God Listens to Music
Why do we sing in church? Most Americans don’t even like to sing, at least in public! Maybe when we’re alone in our car, or in the shower, but just listen during the national anthem at a baseball game and you’ll quickly learn that most Americans don’t like to sing in public! So why does nearly every church in America have music?
·· For some, it is because we have always done it. No one really asks why, we just do what we have done.
·· For others, music is a good filler. One man wrote (facetiously): “the morning service is an hour long, and we cannot expect the preacher to occupy more than thirty or forty minutes even with the announcements and the offering—so we need music to fill up the balance of the time. We need music to cover the entrance of late comers; music to give the congregation an opportunity to stand and relax before the sermon. And we need music—at least one stanza—so that the choir can proceed from the loft into the pews in time for the sermon.”
·· For others, music is advertising. It is how we get people to like our church. We use music that most people like, and we regularly have guest musicians that we advertise. Music is advertising.
·· For others, music is preparation for preaching. It is a means to an end, a way to psychologically prepare people for the preaching.
While there may be a little bit of validity in some of those things, none of those answers are Bible answers. We need a better reason, a Bible reason. The Bible talks about singing approximately 300 times? Not just music (which it talks about many more times), but singing in particular. At least 100 times the Bible talks specifically about singing praise to God. God obviously chose singing as one of the most important ways He wants us to tell about His greatness. And God delights when His people sing His praises together – we will do this for eternity (Rev. 5:6-14)! We might as well get used to singing together – we’ll be doing it together forever. Much of the material about music is found in the Old Testament, where we have not only all of the inspired Psalms but also the example of instrumentalists, choirs, and music directors. Israel was commanded to worship God in song. But there are also two key texts in the New Testament that show us that music is just as important for the church today as it was for Israel thousands of years ago. Our text today, Colossians 3:16, is one of those two verses.
So singing isn’t a practical idea for what might be good to do in church – it is God’s idea. And, as we’ll see later, God listens to music.
There are some minor variations in how you translate this text that are important for the meaning. Let me show you what I believe is the clearest and most accurate way to reflect the original language here:
Let the word of Christ fully live in you, with all wisdom teaching and warning one another with psalms with hymns with spiritual songs, with thanksgiving singing in your hearts to God.
Here’s how the structure works:
Let the word of Christ fully live in you. (How?)
Teaching and warning one another with psalms/hymns/spiritual songs
Singing in your hearts to God
This is a very Christ-centered text, because the core says “let the word of Christ fully live in you.”
· “The word of Christ” – teaching about Christ, truth about Christ. While generally this would apply to all of the Bible, specifically this refers to Paul’s teaching here in Colossians. He has taught us so much magnificent truth about Christ. Let that “word about Christ,” that truth about Christ live in you.
· “fully” – richly, abundantly, a lot! Let it fully move in to the house of your life! This should not be an out of town guest that you temporarily make room for. This is a permanent resident that has full use of your house. Truth about Christ, we could say, should dominate your life. Richly, abundantly live in you. Let truth about Christ dominate your life.
Now, I want us to look at 10 principles from this text:
1. Music should exalt Christ in our lives
· That first clause (let truth about Christ dominate your life) is the main verb, then teaching / warning / singing are some of the ways that we let truth about Christ dominate our lives.
Let truth about Christ dominate your life. (How?)
Teaching and warning one another with psalms/hymns/spiritual songs
Singing in your hearts to God
So music should always exalt Christ in our sight; it should lift Him up and deepen our understanding of Him and appreciation of Him. It should put Him into a place of greater domination in our lives.
2. Music should correctly teach biblical truth
· If music is supposed to help truth about Christ dominate our lives, then the music has to be correct. It has to accurately reflect and expand upon truth about Christ. This is one of the key areas in which we need to exercise wisdom. We should come together as a church and sing songs that say right things. Don’t think that just because a song made it into a hymnbook that it is all correct! For example there are songs that are written by people who believe that a Christian can reach a point of basic perfection, where he isn’t sinning any more. There are songs written by people who believe that the gospel is gradually going to overtake the whole world and the millennium will gradually happen. There are songs that are very man-centered. And so we don’t come into church on Sunday morning, grab a hymnbook, and try to think of some songs that will work. We carefully choose our songs, tie them together with the sermon and with scripture, and print it out for you in a worship guide. We need to make sure that we are correctly teaching biblical truth.
