Many years ago, I had an employer who was intent on trying to provoke me with a variety of sacrilegious jokes and statements. Having just come back from visiting her parents over one Easter weekend, she told me how she had visited their church that Easter Sunday. What she said next left an indelible mark on my thinking about congregational singing for many years. She said, “What I don’t get is why you people don’t sing like you believe what you are singing?” She then told me that the congregation was sort of mumbling the words of the hymn, “I Serve a Risen Savior.” Rocking back and forth, she mocked this particular congregation by mumbling under her breath, “He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today.” Without hesitating, I agreed with her and said, “It is terrible that those who say that they believe that Christ is risen don’t sing as if they actually believe He is risen. They should be singing their hearts out because He is risen.” This leaves us with the question, “If the Holy Spirit’s work in the hearts of His people to stir them up to sing God’s praises is one of the sweetest of all His works then why do so many congregants fail to sing with all of their heart in worship?” There are many answers to this question, but here are a few suggestions:
Much of the scriptural teaching about the beauty of loud congregational singing has been lost by the injuries that have been sustained by both sides in the worship wars. In many performance-driven congregations worship teams overpower congregational singing and the singing that happens is akin to the drowned out admiration singing at a concert. In more traditionalistic churches, a perceived abuse of experience in the performance-driven churches has fueled a pushback that results in a dry and lifeless singing.
Additionally, too many in our churches are overly self-conscious about what others will think of them if they sing too loudly or, at times, out of key. The messiness of congregational singing is part of the beauty of God using weak and broken people. While we certainly want to strive for excellence in how we sing to our God, the sound of a child singing extremely loudly or, even at times, out of key, is a sweet sound that brings God great glory (Ps. 8). If we would simply seek to sing with joy in our hearts to the Lord we would lose self-awareness and embrace God-awareness. We would not fear what others might think about our singing.
If we could step back and lay aside stylistic preferences and fixate on the place and power of congregational singing, we would come to understand how special and beautiful it is in the life of believers. After all, on the cross Jesus purchased not only believers, but also their ability to sing redemptive praises to God from the heart. Add to this what Sinclair Ferguson says about hymnody: “When truth gets into a hymnbook it becomes the confident possession of the whole church.” In short, the Gospel enables and encourages us to take up theologically rich Psalms and hymns and to sing our hearts out to God. Here are five encouragements to enjoy this privilege and its benefits in the life of the body of Christ:
1. Singing Our Hearts Out to God is the Fruit of Redemption in Christ. The Proverbs tell us that “whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda” (Prov. 25:20). Singing praise is a human experience that belongs uniquely to the realm of joy in our experiences. Nothing produces joy so much as the truth of what Christ has done for His people through His death and resurrection. This does not mean that we never sing songs of lamentation, but the Scriptures always move believers from sorrow to joy (see Psalm 30:5; 42:5, 11; 43:5, Ezra 3:10-13 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13). Throughout the Scriptures we read of believers singing “a new song.” This has unique reference to the work of the new creation procured by Christ through His death and resurrection and established in full through the New Covenant (Ps. 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Isaiah 42:10; Revelation 5:9; 14:3).
2. Singing Our Hearts Out to God is a Witness to the Gospel. The Psalmist prayed, “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord” (Ps. 40:3).When Paul and Silas sang hymns in prison, people were converted (Acts 16:25-40). Just as my former employer mocked this church for their singing, and concluded that their singing revealed that they did not believe what they professed, so the opposite will be true. If unbelievers in our services on Sunday witnessed the unrestrained pouring out of the hearts of believers in praise they should be able to say, “There is something true and powerful about what God has done in the lives of these men and women.” No band or musical accompaniment can manipulate what God the Holy Spirit does through the heart-wrought praises that He enables His people to sing together to Him.
3. Singing Our Hearts Out to God Fuels Our Own Spiritual Growth. When I was a young believer, my best friend would teach me new hymns and choruses. This encouraged me to sing throughout the day–in the care, when I was walking around by myself, etc. As I sang the hymns and choruses he taught me, I meditated on the truths that I was singing. This, in turn, caused me to grow in my knowledge of the Lord and in my life for him. To this day, there are times when I am struggling spiritually, or downcast or complacent. Singing quickens my spirit and causes me to grow in fervent love to the Lord. The Puritans would sometimes speak of singing yourself into a state of worship. Singing Psalms and theologically sound hymns renews the mind and warms the heart to worship because theologically rich hymns are “mini-sermons for the soul to sing.”
4. Singing Our Hearts Out to God Fuels the Spiritual Growth of Other Believers. As mentioned in the previous point, my best friend’s singing aided my spiritual growth. It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul charged the church with the following words: “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) and “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” (Eph. 5:18-19). Singing with other believers is a means of grace whereby we teach and admonish each other.
5. Singing Our Hearts Out to God Makes War Against our Enemies. We tend not to view what we do in worship as spiritual warfare, however so many of the songs in the Old Testament were songs of victory penned immediately after God had given His people victory over their enemies (e.g. Exodus 15:1-18; 15:21; Judges 5; 1 Samuel 18:7) and sung by the people as they were gathered together. What better way to make war against Satan and his host of enemies than by singing God’s redemptive praises in light of His defeat of them. When Paul and Silas started singing hymns in prison, God sent a earthquake to release them and the spiritual chains of the jailor. In this way, Paul and Silas made war against the enemies of God and the church (Acts 16:25-40).
So, believer, sing your heart out to God whenever you are gathered together with His people to worship Him. Make a joyful noise–even if you fear that it will be more noise than sweetness–to our God! “It is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting” (Ps. 147:1). After all, our Father is enthroned on the praises of His people (Psalm 22:3).