You have probably noticed that when a person gets drunk, that person says and does things that he does not typically say and do when he is sober. When it comes to being filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-20), instead of doing and saying stupid things, we are to be so filled with God that we do things and say things that we would not typically do and say if we were not filled with God – that is, good things. Apart from God, apart from being full of God’s Spirit, we will tend toward not singing, but mumbling; we will not make music in our hearts, but will worry and fret about everything; and, what comes out of our mouths will be complaining and grumbling instead of giving thanks.
God has called his people to be filled with the Spirit. Singing is part of being filled with the Spirit of God. Singing is what happens when we experience God’s overflowing grace in our lives. Having been predestined, elected, adopted, and redeemed by Jesus leads to a joyful overflow of praise which comes out in song. Music is powerful. Music is not only a means of expressing our praise and commitment to Christ and each other, it is also a powerful means of being impressed. When children first learn the alphabet, it is taught to them in a song; just trying to teach letters in a rote fashion typically doesn’t work well for pre-school kids. This is why we remember certain words for a lifetime. It is why we still remember words from old TV shows, because those words were set to a catchy tune. I still know all the words to the Gilligan’s Island theme song, as well as The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and Underdog. Music is powerful. It is why an Alzheimer’s patient may not remember who her daughter is, but can flawlessly sing the words of Amazing Grace.
It is important for us to understand this power of music and song, because singing is not to be exclusively a matter of expression; it is to be a powerful means of being impressed. Singing is to be both an offering, a sacrifice of praise (Hebrews 13:15) that is given to God; and, singing is to be a vehicle whereby we are taught and encouraged and built up in the community of believers. We are to sing; and, we don’t only sing to God, but we also sing to one another, and even to ourselves. Church music, then, is to be both a means of praising God and a practice of encouraging each other.
If we are to speak to one another with singing, it is necessary for us to know what psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are. When we think of the word “psalm” we may rightly think of the bible book of Psalms. Singing the psalms is an ancient practice that goes all the way back to the Israelites singing psalms in the temple and synagogue. The early church maintained this practice, especially as a means of being faithful to praying without ceasing. However, over time, medieval congregations did not sing psalms. In fact, the congregation did not typically sing at all. Almost all the singing was done by church choirs and professional musicians employed by the state (since there was no separation of church and state) to write, compose, and perform in worship services. 500 years ago, when the Reformation came in all its force, one of the reforms made, especially by Martin Luther, was giving music back to the people. One of the results of this change was putting the book of psalms to song in what we know as the Psalter. For many Protestant denominations, the Psalter was the primary means of singing. The Psalter was chiefly setting prayers to song; it was both a means of expressing prayer to God, and a means of learning Scripture.
There had always been hymns in the church, but it was not until the Reformation that hymns began to be written and sung by congregations by the thousands. Hymns for the Reformers were used to both impress sound doctrine and theology on Christians, and be a means of confessing the faith together.
Spiritual songs are the present day equivalent of praise and worship choruses, or what some refer to as contemporary songs. These are songs that are purposefully designed to be emotional, to be expressions of praise to God and give powerful testimony to what God has done or is doing for a person on a very feeling level.
So, then, psalms are used to pray and learn scripture; hymns are used to teach us sound doctrine and confess the faith together; and, spiritual songs are an important way of expressing praise to God, and being encouraged in the faith. Church music is to serve, then, as both a revelation from God, and as a response from God’s people.
There are two important deductions from the admonition in Scripture to sing to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs: 1) a variety of songs is inferred and expected; and, 2) Paul commanded their use.
The reason worship style is such a hot topic, and always has been so, is because we all have our personal preferences. Yet, if we are to be faithful to this passage of Scripture we will not just lock in on what I want. The truth is that we are selfish people when it comes to music. We want what we want and we don’t care what somebody else wants. And we will persist in that selfishness until somebody calls us on it. That somebody is the Apostle Paul. The Word of God is calling us to encompass psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs – all three of them – in our worship.
Last year I asked a trusted Christian musician and pastor some questions about worship and music. I asked him how I can lead among a variety of preferences concerning music. One of his responses I have not forgotten. He answered my question with a question: “How highly do people, including and especially your musicians, value the unity of the church? Do they love each other so much that they can allow for a wider range of style, and do so without vocally complaining about it? When I arrived at our church, some people were in a rather bad habit of saying very openly, ‘Oh I hate that song,’, or, ‘If I hear this song one more time I’m walking out.’ What I tried to do was teach people that this is not the most loving or mature approach, and does little to build up the rest of the Body of Christ.”
If the music in your church is being done well, and is faithful to Scripture, yet others or even yourself thinks the music is lifeless, or dull, or strange, the real issue is not one of style. The place to look is in the heart. Is that heart filled with the Spirit of God? If it is, we will speak to one another using the Psalter, using time-honored hymns, and utilizing fresh contemporary praise songs. The result will be that the Body of Christ, the Church, will be built up in the faith. And that is my desire and my prayer.