By David Shead
What is the place of singing in corporate worship?
Of all the things we normally do when we gather together for corporate worship (singing, prayer, Bible readings, teaching, etc.), singing is not more worship or more “worshipful” than the other elements. All are equally acts of corporate worship. This is why it’s theologically misleading to refer to the song leader as the “worship leader”.
However, there is a particular and important contribution that singing makes to our corporate worship (just as there is a particular and important contribution that our corporate prayers make, or our instruction from God’s word makes, etc.). What is singing’s particular contribution? Why sing?
There are a number of important reasons:
- Singing is an activity of whole persons. The experts say that singing uses more of your brain than almost any other activity. That’s because singing involves you physically (from your tapping feet to your moving mouth), mentally and emotionally (understanding and feeling the significance of the words), and relationally (singing to one another and giving thanks to the Lord – Colossians 3:16). Therefore, singing is a perfectly designed corporate activity since in singing, almost more than in anything else, our whole person is engaged all at once in bringing appropriate honour to God.
- Singing honours a beautiful God. What sets singing apart from plain speech? Emotion and beauty are two of music’s strong points. (This is not to say that sermons must be devoid of emotion or beauty. They are there; they just function differently.) And since the truth (and the God whom the truth proclaims) is beautiful, singing is a particularly appropriate channel for expressing the truth, both to one another and to God. Because of who God is, appropriately honouring him must include a suitably beautiful and emotion-filled response.
- Singing teaches memorably. We all know what it’s like to have a song or a tune stuck in our heads for days on end. And we’ve heard about elderly dementia sufferers who can’t remember their own family, but will sing with gusto the songs of their youth. Music sticks. Therefore singing God’s truth is a great way of teaching truth memorably.
- Singing slows us down. The other way that music helps in teaching God’s truth is that we always sing more slowly than we speak. Singing forces us to take our time to reflect on the great truths of our faith, and also to reinforce them through repetition. Sometimes we repeat these truths within a song itself, as we return several times to a key line or chorus. But even if a song is sung straight through, the fact that we’ll sing it again, word for word, next week, proves that singing is all about repetition. Who wants the preacher to deliver exactly the same sermon, word for word, that he preached last week? In this way, singing teaches us in ways that sermons alone can’t.
- Singing unifies. Singing in church is something that we do together. If everyone is singing different words and different notes all at the same time, then it stops being music and becomes just noise. The power of congregational singing is the fact that we are all doing exactly the same thing in unison. Therefore, when I express Biblical truth through song and I see that my neighbour is expressing the same Biblical truth in perfect unison with me, it both encourages me to know that we are in this together, and it also declares to the world our unity in what we believe. Corporate singing (as opposed to performance singing, e.g., in a musical item) brings the body together and proclaims our unity in Christ.
- Singing demands commitment. It is impossible to sing in a whisper. That is, I can speak quietly, under my breath, so that what I say remains secret and private. But I can’t sing privately or in secret – at least not when I’m in church. Singing is out there and public. When we sing, we nail our colours to the mast; we declare loud and proud our faith in Christ. We believe what we sing.
- Singing strengthens commitment. The act of corporate singing, being loud and proud and public, not only takes commitment to achieve, but also strengthens our commitment for when the singing stops. Because singing engages our mind and our emotions, when we sing aloud and together, it breathes fresh life into our wills: we want to live out our faith even more. If we neglect corporate singing, we actually stunt our congregation’s spiritual growth by removing from them this God-given and hugely effective opportunity to strengthen our faith.
- Singing is our future. When you look at the list of reasons for corporate singing above, is it any wonder that so many of the Bible’s descriptions of the new creation show us singing! There’s no picture of heaven in the Bible that I know of in which we see someone get up and deliver a sermon, but we are all singing, loudly, joyfully, together, all the time. And given the glory of the life to come, why would we think of doing otherwise?
In short, unified, corporate singing is indispensable to the Christian life and is crucial to true and effective corporate worship.
For more in this Series:
What is corporate worship? (Part 1 of 9)
Why Sing? (this one)
What is the ‘shape’ of the corporate worship gathering? (Part 3 of 9)
What makes for good and effective singing? (Part 4 of 9)
Five principles for choosing songs (Part 5 of 9)
Choosing Songs – planning (Part 6 of 9)
Choosing Songs – preparation (Part 7 of 9)
Choosing Songs – order (Part 8 of 9)
Choosing New Songs (Part 9 of 9)