3. Music requires carefulness and wisdom
· “with all wisdom” Music requires carefulness and wisdom. This is one of the reasons why we don’t have impromptu worship. We don’t have impromptu preaching either! The preacher, according to II Tim. 2:15, must be a diligent workman who is accurately handling the word of truth, he must work hard at preaching and teaching (I Tim. 5:17). We do not come to church and see who can think of something to say. Someone labors and prepares to preach. In the same way music requires carefulness and wisdom. Just like we don’t have impromptu preaching, we don’t have people just come up here and sit down with their guitar and make up a song. We try to wisely choose good music and present it wisely and lead in a song service that is carefully planned.
· These last two points are why I stay carefully involved in the planning and preparation for our music. Worshipping God and teaching and admonishing one another through music is far too important for the pastor to just ignore it and let everybody else worry about it. While I gladly delegate many of the responsibilities to people who are more qualified and more skilled than myself, ultimately the responsibility for the wisdom of the music here falls upon me. It is a part of shepherding God’s flock that can’t be ignored.
4. Music is a tool for teaching and warning one another
· This is the common word for teaching in the NT. The second word is specifically used for warning, or the kind of teaching that is designed to correct behavior or belief. Used many times in the NT for what you do with someone who is drifting away from the truth, making poor decisions, etc. Admonishing is showing what is wrong. One of the ways we admonish one another is through music. This is why we don’t just use songs that are addressed to God. We also use songs that are addressed to one another. When we sing those we are challenging one another. Sometimes David will draw your attention to this before we sing a certain song – he’ll say “Now let’s call each other to obey, or worship, or be thankful.”
· So one of the reasons why we sing together is because we are teaching and admonishing one another with that music.
5. Mutual ministry is vital for the church
· “one another” – This is slightly off the topic of music, but this does highlight again the importance of mutual ministry for the church. You expect that pastor to have the responsibility to teach and admonish. But we all have that responsibility. You each have the responsibility to teach and admonish. Music is one of the ways that mutual ministry happens.
6. Church music should have variety
Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are definitely three different words; Paul certainly intended to use three different words; but to figure out precisely what was meant by each of these is nearly impossible. Many people think they have, and you can find lots of explanations of what there words mean. But it really isn’t that easy. I will give you one example. It would seem obvious that the word “psalm” here refers to the Old Testament Psalms. Many people, based on this verse, have suggested that we need to return to singing more songs that are straight from the Psalms. Seems obvious. But in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, in the Psalm titles, while at least 60 are called “psalms,” 6 Psalms are called “hymns,” and 36 are called “songs.” All three of these words can apply to the Psalms. AND, Paul uses this word “psalm” in I Cor. 14:26 and it very unlikely that he is referring to an Old Testament psalm. He probably means songs that they have written. And so while it would be simple to suggest that the word “psalm” refers specifically to the Old Testament Psalms, it probably isn’t completely true. So whatever kind of music the early church would have understood these three words to specifically refer to, they certainly encourage us to variety in our music. Some songs are to God, some are to one another, some are prayers, some celebrations, some challenges. Some are slow and contemplative, some are fast and energetic. Some song texts are simple and repetitive, some are long and complex. Some are straight from Scripture, some are testimonies or prayers or teaching. These things are all good.
7. Our singing should come from thankful hearts
· “with thankfulness” This is one of the reasons why we often have our worship after the preaching. Many times the Scripture that we look at fills our hearts with thankfulness, and then we are more ready than ever to sing “with thankfulness.”
8. Everyone should sing!
· “singing” – Not just the choir members. Not just the professional musicians. Not just the people who sing well. Everyone joins their voices and sings. Not watch a show, not listen to a concert, but sing! I remember being at one Sunday night service at a large Southern Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. This happened to be the very first time that they had a contemporary service. This was the first one. All of the other elements of the service were about the same, but for the music they had electric guitars and drums and praise team and worship leader and they sang the style of music that you would normally sing with electric guitars and drums. Regardless of what you believe about musical styles and worldliness and what is appropriate corporate worship music, one thing was very obvious. People weren’t singing. Most people were just standing there watching the praise team sing. It wasn’t the corporate worship that the church is called to do – it was a Christian concert. Churches are supposed to sing together!
