The Theologian - The internet journal for integrated theology


The Place of Music and Singing in Church

by Vaughan Roberts


From beginning to end, the Bible is full of music and song. The first musician, Jubal, makes his appearance as early as Genesis 4, where we are told that “he was the father of all who play the harp and flute” (v.21). As we turn the pages, we find many who follow in Jubal’s musical footsteps. Moses sang a song of praise after the Exodus; Deborah sang after the victory over Sisera; King David played the harp, and wrote many of the Psalms; the Lord Jesus sang a hymn with his disciples at the last supper; Paul and Silas sang a hymn of praise to God in jail; and the book of Revelation tells us that there is plenty of singing in heaven as the heavenly choir joins in praise to God »1

The Bible makes it clear that we are not to wait until heaven; it contains frequent exhortations to us to sing. For example:

“Come let us sing for joy to the Lord” (Ps. 95:1)

“Sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done marvellous things” (Ps. 98:1)

 “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19)

The question we are addressing in this chapter is, “Why?” Why does the Bible encourage us to sing and make music to the Lord? We will look at the answer shortly: we are to sing to praise God and to encourage one another. But first we will consider an answer that is often given today, but which has no basis in Scripture.


“Entering God’s Presence”

I received some publicity for a large Christian conference which urged me to attend with these words: “Join us for dynamic teaching to set you on the right path, and inspiring worship where you can meet with God and receive the energy and love you need to be a mover and shaker in today’s world. …  Alongside our teaching programme are worship events which put you in touch with the power and love of God.” Do you see the implication of what is said there? Bible teaching is good; it sets you on the right path. But it is through ‘worship’, by which they mean singing, that we meet with God and are put in touch with his love and power.

Some years ago I was on a mission in London. After one of our meetings, another team member came to me and said: “Why don’t you hold out your hands when you sing?”  I have nothing against that practice. There are examples of it in the Bible. It can express something physically of what you feel in your heart. But I could not see why it seemed to matter so much to my friend. So I asked him, “Why should I?” He replied: “Because if you hold out your hands, you’ll receive a blessing from God. He will come close to you and you’ll feel his presence with you”.

He was expressing the view of many: we meet with God as we sing praise to him, especially when we do so in a particular way. The role of musicians and ‘worship leaders’ is to facilitate that encounter. Here are some of the comments I read during a quick look at the back of some Christian praise CDs:

“Songs that lift up the name of Jesus, combined with music that moves the body, provide an avenue for the listener to enter into the presence of the Lord”.

“There are many kinds of music that enable us to enter the presence of God. We hope that this collection will bless you”.

“We are committed to helping people world wide experience the manifest presence of God”.


“The liver shiver”

Those musicians clearly equate ‘entering God’s presence’ with a feeling. That conference publicity leaflet I mentioned earlier spoke of “spine-tingling moments of worship”. A friend of mine refers to “the liver shiver”. I guess we know what he means. No doubt there have been moments when we have felt our whole bodies tingling. Our emotions have been switched on and it has been almost as if we have been transported out of ourselves.

We are all different, so the experience is induced in us by different things. Some find that dimly lit medieval buildings, candles, plainsong and formal choirs do it for them. Others are left cold by all that. Acoustic guitars, drums and synthesisers are what they need. Those two settings could hardly be more different, but many devotees of both are united by the belief that the ‘buzz’ they experience is an encounter with God. That is the moment of true worship in their minds, when they enter the presence of God himself and he draws close to them.

If that is how they think, it is no wonder that they go to Christian meetings looking, above all, for an experience. They would not put it like that. They would say that they want to meet with God; but it is the same thing, as they equate meeting with God with a feeling. They are looking for a choir, group or band that will deliver the experience they want. If their spine tingles or their liver shivers, they go home satisfied. They have had a good ‘time of worship’; they have met with God. But have they?

How do I know that my experience is a genuine encounter with the living God? Music has great power to generate emotion. No doubt you have been deeply moved at a concert or just listening to a favourite CD - Beethoven or the Beatles, Rimsky-Korsakov or Robbie Williams. But you did not call that an experience of God. How can you be sure that the feeling you had at that Christian meeting was God’s presence with you rather than just the effect of some good music?

