Singing in Church Matters
When I was a kid, singing hymns was not an option. The Baptist church we attended had hymns so thoroughly woven into our common life together. From the age of five, I was required to attend adult church services, clad in suit and tie, three times a week. And every service began with at least three, sometimes four hymns. And on Sunday nights, half the service consisted of people picking their favorite hymns. As a child, you really don’t understand what’s happening when you are singing hymns. I mean sure, you understand “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” But others are hard to get your head around. What’s an Ebenezer, for instance?
But in my adulthood I’ve come to treasure, so deeply, the way our singing together burrowed God’s truth into the deepest recesses of my heart. And now, those words I sang as a seven-year old on a hot summer night in Chicago or around campfires in northern Minnesota or in Vacation Bible school now speak to me, every day. In fact, I can hardly finish singing a hymn without my lips quivering and my heart full of emotion. When I hear “Jesus keep me near the cross, there a precious fountain, free to all a healing stream, flows from Calvary’s Mountain,” I’m transporting to that dining hall at camp where I first committed my life to Christ. When I’m struggling to see God’s goodness in a difficult season, Fanny Crosby’s words, “Summer, winter, springtime and harvest, sun, moon and stars in their courses above, join with all nature in manifold witness, to thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.” When I’m enduring a trial, I always go back to the lyric, “When darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace. In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds, within the vale.”
Our singing matters, which is why the Bible is full of rich examples and powerful instruction to the people of God to not only recite and read and study God’s truth but to sing it, over and over again, to each other. The Old Testament contains a rich treasure of hymns in the Psalms and in the New Testament, contains the hymns we read in Colossians and Philippians, contained in letters written by Paul to the church while both church and he were under duress and the great hymns of praise in Revelation, a vision of that great eternal worship in the New Jerusalem.
Singing, then, is not an accessory to our worship every week. Singing is not filler in a service. Congregational singing is essential to our life with Christ. To the Ephesians, Paul urged them, based on their identity as the new and redeemed people of God, to “sing to yourselves songs, hymns and spiritual songs, making melody in your hearts to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19). There are really three important spiritual benefits to congregational singing.
1. Congregational singing teaches our hearts.
Humans are created in such a way that repetition and rhythms help cement ideas in our minds. This is why certain song lyrics bring you back to moments in your life or can stir the soul so powerfully. This is why hard facts are often set to music. Educators use song to teach math and science and history. And so it is with our singing. You don’t always have to feel good when you are singing congregationally. Sometimes life is so hard you can barely mouth the words. But something is happening when you sing rich truths about God. It burrows these truths deep into your soul so they can be retrieved when the Spirit knows you need them. God has done this for me so often in the last several years, when I’ve encountered difficult and trying seasons or seasons of doubt and discouragement A lyric, a line, a hymn just brings back the heart prone to wander.
2. Congregational singing helps us disciple others.
When we sing we are not just singing to ourselves, but we are joining with our new family, the body of Christ, to each and declare to others the truth. And we are declaring to the world what we believe so strongly. Our singing is a witness. This is why our music shouldn’t be so watered down that it is immediately understandable to those who don’t know Christ. There should be a kind of gospel language that is both different and appealing to those God is pursuing through the Spirit of God. I’ve attended college football games with friends and have watched the unique rituals each school engages in as part of this shared communal bond. As an outsider, their rituals are foreign to me and yet I’m not offended. I’m intrigued. Similarly when I’m at Wrigley Field with tens of thousands of Cub fans, singing “Go, Cubs, Go” after a thrilling win, I get goose bumps. There is something human about it all. And so much for our corporate worship practices. This is why I’m often brought to tears singing a familiar hymn in church. We share something. When we sing about this glorious gospel, we are teaching ourselves, we are teaching our fellow believers and we are witnessing to outsiders.
3. Congregational singing offers praise and worship to the Lord.
“Singing with your hearts to the Lord,” Paul urges. We are offering back praise to the One who is worthy. In the new covenant, we don’t bring animals to the altar, but we bring ourselves as a sacrifice of praise, rejoicing in our reconciliation to God through Christ. This is why it is imperative for us to always sing in church, regardless of our voice sounds or if it makes us uncomfortable to sing with others. God is not interested in the quality of our voices. Some of us are extraordinarily gifted, gifted enough to be on stage leading with excellence. But most people in the congregation are not great singers, but their heartfelt worship comes to God as a sweet and special music, the sounds of his children abandoning themselves in praise to him. So, next time you are in church, don’t stand there and stare. Sing, praise, let God move in you. The one who gave himself for us is worth embracing the awkwardness of worship.
When you do this—faithfully attending church and singing with brothers and sisters in Christ over a lifetime—you will see how much God uses this to sanctify your heart and draw you into intimacy with him. You will experience a grace greater than your sin.