Excerpts from “Amplified Versions”, CT April 22, 2002 by Andy Crouch
“The music that we now call ‘contemporary’ is dependent on amplification for its very existence … the essence of contemporary music is electric…. I am troubled by many amplified worship services. Next time you’re in one of these settings, watch and listen to the congregation. Get ready for the sound of silence…. In the face of amplified worship, most congregations don’t do much more than clap, close their eyes, and sway a little. Especially among self-styled ‘postmodern’ churches, which like to turn down the lights and turn up the sound, two-thirds of the people could keel over and the band would play on. When you can’t even hear yourself singing, why try?
“Singing used to flourish in Protestant churches for a theological reason. Protestants believed and taught the priesthood of all believers. But today we are witnessing the rise of a new priesthood – the ones with the (literal) power. Armed with microphones and amps, gleaming in the multi-hued brilliance of spotlights, the amplified people do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: make music, approach the unapproachable [God].
“Singing … makes us self-conscious. With recorded music so omnipresent and music education so scarce, the idea of making one’s own music [i.e., singing] is foreign to a contemporary American.
“To their credit, many of the amplified priests are troubled, as faithful priests have always been, by the apathy of their people. But what are they to do? When they turn up the volume, when they play more brilliantly, the crowds grow. The crowds, meanwhile, go home satisfied. They have seen a great show. And unlike a rock concert, it didn’t cost them a thing.”
· Singing is foreign to most Americans
· most congregations are merely watching a show rather than participating in today’s worship
· Churches that have shows rather than participation worship grow very quickly, and the people are happy, so the temptation is great to keep it that way.
· The priesthood of all believers means that everyone should participate in coming to the throne of God with our sacrifices of praise. But instead we have created a new priesthood, where the worship leaders and praise teams worship God for us so we don’t have to; they sing for us so we don’t have to; they worship and we watch.
Our eighth principle is this: everyone should sing! I know that building a worship service that puts pressure on all of us to actually sing is not humanly speaking the best way to grow a church; it isn’t the way to attract visitors; it isn’t the way to make people feel the most comfortable. But it is the way to be biblically obedient and to glorify God! So when it comes down to a decision between faithfulness and fruitfulness, we must choose faithfulness every time. So we sing together!
Side note: what about when we have special music and you aren’t singing? We have a clear biblical example. In I Chronicles 16, when the ark of God had been gone, and they brought it back into the tabernacle, they had a great celebration. And on that day David appointed a choir and symphony, led by Asaph. And they played and sang a great song of celebration. And the people listened. And when they finished, I Chron. 16:36 says “Then all the people said, ‘Amen.’” Let it be so! We agree! We second that! Yes! Without drawing unnecessary attention to yourself, a verbal “Amen” is appropriate to communicate that your heart was with that song. That you want those things to be true; that you agree.
TRANSITION: But now some of you are thinking, “Tim, you’re telling me that everyone has to sing, and I can’t sing. If you listened to me sing, you would quickly plug your ears and plead with me to stop. My singing sounds like a lousy imitation of a terrified elephant.” That is where our ninth principle comes in:
9. God is concerned with the heart, not the ability
· “singing in your heart.” This doesn’t mean that we all sing silently, just in our hearts. It means that the singing is coming from our hearts. Remember Matthew 15:8 “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” God doesn’t want lip service, He wants people to sing from their heart. This is a frightening thing about singing together, and leading a group in worship. Because in any group there will probably be some whose hearts are far from God. And if those people join in the singing because everybody is doing it, they are really mocking God. They are saying “Lord, I want to know you. Live my life to show you, all the love I owe you, we’re seekers of your heart.” Meanwhile that person’s heart and life scream “NO I DON’T!” “I love you Lord, and I lift my voice to worship you.” “JUST KIDDING!” “Nearer, still nearer, Lord to be Thine; sin with its follies I gladly resign.” Where’s my t-shirt that says “I’M A LIAR!” God wants our hearts. Amos 5:21 God says about Israel’s heartless worship “I hate it” “I reject it” “I do not delight in it” “I will not accept it” In Isaiah 1 he says “I have had enough of it” “I take no pleasure in it” “You are trampling my courts” “It is worthless” “It is an abomination to me” “You worship is a burden to me, I am weary of bearing it.” It is frightening to think that we could lead some people in worship, and that would be what God would say about it. It is frightening to think that God would say that about our singing. Examine your heart before you sing! A lousy imitation of a terrified elephant can be sweet music to God when your heart is trying to sing out of your joy in God.
