(Photo courtesy of College Park Church)
It’s important that you know up front that I’m more of a preaching guy than a music or singing guy. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy music, both outside and inside the church, but simply that the preaching of the Word normally influences my personal growth more than congregational worship. I realize that both are vital, but as a matter of preference, I’m more of a preaching guy. Hopefully, that adds to what I’m about to tell you.
Consider the following two parallel passages Paul wrote to the Church. Both single out singing spiritual songs to one another as a means of admonishing and encouraging one another in truth.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16)
“…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” (Ephesians 5:18-19)
The biggest part of our congregational singing focuses on worshipping God. In the reading of the Bible God speaks and we listen. In our singing, we respond back to God in various ways: confession, worship, thanksgiving, etc. Most evangelical churches get that and we do vertical worship pretty well overall.
However, what we often don’t consider is the horizontal element of congregational singing. Occasionally it might get mentioned in passing, so we nod our heads without knowing what that really means and there’s no feeling of weight behind singing to one another. And yet, these two verses tell us we not only sing to God but also sing to one another. In fact—and I find this perplexing and fascinating—Paul seems to suggest we don’t even go back and forth from singing to God to singing to one another, but while we’re singing to one another we’re at the same time worshipping God in our hearts.
Whatever these verses could be saying, they say for sure that sometimes we speak the truths of God’s Word to one another and sometimes we sing those truths to one another. At times, we might really hear from the speaking but other times we might hear something through singing—something that isn’t getting through to us in the speaking. These verses could be (and should be) unpacked in more detail. For now, I simply want to give two examples from my own life of the power of singing spiritual songs to one another as we gather.
As the hearer
About three years ago I felt spiritually dry, like I was walking though the wilderness, parched and alone. The distance between me and God felt immeasurable. For several months it felt like I was carrying around an oppressive, life-sucking weight on my shoulders. I couldn’t figure out why. There wasn’t any rampant sin in my life. I wasn’t plagued with overwhelming doubts or questions. I still knew God’s Word and Christ were true—and yet—experientially, trying to get my heart engaged felt like I was forever crawling towards but never reaching a distant mirage.
What do we do in such circumstances? I opened the Bible, but nothing. I prayed and prayed, but nothing. I kept coming back to church and listening to my pastor, but nothing. Seasons like this don’t provide the luxury of a light at the end of a tunnel. They seem hopeless…and endless.
It was during this time that I started going back to my old church. My faith was dried up. I didn’t want it to be but I was slowly losing even that spark of a desire—the faint desire to want to desire God. I would come into church slip in the last row of seats, which butted directly against the back wall. Our church at the time was packed to capacity and the room wasn’t well designed. I kind of liked that though because I could just slip in unnoticed.
I didn’t have the strength to fake a smile or act as if I was doing fine. I couldn’t even muster enough faith to mouth the words of our songs. But, what started happening is a real life example of those verses from Colossians and Ephesians about singing to one another. I didn’t have the faith to sing but the people all around me sure did. They didn’t lifelessly mumble the words out of guilt or custom. They actually belted out the words like they believed it. They sang “hymns and spiritual songs” to God in such a way that I knew these people believed what they were singing, and they believed it because they were experiencing the reality of God’s grace in their life from week to week.
Each Sunday as I slipped in that back row, the reality of their faith coming through in song was like a welcome breeze fanning my miniscule spark of faith into a tiny flame of faith. The flame barely would survive the Monday through Saturday cycle, but each Sunday the faith of people in my church expressed through worship in song proved to be the life support keeping me going. After a few weeks like this God broke through and restored that sense of his presence and a heart-felt desire to seek Him. I don’t even remember how that actually happened but what I do remember is the role congregational singing played in letting me borrow the living faith of my brothers and sisters until my own returned.
As the singer
That episode in life taught me a number of things that have continued to strengthen my faith. One of those things has been to deeply forge in my mind the reality that when our church body is worshipping God in song we’re also singing to one another. Believe and feel what you sing (preferably in that order!) and those around you might just believe it too.
As I sang in church last Sunday this idea actually entered my mind a couple of times and it strengthened my own worship in a very real way. It reminded me that when I sing I’m not playing games, I’m telling God and the rest of the church what I believe is true and life-changing. It wasn’t simply that the truth hit me that there’s a horizontal element of our singing. What happened, and happens at times on Sunday mornings, is that specific people in our church come to mind and I sing to God with them in mind. Most of the time, I sing out of the reality of what I personally experience, such as the life-giving freedom of knowing my sins were nailed to the cross and I bear them no more. But, other times, I sing with church members in mind knowing what they’re walking through, knowing they are either experiencing this truth presently or singing with the prayer that they would experience it.
For example, last Sunday we sang “Cornerstone,” an updated version of “My Hope is Built.” As you may recall, one of the stanzas says—“When darkness seems to hide His face, I rest on His unchanging grace. In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.” Then the new part of the song: “Christ alone; cornerstone. Weak made strong, in the Savior’s love.”
As I sang these words I thought about a family at our church in the midst of the most painful circumstances I can imagine, losing their child. I also thought about a friend walking through the valley, full of pain and unrest. With them in mind I sang these truths about God’s faithfulness and unchanging grace, His stability and goodness in the midst of a chaotic and corrupted world, and the presence of a loving Savior to us in our weakest moments.
None of those people were sitting next to me, but I was able to sing simultaneously to God out of gratitude for his promises and to my church family in belief of these words as the only help for the weak being made strong. It’s a prayer on their behalf, an entering into their sufferings with them (in a way) and singing for them, and a standing next to them as the one body of Christ where we all, week to week, find our life in the grace He gives to us.
We speak the gospel and God’s truths to one another and so we should. And thankfully, Paul tells us it’s equally important to sing the gospel and God’s truths to one another as well.