Do You Hear the People Sing?

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Staff writer, desiringGod.org

What does Sunday morning sound like at your church?

More specifically, what do you hear when your church worships God in song? What is the defining sound? For some, it will be the old, massive, beautiful organ — a full, enduring, and familiar tone. Others would say it’s the energy of an electric guitar and the deep pounding of a bass drum. Maybe you have one or two vocalists you love. They could sing the encyclopedia on Sunday morning and bring you to God.

I enjoy and appreciate all of the above — I really do — but I believe the defining sound on Sunday morning should be the singing voices of God’s people. It’s been taught and lived out at our church, and I love it. And I don’t think that my love is a matter of personal preference. I wouldn’t have chosen this style of worship for myself six years ago, and the music I listen to Monday–Saturday rarely sounds like Sunday morning at Bethlehem.

No, I believe there are principles for corporate worship that transcend cultural and personal preferences and fill music with unusual meaning.

“The defining sound on Sunday morning should be the singing voices of God’s people.”

1. Only one instrument sings.

By no means is God against musical instruments. He loves the sounds of praise that come from a string or horn or drum. Many of the Psalms — the songs of the saints — were written, after all, to be accompanied “with stringed instruments” (Psalms 4, 6, 54, 61, 67, 76). And God explicitly calls for praise to be played on the tambourine, harp, lyre, and trumpet (Psalm 33:2; 71:22; 81:2; 144:9; 150:3).

But only one instrument sings. Only the voice brings words of praise — explicit expressions of God’s power, goodness, mercy, and wonder. Only a human voice declares the truth. A guitar, an organ, and a banjo all communicate something of the glory of God, but even the most beautiful note can’t save anyone. We are desperate for a voice, a word, a lyric that announces good news, that reminds us of the truth we all need.

2. Those saved by God sing to God.

The Maker has wired music into the fabric of every soul, even those of us who are not especially musical by nature. It’s not just another way people artistically experience and express their gratitude and awe to God — like painting or journaling or fishing or serving. Throughout the Bible, God’s people — saved by his grace, because of his love — sing. It’s never been exclusive to the talented, or trained, or female. No, it’s part of being human, and it’s part of being Christian. When God rescued you, he became your Song.

Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation. (Isaiah 12:2)

It’s a metaphor, but it’s much more than a metaphor. Pulling you up out of the pit, God put his name in your heart and on your lips forever.

3. We are all — young and old, male or female, musical or not — commanded by God to sing.

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you. (Psalm 5:11)

Sing to him; sing praises to him, tell of all his wondrous works! Sing to the Lord, all the earth! Tell of his salvation from day to day. (1 Chronicles 16:9, 23)

We need to trust the God worthy of our worship with how we worship. Singing doesn’t always feel natural, and many of us aren’t good at it, but God tells us to sing. Refusing to sing to God is like ignoring what your mom might like for Christmas, and buying her whatever you really enjoy. God has told us one way he wants to be loved, worshiped, and enjoyed — through singing.

He is worthy of more than mere declarations of his greatness or even prayers affirming all that he is. He is worthy of our singing. “I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness, and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High” (Psalm 7:17). He deserves our songs.

And he commands it over and over again in his word:

Sing praises to the Lord, who sits enthroned in Zion! Tell among the peoples his deeds! (Psalm 9:11)

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name. (Psalm 30:4)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly . . . singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16; also Ephesians 5:18–20)

4. Heartfelt singing to God is a spectacular miracle.

Not all singing is a miracle. Most of the music we’re exposed to any given day is beautiful in its own right, but it’s not supernatural. What makes a song a miracle is when it is offered with a redeemed and genuine heart of awe and praise to God. It’s not a song that comes from deep within, but from far above. It is an act of sovereign grace.

[God] put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:3)

When God saved us, he retuned our souls to sing. He didn’t train us in music theory or give us vocal lessons, but he opened our eyes and made us alive. Our mouths look and sound like the same old instrument, but they’ve been radically and eternally transformed to declare the glory and goodness of our God.

Singing that truly honors God isn’t just about singing. After all, Jesus said, quoting Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8). One category of singers are those who sing God’s name while their hearts chase after everyone and everything else. Those songs are not miracles.

But by God’s grace, our empty songs can be filled with affection, enjoyment, and awe. David declares,

I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High. (Psalm 9:2)

The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him. (Psalm 28:7)

That kind of heart is a miracle, and we need to make room to truly hear these songs. One a cappella chorus is a great sample, but we’re missing out if the miracles around us aren’t heard more often in our services. We should want it to be the norm, not the exception.

5. Worship leadership calls for worshipers, not spectators.

Worship leadership is about leadership, not performance. Worship leaders have this difficult task of bringing people to God and then getting out of the way. They have to find a way to lead without taking all of the attention. Worship leadership that doesn’t aim for congregational participation in worship often becomes a distraction — a performance that ironically and tragically upstages God.

“When God saved us, he retuned our souls to sing.”

We all need to admit that the accompaniment has a tendency to take over. When all you hear are the instruments, it can be hard to remember why we’re singing. The accompaniment has a real propensity to become the point in worship. Consciously or unconsciously, it can usurp the service and steal the hearts of listeners. It’s subtle, but serious.

God wants us to enjoy music as a gift from him and as a means for worshiping him, but he does not want us to enjoy it at the expense of seeing him and offering him our hearts. We have nothing to offer him if our hearts ran off with the music. Leaders need to remember that as they plan their services, position their musicians, and set their sound levels.

Do you hear the people sing? If not, consider making some changes to encourage and highlight the miracles happening all over your sanctuary.

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