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Never give up… Singing

("Never Give Up" is a series of posts on what we do together in a Sunday service. You can find all topics here. Since Simon is responsible for the bands and music at CCM, it seemed sensible to let him write this one!)

Here's one to ponder on: why does God want us to sing in church?  The Bible never quite spells out precisely why - but it tells us to do it, and gives loads of examples!  There are countless places to look in the Old Testament, including the whole book of Psalms which is basically a songbook (a 'psaltery' was an ancient stringed instrument).  And in the New Testament there's more:  see e.g. Matthew 26:30; Acts 16:25; Romans 15:9-11; Heb 2:12; James 5:13; Revelation 5:9-13; 14:3; 15:3.

But the verses which get closest to giving us a "theology of singing" are these:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. (Col 3:16, NIV)

...be filled with the Spirit, 19addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ...
(Eph 5:18b-20, ESV)

Here are some of the things I think God teaches us from those verses:

1. Singing is important - God says so.  It's not an optional extra, or padding in between the essential items.  Don't treat it like just a bit of audience participation to keep us awake for the sermon and prayers  (although it may have that useful side-effect!)

2. Singing is word ministry - God wants his Word to dwell in us richly as we sing.  Songs tend to have that kind of effect - as you sing a football anthem or a national anthem, love of your team or love of your country is supposed to be dwelling in you richly.  And if you sing rubbish theology, then rubbish theology will dwell in you richly!  Oops.  So... it's MEGA important that the lyrics of our songs are thoroughly and profoundly biblical.

3. Singing is a spiritual activity - we're being filled with the Holy Spirit.  That doesn't mean getting more of the Holy Spirit (how could that be?  He's God - i.e. a person, not some kind of liquid that needs topping up!  And God promises the Holy Spirit - all of him! - to everyone who believes in Jesus - see Acts 2:38 & 39.  The Spirit dwells in your heart permanently if you're a Christian.)  It does mean being filled by his influence, giving more of my thoughts, dreams, ambitions, desires to him.

4. Singing is a grateful response to God's grace.  In both verses it's gratitude that characterises our singing - and gratitude is always a response to something given.  Now this is really important, and often massively misunderstood: we don't sing to enter God's presence, we sing because we've already been brought into God's presence!  Read Col 3:1-4 and Eph 2:4-7 if you want proof.  We're in God's presence because of Jesus' death on the cross - so sing!  Celebrate!  Pour out your thanks!  That's loads better than thinking your access to God's presence depends on singing - what if the band doesn't play very well, or they don't choose your favourite songs, so you're just not feeling it?  We sing in God's presence, not to produce it.  It's not the musicians who have the key to God's presence - it's Jesus!  As a friend of mine likes to say: if we needed music, God would have sent a guitarist - but we needed a saviour, so he sent Jesus.  Phew.

5. Singing engages the heart.  Music is often described as an "emotional language" - it can help to align our emotions in certain ways.  Just look at how much difference film music makes - most films would be stilted and emotionally dry without their soundtrack.  This is a good thing, it's how God intended music to operate - but it can be used helpfully or unhelpfully.  It would be wrong to have our emotions unhelpfully aligned, so that we're angry or bored or hyped up about nothing in particular - or worse, excited about things that aren't true.  A song with great music and misleading words is very dangerous.  But a song which helpfully aligns our emotions with great Bible truths is a wonderful gift, and can really help things to sink in from head to heart.  And... although joy and thanksgiving are central in our response to the gospel, it's not just those emotions that our songs can help us express.  The Psalms model a wide range of experience - sadness, praise, fear, depression, jealousy, happiness, anticipation, anger, and many more.  Our contemporary songs tend to be much less wide-ranging: songwriters take note!

6. Singing is to God and to one another.  There are two dimensions of communication - one "vertical" (between us and God) and one "horizontal" (between us and each other).  Both should happen as we sing.  The Psalms model both to us: sometimes even within an individual Psalm the writer switches several times between addressing God and addressing other people.  We don't want to lose either of the dimensions.  If our singing became only "vertical", we might as well just sing along to an mp3 recording at home - we're not encouraging our brothers and sisters.  But if our singing became only "horizontal",  we'd be rehearsing dry theology without engaging with God himself, who is present and active amongst us.  We want to do both.

7. Singing in church is a special use of God's gift of music to all humanity.  Music is a creative art, echoing God's own universe-making creativity.  We can make music only because we're made in the image of the master-composer (Zeph 3:17 - God sings!).  Musicians who play in church will have different expectations and priorities to those who play in gigs and concerts outside church.  Both can be honouring to God and done in thanks to him, but while a solo performer in the Royal Albert Hall is quite rightly the centre of attention and can express themselves however they like, the musicians in church are there to serve the congregation.  The main event is the whole church passionately responding to God's word, and the musicians should do whatever they can to enable that.

SO... never give up singing.  It won't get you into God's presence, but since you're already there in Jesus, enjoy this God-given, word-indwelling, spirit-filling, grateful, passionate, intimate, corporate, creatively musical way to grow in your love and knowledge of Him.