The Bible never teaches that a feeling can take us into the presence of God. If that had been possible, God would have sent us a musician rather than a saviour. Only Christ can take us into the Most Holy Place in heaven, where we have direct access to the Father through faith in him.

The very common view that ‘worship’ is essentially a time of singing through which we are drawn close to God has a number of harmful consequences:


The consequences of viewing music as an encounter with God

1: God’s word is marginalised

In churches and Christian Unions all over the world, the time given to Bible teaching is less and less. Many do not want to think; they want to feel God’s presence with them, and they look to music to give them that feeling. But we only encounter God through faith in Jesus, not through music. And how can we have faith in him unless we hear about him? Paul writes: “Faith comes through hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

What is more important to you: music or the Bible? When you choose a church, do you choose the one that has the best music group or the one that teaches the Bible best? Music is important. I will have much more to say about that later. But it would be possible to survive in our faith without it. But we could not survive without God’s word. It is by his word that God brings us into relationship with himself as we hear about Jesus and put our faith in him. It is also by his word that we are maintained in our Christian faith as the living God addresses us with both challenges and encouragements.

Some respond by saying: “That is fine; we do need the Bible. But we also need the Spirit. God speaks to our minds through his word, but he deals with our emotions through his Spirit”. But that reveals a serious misunderstanding of the relationship between God’s word and God’s Spirit. The Bible never allows us to split the two. The Spirit of God is the divine author of the Bible and continues to speak through it today »2 The word of God is “the sword of the Spirit” »3. So, if we want to be in close touch with the work of God the Spirit, it is vital that we listen to his word.


2: Our assurance is threatened

If I associate the presence of God with an experience, what happens when I no longer feel it? I am bound to assume that I am no longer close to him. So I may suffer a crisis of faith when I move from a church with a large music group. My new church does teach the Bible, but Mrs Jones’ organ playing can never deliver the high that I used to get in the last place.

But our assurance of God’s love does not depend on our feelings. It depends on the finished work of Christ. My feelings cannot take me any closer to God or further from him. If I trust in Christ then I am already in God’s presence by faith, “seated with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). So I must look to him if I want assurance, not to my feelings, which go up and down.

Charles Spurgeon once said: “I looked at Christ, and the dove of peace flew into my heart. I looked at the dove, and it flew away”.


3: Musicians are exalted

Huge expectations are placed on musicians. They are asked to play a priestly role and bring us into the presence of God by producing an experience. Churches are increasingly appointing ‘worship leaders’ who bear the weight of this expectation on their shoulders. If they fail to deliver, they are soon replaced by someone else. The most skilful discover what it is that works for their particular congregation. They know the songs, instruments and key changes that produce the desired effect. They are in great demand at conferences and conventions. Their names appear prominently in all the publicity.

There are dangers in all this. We can be too quick to give significant responsibilities to musicians. That young man may be a brilliant guitar player and have a dynamic, up-front manner, but how well does he know the Bible? Do the songs he chooses teach the truth clearly, or do they convey unbiblical emphases? Does he leave us with a sense of the wonder of Christ or just with a warm glow? The best Christian musicians will not primarily be seeking to produce an experience, which is easily manufactured once a few techniques are learnt. He or she will be pointing to Christ and focusing attention on the truth about him.


4: Division is increased

If I identify an experience with a genuine encounter with God, and only a certain kind of music gives me that experience, then it will be very important to me that that kind of music is played regularly in my church or Christian Union. That will cause no problems if everyone shares my tastes. But if others feel they need different kinds of music, there is bound to be trouble. That explains why music is one of the greatest causes of division in Christian circles. There is very little tolerance about. Particular music styles are associated with an authentic encounter with God. Those with other preferences are dismissed as unspiritual old fuddy-duddies or mindless, frothy youngsters.

But the style of music is irrelevant. Of course we will have our preferences, but they are of no significance compared with the words that we sing. Truth is ultimately what matters, not tunes.

All I have said so far has been designed to warn against too high a view of music. But we must not overreact and go to the opposite extreme. The Bible has a high regard for the place of singing in the Christian’s life and so should we. It gives two reasons for why we should sing:

  1. We should sing to praise God
  2. We should sing to encourage one another


Why should we sing?

1: We should sing to praise God

Praise should be one of the characteristic activities of the Christian. The apostle Peter tells us: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet. 2:9). We have been called to belong to God for the purpose of declaring his praises.