10. Music is primarily directed to God
· “to God” Music is not only to one another, but also and primarily to God. Some songs are to one another; some are to God; and some combine both. One of David’s jobs as he leads you in worship is to help get you ready for what you are about to sing.
· But I want us to think for a minute about singing “to God.” Amos 5:23 condemns heartless worship. And God says “Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.” If God can stop listening to our worship, that means that He was listening. Worship is not just motions we go through. It isn’t for us. It is for God. And He listens. That should terrify us and delight us. You come and sing – God is listening. He’s not listening to whether you hit all the notes right or not. He’s not listening for whether you breathe correctly or enunciate your consonants. He’s not listening for perfect harmony. He’s listening for the song of your heart.
· This means that worship isn’t for you – it is for God. One man said: “It is a common misconception among evangelicals that worship is evaluated by whether or not one gets a blessing.” It’s not about you getting a blessing – God is listening!
· Martin Luther said it was his purpose to give to the German people two things in their own language: the Bible and the hymnbook, so that God might speak to them directly through His Word, and that they might answer Him directly through their song.
· You sing to God, and God listens. God listens to music – yours!
One encouraging side note for us: Music is for every size church, not just the large ones. Philemon apparently lives in Colossae, and Philemon v. 2 indicates that the church there met in his house. Or at least one of the churches. He is not talking about the music program at a giant church with orchestra and choir and two grand pianos and a full time music director. This teaching is for a small church meeting in someone’s house to hear the Word and sing! We can do this!
Let’s review these ten principles again:
Music should exalt Christ in our lives
Music should correctly teach biblical truth
Music requires carefulness and wisdom
Music is a tool for teaching and warning one another
Mutual ministry is vital for the church
Church music should have variety
Our singing should come from thankful hearts
Everyone should sing!
God is concerned with the heart, not the ability
Music is primarily directed to God
There are many conclusions from this text that impact the ones who plan and lead the music in a church. Serious conclusions that guide the decisions we make about our music, and the preparation we make for our music. But what conclusions are there for each of you, most of whom are not responsible for planning or leading the public music here?
· inspire full participation
· prompt the fear and carefulness that are appropriate for worship: don’t come in half-hearted, half-baked and start singing. Bow in reverence at what you are about to do. Fear the possibility of God saying “I hate it. I don’t want to hear it!”
· put joy and meaning in our worship: God listens to music – yours! We aren’t filling time, or advertising our church, or preparing for the sermon. Our singing matters!
· motivate us to learn what we can and develop our musical ability. Music education in most public schools went down the drain a generation ago. There is very little real music education, mostly just exposure to the pop music of our culture. But the Biblical priority of musical worship gives Christians a unique motivation to learn music. You know that Christians have always been pioneers in education because they believed in the importance of the written word of God and being able to read it. Christians are also pioneers in music education, because music is such an important part of life in the church. Let me encourage you to listen to good music in your home, so that you and your children are exposed to good music. We brought catalogs and samples for you two weeks ago, but if you need more help in finding good music talk to David or Heather or Jerry or Renee. Encourage your children to take instrumental lessons, and learn how to read music and play the piano and sing. And there is hope for you too. Anyone can learn the basics of how to read music. And just about anyone can sing better. I have a friend who cannot sing. We played a game once where you had to hum part of a song and get your team to guess it. I think his song was the star spangled banner. They turned the timer over and he started. And he was singing one note! It wasn’t changing. DO IT. But he didn’t know that! But he has practiced, and stood by people in church who have a good ear for music, and learned a lot. And he can generally stay on tune now, and even leads singing sometimes. So there is some hope, even for the terrified elephants among us.
Music in the church. We don’t do it because we’ve always done it; because it helps fill time; because it attracts people; because it preps for the message. It isn’t about us. God listens to music. God delights in the praise of his people as they sing. So sing! Sing with all your heart! We don’t need to be known as a church with phenomenal musicians. We don’t need to be known for our great choir. Let’s be known as a church where we participate in worship. Everybody jumps in with their whole heart and sings! And God listens.