Why Does the Church Sing?

Resource Type: Articles
Topics: Church

Singing is not universally enjoyed. That’s actually a favor, because it forces us to ask: “Why does the church sing?”

The responses to that are at times a vague mix:

  • The Bible talks about singing.
  • We’ve always done it, and have a singing heritage.
  • Some people really like to sing.
  • How else would we get ready for the sermon?

None of these gives the church an adequate rationale for singing. The Bible does address singing – it contains over 400 references to singing, and 50 direct commands to sing – but we do well to understand why singing receives so much scriptural emphasis.

God’s people, when they are redeemed, look at life through different lenses. We see life through the lens of the gospel.

The gospel changes everything. It plants seeds, it bears fruit, it increases (Col 1:3-6). It gives us faith, hope, and love in Christ where before we were empty and barren (Col 1:4-5). It makes it possible for us to live life in a new way – though to be sure, we tend not to, as it’s more comfortable to stay in the old patterns.

Staying in comfortable old patterns, however, is not the life of a disciple of Jesus. One mark of the gospel fruitful in our lives is an increasing knowledge of God, a changing knowledge of his will, and a walk of life increasingly worthy of the Lord (Col 1:9-10). We should expect significant changes in our lives, and we should expect that some will be uncomfortable.

Indeed, the people of Jesus must have a completely different mindset flowing out of their new life in Christ (Col 3:1-3). That new life results not just in a few vague changes, but in a set of behaviors that must be put off (Col 3:5-10), and others that must be put on (Col 3:12-25). This is sanctification, the ongoing work of the Spirit in our lives to make us into who we are in Christ.

How does this relate to singing?

Singing is an aspect of Christlikeness that the people of Jesus put on.

God’s chosen ones put on certain things such as compassion, meekness, and humility. We bear with one another, are patient, forgive each other. We let the peace of Christ rule. We let the word of Christ dwell in us richly, teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, spiritual songs.

Most of these things we don’t feel like doing. Being meek and humble? Forgiving others? Being patient, and putting on love? It’s not natural. Singing may not be either, but that’s not the point. The church does not sing because we like it, particularly. We sing because God encourages and exhorts us to. And because we don’t get to choose which of Christ’s attributes we wear.

Singing is an overflow of the word of Christ dwelling in us richly. 

In Col 3:16 we see two important descriptions of how we are to relate to the Word of Christ. First, it’s to dwell in us. The Word of Christ should be at home in us like we are in our own living rooms. And being at home, we should expect the Word to rearrange the furniture. Second, it’s to dwell in us richly. It’s possible for the word to sprout and stay a scrawny seedling in our hearts. But we strive to have the word in all its immense richness.

Thus the Word comes into our hearts from Christ. But when it dwells in us richly it overflows into our relationships. As we are in the Word and the Word in us, it overflows in teaching and admonishing each other. And one way we are to do this is in singing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

So singing is really deeply relational. It’s God speaking to us through his word, and us speaking then to each other and back to God.

Singing is one way we tell the story of God.

Left to myself, I have a very narrow view of reality: My story fills my eyes like a splinter. It doesn’t obscure everything else, but it makes it harder to get an accurate picture.

On my own, my own life and my own story fill my vision. But it’s not accurate. My story isn’t the big story. God is at work, and we see his work declared in scripture cover to cover, Genesis to Revelation. God’s story is the big story, and when we know that big story, we know where our little stories fit in.

This all seems very lofty, but the basic pattern is simple? Psalm 96 both commands and demonstrates the singing of the people of God:

1Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth!

2Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.

3Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!

4For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods.

We’re called to sing. In our singing, the church declares who God is, and what he has done. We remind ourselves that God is active today – today! – in our hometown and our home church.

Particularly as we sing the scriptures, we enlarge our view of who God is. And as God becomes bigger in my eyes, I become smaller. That is the biblical pattern. He must increase, but I must decrease. Telling the story of God aligns me with the way things truly are.

May we be faithful in learning and living all aspects of Christlikeness that the people of Jesus are called to put on by the power of the Spirit.

Wendell Nisly

Wendell grew up on the plains of Kansas in a singing family and in a singing church. His first formal musical training was at Wichita State University, where he completed a Bachelor of Music Education degree. After teaching and conducting for a number years, he moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia to complete a Masters in Choral Conducting at James Madison University. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Jeanene. He is administrator of Shenandoah Christian Music Camp, artistic director of Oasis Chorale, and a conductor of the Valley Arts Society in Harrisonburg, VA.
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