Praise is natural

C.S.Lewis wrote: “All enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise - lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside” »4 The Christian’s praise of God should be just as natural. We should be so excited about who God is and what he has done for us that we want to tell others.

A stranger knocked on my door recently. I invited him in and he began to tell me his story. A number of years earlier, he had had a row with his parents and walked out of home. His life went downhill rapidly and he ended up in Oxford in a terrible state. He was homeless, depressed and on drugs. “I was in the gutter”, he said. But one day he knocked on the Rectory door of St Ebbe’s and spoke to one of my predecessors. He was pointed to the Lord Jesus and his life was turned upside down. He trusted in Christ for forgiveness and asked for his help to change. Within days he was back home and the recovery had begun. He finished: “I am now a qualified barrister, I’m married and we’re expecting our first child. I am still trusting Christ. I owe everything to him and I just wanted to tell someone”.

It was not difficult for that man to tell his story. If something wonderful has happened to us, we long to spread the news. It would be very strange if you kept news of a baby, a promotion or a good exam result entirely to yourself. And it should be strange if we never tell others the wonderful news about a God who loved us so much that he sent his Son to die for us so that he could pick us out of the gutter. Whenever we do that, whether to a Christian or a non-Christian, we are praising him. But praise will also include speaking or singing to him directly.

When we praise God we are engaged in the activity which is most authentically human, for we are doing that for which we were created. We are made in God’s image to reflect his majesty. God’s goal in calling us to belong to him as Christians is that we might be “for the praise of his glory” »5 A friend of mine has said: “A song of praise is like a mirror we hold up to God, reflecting his glory back to himself” »6


Emotions and singing

If it is natural to praise, it is also natural to sing. James writes: “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise” (Jas. 5:13). Singing is one of the ways in which we express our emotions. I said earlier that we should not equate emotions with the presence of God. I might get ‘the liver shiver’ when my side scores a goal at a football match or I listen to some beautiful music at a concert, but I do not say, “I’ve met with God”. We should not assume that we have encountered God just because we get emotional. It might simply have been the skill of the musicians or the beauty of the songs that moved us. But please do not conclude from that that we should be wary of all emotion.

We should be emotional about our faith. Those of us who come from the United Kingdom can be more British than biblical. We tend to be scared of showing any emotion. We can sing of the most wonderful truths with an expression on our faces that would be appropriate in a morgue. But why do we think God tells us to sing? Surely it is because singing enables us to express our emotions. It is not the means by which we enter the presence of God, but it is one of the ways in which we can express our joy at the wonderful truth that we are already there in Christ. Sometimes songs will help us to express the emotion that we already feel. On other occasions they will begin to trigger emotions, as the music helps us to feel something of the wonder of the truths we are singing about. The words “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven” might not move us especially when we see them written on a page; but they can come alive as we sing them and reflect on all that they describe.


God-focused songs

The fact that we sing to praise God should mean that our songs are focused on him, not us. There is certainly a place for telling him how we feel about him. There are plenty of examples of that in the Psalms. Some of them are intensely personal. Psalm 18, begins: “I love you, o Lord, my strength”, or Psalm 89: “I will sing of the Lord’s great love for ever”. But the Psalms of praise are never simply subjective declarations of the Psalmists’ feelings. The objective reasons for those feelings are always given, namely the greatness of God. For example: “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer” (Ps. 18:2) or “Your love stands firm, you established your faithfulness in heaven itself” (Ps. 89:2).

Too many of our contemporary songs place an excessive emphasis on us, how we feel about God and what we will do for him, and not enough emphasis on him. We can only express our love for him if we are first reminded of his love for us. That is where our focus must be: “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).


God-focused singing

The fact that we are addressing God as we sing should mean that we do so with reverence.  That certainly does not rule out joy and fun. Those who object to children’s songs with actions, for example, are surely going too far. But we should remember that, as someone has put it, “We approach the almighty God, not the all-matey God”. He is our loving Father but he is also our awesome, holy creator. We should approach him with both love and “reverent fear” »7. We can be intimate, but not casual; confident, but not presumptuous. Those of us who lead the singing at Christian meetings should be careful with the words we use and the manner we adopt.

