place a low value upon corporate worship, is to be in an environment where the cultural norm will continue to reinforce that worship through song is not important, satisfying or transformative. This makes changing a culture’s attitude toward corporate worship difficult.
Congregational singing is performed in both the vertical and horizontal dimension. The vertical refers to our personal relationship with God, within which we sing to him and focus on enjoying him. The horizontal refers to our mutual edification of each other, as we sing God’s truth to one another, spurring one another on to love and good deeds. Both aspects are important and we should seek a balance between the two when it comes to song selection. Let us, however, for the purpose of this discussion, consider the vertical aspect in a little more detail. What is God’s intention for the vertical dimension of our corporate worship through song?
‘The climax of God’s happiness is the delight He takes in the echoes of His excellence in the praises of his people’ (J. Piper, Desiring God, pg. 30). Isaiah 48:11 affirms this statement, ‘For my own sake, […] I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another’. God’s glory is his highest concern and it should be ours too. Corporate worship is one of the ways we can magnify God’s name above all else.
Our worship needs to be an expression of our delight in God (Ps 37:4). Burdened and begrudging obedience does not glorify the Lord, because it does not testify to his all satisfying goodness – it is not worship. Fortunately for the Christian, loving God through obedience can be a delight. God’s gift of faith overcomes our deadness toward him, awakening our affections for him so that our obedience to him is an outworking of our heart’s delight (1 John 5:3-4). ‘The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever’ (J. Piper, Desiring God, pg. 369). The wonderful news is that God is to be enjoyed, and the greater that enjoyment, the greater His glorification. It is vital therefore, that we pursue a deepening satisfaction in the Lord in all aspects of our lives, including during our congregational singing.
What is necessarily required for our joy to soar? Surely, it is that we express it! Joy is incomplete until it is expressed in praise. Our delight in God is consummated in our expression of praise to him. We all relate to this truth in our experience. We have all been in circumstances where delight has been awakened in response to something we appreciate, but has failed to reach the heights for which it was destined, because it was not expressed or shared with another. The same is true for our joy in the Lord - our delight in God overflows in the greater joy of expressing it in praise. To not participate in worship is to rob ourselves of higher levels of satisfaction in God. ‘God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him’ (J. Piper, Desiring God, pg. 288). Let us therefore pursue deeper levels of satisfaction in the Lord in all aspects of our lives, including when we worship together in song!
You may be wondering if there is anything in particular that makes corporate worship through song so important? Jesus states, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:20). This refers to his resurrected presence (Matt 28:20). Although Jesus dwells in all believers by his Spirit (Eph 1:13), he is present in a unique manner when believers gather together. Believers therefore should make gathering together a high priority. But why must we sing together? Colossians 3:16 commands us to do so but why? The simple answer is that we are commanded to sing together because our singing is a ministry of the word. It is not simply a medium through which Scripture is proclaimed (although that is a good thing). Through song we have the opportunity to respond to God’s word, by taking it captive, meditating on it, making it our own, participating in it, and expressing it back to God in praise in our own words, all with the assistance of music, which helps engage our emotions. In this way the word ministers to us at the level of our affections, which facilitates greater transformation than when it is directed solely at the mind and will. In music we have a medium that can elevate words to a place where mere words could never go themselves. Singing is God’s gift to us.
We should seek therefore to take corporate worship seriously by participating in it regularly, actively, intentionally and reverently, with the anticipation of experiencing joy in God. We must be on guard against being passively present during corporate worship, and fight against any mentality that devalues it to the ranks of being a mere time filler. We should seek to worship in song with an attitude that sees it as a unique opportunity to pursue and enjoy God. If a person is regularly untouched by their experience of corporate worship through song this does not suggest that it has no value, but rather that they are falling short of appreciating its value, which ultimately reflects a deeper problem in them. We must fight against complacency and apathy in congregational singing and fight for our delight. We need to engage in corporate worship with an expectancy that God will show up in our hearts, minds and experience.
Our value of singing in church must increase. Our delight in the Lord is at stake and so is His glory. We must work at being in community regularly for the purpose of worshiping together, and should seek to intentionally prepare our hearts and minds for it. We are commanded to love the Lord with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, unceasingly (Mk 12:30). All of life is worship in the broader sense, and worship through song is a part of all of life. Surely our response to God’s word is of equal importance to hearing his word, for this is the purpose of God’s word – to transform us – to elicit a worshipful response from us, whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. The proclamation of God’s word, and our response to it, are not enemies of each other. They represent two sides of the same coin. In fact our active response to the word of God proclaimed is a continuation of the ministry of the word, because it assists the word in taking root in us. The goal of corporate worship through song is to make us more susceptible to being changed, and transformation into the image of Christ is our ultimate goal. To neglect corporate worship through song is to leave oneself thirstier, less healed, less edified, less happy, less effective, less safeguarded against the enemy’s schemes, less satisfied in Jesus.
In conclusion, God’s glory is his highest prerogative. The Lord has ordained that his glory be caught up in our delight of Him. Corporate worship through song is a fundamental way of magnifying God’s worth by delighting in him. It holds the greatest promise of joy, in that it provides the believer with an opportunity to express their joy in God, in the context of other believers, where Jesus is thus uniquely present, with the assistance of music, which moves our emotions, and helps engage our affections. Our value of worship, therefore, must increase so that our spiritual vitality continues to flourish, as we taste deeper levels of delight in God.
By Peter Crowther