The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of BCNN1. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author(s).
Ninety believers opened their hymnals. The pianist began the familiar chords of “It Is Well with My Soul.” Everyone in the room opened their mouths and sang with deep wells of emotion on their faces. But they sang softly, remaining seated and hesitant to let their voices ring.
Why? The pastor explained: “If we sing too loudly, the other tenants of this building will call the police on us. The authorities will close down our meeting, take me in for questioning, and possibly worse.”
This scene took place in an unregistered church in a nation that forbids Christians from assembling together. The congregation loves to sing. But they are longing for a better country, a heavenly worship gathering where they will be able to raise their voices without fear.
All of this raises the question: how are churches in the West, where we have considerably more freedom, doing at congregational singing? In contexts where we can praise Christ as enthusiastically as we’d like, is our singing as strong as it could be?
God himself sings over his people (Zeph 3:17), and he has created us in his image. We are compelled to sing by the glory and majesty of God. Scripture commands us to fulfill the delightful privilege of singing together when the local church gathers (Col 3:16). Christ has redeemed us, causing praise and gratitude to well up in our hearts. All of this means singing should be as natural to us as breathing. And yet, this side of eternity, no church sings perfectly. We’ve all got room to grow. And the decisions pastors and musicians make will either help or hinder their flocks in this vital aspect of the church’s life.
With all of that in mind, we’d like to offer four suggestions for how churches can improve their congregational singing, along with four pitfalls to avoid.
Suggestion #1: Begin with the pastor.
God’s Word calls pastors to set an example for the flock (1 Pet 5:3). If a pastor walks into the service late, reads over his sermon notes during the singing, and looks disengaged, it conveys to the congregation that singing doesn’t matter. On the other hand, when a pastor delights to praise Christ in song, his joy transfers to the whole church. No matter who may lead the singing, the pastor himself is also a “worship leader.” What a delightful privilege!
Corporate worship is a feast on the Word of God. Paul tells us that we let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly through the songs we sing (Col 3:16). That means that pastors should see the church’s songs as an extension of their teaching ministry. You’re placing words on the lips of the congregation, and they’re likely to remember these words longer than they remember your sermon! The congregation sits at the banquet table of the King; don’t serve them junk food.
Pitfall #1: Don’t abdicate; collaborate.
We fear that the ministry of song and sermon are functionally separate in too many church services today. It’s easy to let the musical folks plan the worship through singing, while the pastor prepares his message. But this drives a wedge through the service, separating what God intends for us to keep together. Every moment of the church’s gathering is both an expression of worship to God and a ministry from God to us through his Word. Singing the Word, praying the Word, reading the Word, preaching the Word, seeing the Word summarized in baptism and the Lord’s Supper—all of it is doxology.
This means that pastors should collaborate with their musical staff and volunteers rather than abdicate their responsibility. Pastors (those who are “able to teach,” according to 1 Tim 3:2) ought to exercise some form of oversight over the whole gathering, since every aspect of the service teaches and shapes the congregation. But don’t do this alone. Include and involve the musical staff and/or volunteers with which the Lord has blessed you. There are a thousand ways that pastors, worship leaders, and musicians can work together.
So, pastors, steward your relationship well with those who give leadership to music. Empower and equip them. Let them know that they have your support and trust. Don’t lord it over them, but listen to their input.
Likewise, worship leaders and musical volunteers, foster a thriving relationship with your pastor. Pray for him. Be patient if he doesn’t understand music well. Seek to learn from him about theology even while you try to teach him about music.
Suggestion #2: Sing great songs.
If congregational singing is a holy act, and if we are what we sing, then we can’t be lazy in selecting hymns. We must choose great songs—songs that artfully exult Christ with deeply meaningful lyrics and melodies we can’t wait to sing. Better to have a small repertoire of excellent songs you sing well than an ever-growing list of the “latest and greatest” material that the congregation barely knows. Our folks can only internalize a limited number of songs deep down in their hearts. Like a museum curator who selects only the best works of art to display, we must take care to pick songs of the highest quality.
Strive for songs that aren’t just theologically true, but that declare the truth in soul-stirring poetry. Choose melodies that aren’t just singable for your church, but that enhance the meaning of the words through their compelling beauty. Just as a master chef selects ingredients that are at the same time nutritious, aromatic, and flavorful, we should prioritize songs of substance that seem to get richer the more deeply you plumb their meaning.
Great songs have stood the test of time. Our ancestors have entrusted us with them, and we should pass them along to our children. Assemble any Christian group, and practically everyone can join you in singing “Amazing Grace” confidently and passionately. We’re drawn to sing great music, much like we’re drawn to stand in awe of a beautiful painting.
There are great new songs too. They breathe fresh air into our singing and help connect age-old truth with modern sounds. These are appropriate, too, though harder to find.
Pitfall #2: Don’t settle for a song simply because it checks a box.
Sometimes churches select songs that herald robust theology but are too difficult to sing. This can discourage church members, making them feel that they need to be “musical” in order to participate, when Scripture commands the whole church to join in.
On the other hand, some songs have melodies that sing incredibly well, but their words are vague spiritual clichés. Again, hymns like this will ironically discourage a singing culture in your church, because over time the lyrics will not dig deep roots into believers’ hearts.
The connection between song selection and your church’s culture of singing usually takes years to develop. It’s not the type of thing you can change in a week or a month. But with patience, prayer, and perseverance, careful pruning of your song list can engender real growth in the congregation’s joy in song.
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Keith and Kristyn Getty