Reverence should also mean that we will pay attention to the words we sing. It is so easy to switch into auto-pilot without letting the lyrics engage with our minds at all. God deserves better than that. John Wesley wrote is his ‘Rules for Methodist Singers’ “Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in very word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more that yourself or any other creature. In order to do this, attend

strictly to the sense of what you sing and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually”.»8

Musicians should seek to play, not to impress others, but to bring glory to God. Everything we do can be an expression of praise. We can use all sorts of instruments for the purpose. Psalm 150 alone speaks of the trumpet, lute, harp, timbrel, strings, pipe, and loud clashing cymbals. I take it that was a fairly representative sample of the instruments that were available at the time. Any kind of instrument can be used as a means of praising God.


2: We should sing to encourage one another

“Be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:18-19).

Paul is not urging us to receive a one-off experience when he instructs us to “be filled with the Spirit”. The verb he uses is in the present continuous. A better translation is: “keep on being filled with the Spirit”. He follows that command with a string of participles, which are lost in our English translations, which spell out what it means in practice.

The original reads like this: “Keep on being filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs; singing and making music in your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (vv.18-21). It is striking that three of those five participles are to do with singing. Spirit-filled Christians sing.

Speak’ does not mean that we are only to read the words; it includes singing. We tend to assume that our songs are addressed only to God, but Paul tells us that we are also to sing to ‘one another’. We saw in the previous chapter that Christians in the New Testament met together primarily to encourage one another, and we are to do that even as we sing. 

In Colossians Paul writes: “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 you hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). Our singing should be one form of our ministry of God’s word to each other. We all need to be built up in our faith. That happens through sermons, Bible studies, conversations and also as we sing. Our songs should be one of the ways by which we are taught the truths of the Bible.

So, when we sing, we are not simply a collection of individuals praising our God; we are a community addressing one another. There are many examples of that in the Psalms. Psalm 95, for example, is not so much a song of praise to God as an exhortation to his people: “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation (v.1). It then strengthens that appeal by reminding us of reasons why he is worthy of our praise: “For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him” (vv.3-4).

The rehearsal of great truths about God simultaneously brings praise to him and encouragement to us. Most songs therefore have two audiences: heavenly and earthly. We should keep both the vertical and horizontal dimensions in mind as we choose songs and as we sing them.


The power of music

Music has the power to embed words deeply into our minds. The advertisers know that well. The Cadbury’s jingle from the 1970s is playing in my mind even as I write: “Everyone’s a fruit and nut case …” It is only marginally better than the more recent ‘Magic Moments’ tune.

The power of music is also evident in the Christian world. One Christian leader has said: “I don’t mind who writes the theological books so long as I can write the hymns.»9” He was reflecting on the great influence that our songs have on our theology. That can be harmful. The heretic Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ in the Fourth Century, used brief choruses with catchy tunes to spread his message. But if the words are good, the effect can be very positive.

I was greatly helped in the early months of my Christian life by the words of songs that I sang at a camp I attended soon after my conversion. Some were simply verses of Scripture put to music: “My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me ……” Others were distillations of biblical teaching: “At the cross of Jesus, pardon is complete; love and justice mingle, truth and mercy meet. Though my sins condemn me, Jesus died instead; there is full forgiveness in the blood he shed.” Others were exhortations to live the Christian life: “Be valiant, be strong, resist the powers of sin; the fight is long, the foe is strong, but you shall win; for through the power of Christ, the stronger than the strong, you shall be more than conqueror; be valiant, be strong.”

The tunes may sound dated now, but the words are still true. It is no exaggeration to say that I received as much biblical teaching and encouragement from those songs as from Bible studies and talks. My Christian understanding was largely formed by what I sang because those were the words that stuck with me. We must not underestimate the influence of the songs that we sing. One theologian said once: “Show me your songs, and I will tell you your theology.” That means that great care must be taken in the choice of songs.


Choosing songs

If we want to ensure that our songs are edifying to others we should consider four questions about them:

a: Are they true?

It is tempting simply to select the songs which are the most popular. But what do they teach? Are they faithful to Scripture? Is it really true that I can trade in my sorrows and sicknesses for the joy of the Lord, as one song I have been invited to sing suggests »10? And will God give us all the ground we claim»11?

