We thought it would work. We thought that if we got rid of the choirs and the antiquated hymns, and replaced them with great folk and rock musicians and songs that sounded like the music people sing along to on the radio, that people would come and participate and experience God in a new, powerful, personal way. But a funny thing happened on the way to worship paradise. The people quit singing.
Now, maybe they never really did sing that much. Maybe the ‘good old days’ of 4-part harmony hymns had just as many closed mouths and lip-synchers as today’s unison anthems. And I’m not going to argue for a particular style of worship, because I don’t really care what style of worship music a church employs, as long as its people are singing. There are few things that make me sadder than when I go to a church and hear great music, but little to no congregational singing.
We sing for three main reasons: to give praise, to learn truth, and to convince our hearts to keep believing.
And we see all of those reasons given by the Apostle Paul: 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, ESV).
When we sing, we are expressing our thankfulness to God. Singing is a way of relating to Him, and praising Him; it’s something that He actually asks us to do- so why wouldn’t we do that? In fact, we shouldn’t really need any other reason to sing in church than the fact that God has asked us to do it. It’s a command, but it’s also a privilege. We get to dwell in God’s presence and delight in Him. Is there a better place to be than that?
When we sing, it helps the word of Christ dwell in us richly. I love that word “richly”- Jesus’ wisdom and promises for us don’t just take up space in our brains, they come alive, they dwell richly, when we delight in them. And music helps us do that! There’s something about music that makes truth richer. Truth doesn’t just come to us in sermons. When we sing, we are teaching one another- and being taught- the truth that we so easily forget. Kevin Twit, in an article on why we should sing hymns, writes, “Worship is formative. That means it has power to shape us. We are what we sing. Our hearts are drawn from other ‘treasures’ as our eyes are opened to see Jesus for who He really is.”
I firmly believe that the gospel of Christianity, that Jesus has defeated death and evil through His death and resurrection, is so counter-intuitive that we need to be reminded of it constantly. We need to hear it every day as we talk to each other, every Sunday in the preaching of the word and the sharing of the sacraments, and in our prayers and our songs. Sing to learn the truths of the gospel, but sing to believe them, despite your unbelieving heart!
Objection: But I’m not a good singer. Answer: It doesn’t matter. Nowhere in the Bible is a distinction made between worship made by skilled singers and unskilled singers. There is a command to “play skillfully” (Psalm 33:3), but that has to do with playing instruments. Not everyone is called to play an instrument, certainly not in worship- church musicians should have a level of excellence that facilitates congregational singing. But, the Bible never calls us to ‘sing skillfully,’ the emphasis is always on the energy we put into singing- “Let the godly exult in glory, let them sing for joy on their beds” (Psalm 149). If we do not sing well, the answer is not to stop singing, it is to keep singing and maybe (or maybe not!) get better at it. The more frequent admonition in Scripture is to “make a joyful noise to the Lord,” not “make a highly skilled noise to the Lord.” If you are singing joyfully, that’s all that matters. Not everyone can stay on pitch, but everyone can sing joyfully; there are no exemptions to the group addressed in the last verse in the book of Psalms: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”
Objection: I don’t like this song (or this style of music). Answer: It doesn’t matter. Worship is not designed primarily to please you; it is designed to please God. You are not the audience to whom the band is performing, God is the audience to whom you are performing. It certainly helps to enjoy the songs your church sings, but in an age of increasingly customized musical tastes, there is no possible way to please everyone with song choices. Christian maturity is submitting to non-essential things for the good of others, and that looks like singing every song that the church chooses to sing, even if one or two of them normally make you want to throw up in your mouth.
Objection: But I don’t want to be a distraction to people around me (or, more honestly, I don’t want anybody judging or laughing at my singing). Answer: I want to say, ‘Get over it,’ but I actually do sympathize with this one. Singing is a very personal thing; I’m much more sensitive about my voice than I am about my piano or guitar playing. Obviously, if everyone were making a joyful noise to the Lord, we wouldn’t be worrying about what the person behind us sounded like, but human nature is that we love to judge each other. The gospel tells us that we are fully known and fully loved in Christ, but I know it’s a process learning to believe that, and relating it to what people think of us in relation to what God thinks of us. I will say that when you get to the place where you are (relatively) free from caring what other people think about your voice or how you worship, that is a great place to be. You may even find that when you start singing, you give courage to other sheepish voices around you.
Objection: But I don’t know the song. Answer: All right, that is one legitimate reason for not singing. But even there, it doesn’t hurt to try. In fact, I find that I’ve sung so many worship songs over the years, that when I go to a church and they’re singing an unfamiliar song, I can usually guess my way through a melody line and often stay a half-beat behind and follow the melody pretty easily.
Back to our original question: Do I have to sing when I go to church? Well, no, you don’t have to sing. There is no righteousness, no merit badge, to be won or lost by singing or not singing. And there may even be times when you want to be quiet to actually think about the words and maybe pray a specific phrase for a minute or two. Let’s give each other freedom to not sing at times.
But here’s the thing: I love my wife. And because I love my wife, I enjoy doing stuff with her. We recently went on a trip to Scandinavia to celebrate our 20th anniversary. We were together almost constantly for 10 days. And we never got tired of each other. We were on a journey together- to see Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, but in a bigger sense, a journey of 20 years to create a great life together.
This is why you should engage yourself in worship and singing as much as possible: Because singing is part of your participation in the work and mission that Jesus gave to His church. When you sing, you proclaim the gospel- to yourself, to the people around you, even to “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:8-10). And the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus Himself is in our midst, leading us in our praise of the Father (Hebrews 2:10-12)! To refuse to sing in church is to refuse to join Jesus in His mission of making His word dwell richly in the hearts of His people.
If you love Jesus, why wouldn’t you want to sing with Him and with His people?