We should not leave song-writing to those who are gifted musically but who may not have much grasp of theology. The best of the classic hymns, like Charles Wesley’s “And can it be”, are full of profound theology. There is an urgent need for more contemporary songs which follow in that tradition. They need not be long. One truth clearly stated can be enough. The Bible itself should provide many of our lyrics. The Psalms are a rich resource which are not used nearly enough.

A learned academic from one of the colleges in Oxford came to St Ebbe’s recently. He came up to me at the end of the meeting and pointed to some words on the song sheet and said: “Is that true? Can we sing it?” I was pleased that he asked that question. We should be concerned only to sing what is true. I was also pleased to be able to tell him that the words under suspicion came straight from Psalm 45.


b: Are they God-focused?

Our songs need to be focused on God, not simply so that we can praise him, but also so that we can be encouraged. If the majority of our songs are focused on ourselves, our feelings and expressions of devotion to God, we will have little to sustain us for the rest of the week.

How have I been edified by singing: “I will dance, I will sing, to be mad for my King; nothing, Lord is hindering the passion in my soul. And I’ll become even more undignified that this; some would say it’s foolishness, but I’ll become even more undignified than this. And this. Na, na, na, na, na-hey (x7) Here I, here I, here I, here I go” »12? There is a place for the subjective, but it should always be a response to the great objective truths about God. Feelings come and go, but the truth never changes. It is the truth about God that drives my desire to keep worshipping him with all my life, even when that is hard.


c: Are they clear?

Songs may be true and God-focused, but they will still not build anyone up unless they are also clear.

We slip into jargon so easily: “On the wings of eagles, we ride upon the breeze of your Spirit’s lifting, our minds are being freed from the things that have torn us, and taken life away, once more soaring higher, freedom breaking in again” »13. What does that mean?

Of course we should be able to use imagery and metaphor in our songs. Clarity does not demand dull expression. But the imagery should be such that it conveys the truth of which it speaks, rather than leaving us scratching our heads.


d: Are they unselfish?

Our songs should encourage us to sing to one another. If they are all in the first person singular they will allow us to think only abut ourselves and God. We could do that on our own. Our direction should also be directed to others around us. It is gloriously true that as I “behold the man upon a cross” I see “my sin upon his shoulders.” That personal element has an important place in Christian songs. But it is also good to be reminded in the same song that God’s love is for all God’s people: “How deep the Father’s love for us»14.

Unselfishness should also influence our song selection in the sense that we should be thinking about what will most edify others, rather than what we ourselves most want to sing. Love should be the controlling influence in our decisions about what we decide to include in our meetings »15. It is a good sign if the older people in a fellowship are often saying: “Let’s have more modern songs for the youngsters” and if the younger ones are saying: “Let’s have more hymns for the older folk.”


Singing and playing horizontally

If we grasp that one of the reasons why we sing is to build up others, we will make sure that we have them in mind. We will be aware of the horizontal dimension and not just the vertical. I should not sing, “This is our God, the servant King, he calls us now to follow him” »16 with my eyes closed. I should be singing to you. And, whatever the words, I should sing up. No one is encouraged by a dirge.

Those who play should also have others in mind. Some musicians are more concerned about their performance than serving others. We have all heard of choirs who have resigned because they have been restricted to one anthem a fortnight, or pianists leaving churches because they are no longer allowed to choose the songs. There is an old joke circulating among ministers: “What is the difference between an organist and a terrorist?” “You can negotiate with a terrorist.”

It can be very hard for musicians. They often have to play music that they do not like or that is not very challenging for them. Other songs might give them a chance to show off their talents better, but that is not the object of the exercise. One of the world’s most gifted organists was a member of our congregation until recently. You would not have known it. That is not because he did not play well, but rather because he resisted the temptation to perform.


“The noble art of music”

We have seen that some have too high a view of music and see it as a means by which we encounter God. The Bible does not teach that. But it does give singing an important role. We are to sing to praise God and to encourage one another. Martin Luther once wrote: “(After) the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world” »17.

Vaughan RobertsAbout the Author

Vaughan Roberts is the Rector of St. Ebbe’s Church, Oxford, and on the advisory editorial board of The Theologian.  This article was originally published as chapter 5 of Vaughan’s book True Worship, and appears here with his permission.