Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but 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, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. - Ephesians 5:15-21
When we gather as a church, we demonstrate our worship of God in a number of ways. Some of us worship through setting up for our gathering. Some of us worship by teaching in Kids Life. Some worship through playing music. Some worship through greeting visitors. In our missional communities, some of us worship by leading the discussion. Some worship by preparing food for the group. Some worship by coordinating our group’s service projects in the community. These are all great ways to demonstrate worship through gratefulness to God by serving one another.
In Ephesians 5, Paul specifically addresses our singing as a church. I want to reflect on why singing enables us to demonstrate worship through gratefulness to God and service to one another. Paul gives us three ways that we are to live out our worship through gratefulness and service to one another, addressing one another with songs, hymns, and spiritual songs; giving thanks to God; and serving one another. Another way we could look at these is: worship of God that results from the Gospel is expressed horizontally (to one another) and vertically (to God) as a redemption of our time together. Let's begin by looking at how we worship God through song.
Singing is a gift God has given us to better know him and experience him. In Colossians 3:16, Paul tells the church to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another is psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” How does singing allow the Word of God to dwell in us richly? It allows us to express the truth of the Gospel and our grateful response to the Gospel in ways that are more emotive and meaningful than if we just said them. For example, in church we often sing hymns or spiritual songs. The song can be incredibly emotional. It is often a sort of battle cry of commitment to God for us to sing as a church. When I just recite the words to most hymns, it's not very inspiring. It sounds like I’m planning a carpool. The melody of the songs connect to what we are called to: following God on his mission, remembering what Christ has done, worshiping God. Songs allows us to express all these things in a way that is much more heartfelt.
The music also helps us remember God’s goodness and truth. Chances are you can recite the first verse of “Amazing Grace,” but if I asked you to recite the first four sentences of this article back to me, you couldn’t (even though this article is so much like poetry). Singing is a great way to learn the truth about God. What we sing gets stuck in our heads. What we sing works its way into our hearts. Like everything in life, music can either draw us into deeper fellowship with God or draw us away from him and toward our desires. That’s why - as worship leader - I strive so hard to only sing songs that accurately represent the truth and beauty of God. God has given us music to help us internalize and embody his truth. What we sing forms us as followers of God. In the early church, there was a heretic named Arius who taught that Christ had not existed eternally but had been created by God, and so was not equal to God. And one of the ways he attempted to spread this very false doctrine was by writing catchy songs that contained his heretical theology. This worked for a time, until Ambrose of Milan countered by writing equally catchy songs that reflected the truth of God.
Music helps us remember and hold to the truth of God because our songs about God combine both the intellectual truth about God and our emotional response to those truths. Singing about God gets his truth stuck in our hearts, and as it dwells there richly, it draws us into deeper communion with him.
But many of us have a hard time with singing. We see the command to “make melody to the Lord with our hearts,” and it seems weird. “Making melody” is not an everyday occurrence for most of us. When your boss asks you why you took an extra fifteen minutes on your lunch break you never say “well I got caught up making melody in my heart”. You'd get some strange looks. Men often have a hard time singing with the church. It is an act closely tied to emotions, and we are not known for being very good with those. Some of us are timid to sing with the church because we feel like our voices aren’t good enough. Maybe someone told us we weren’t good singers and now whenever we attempt to sing, all we can hear is that person’s voice in the back of our head telling us how bad we sound. But the Gospel frees us from all of these hang-ups.
Men, Jesus wept for you, he was in anguish for you so deep that he sweat blood. If Jesus is the ultimate man there is no shame in showing sorrow for your sin. Jesus has already cried harder than you ever will over your sin. But men, sorrow wasn’t the only emotion Jesus showed. He showed anger over injustice and the manipulation of the poor when he trashed the tables of the priestly charlatans in the temple. He showed joy as he raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. Men, the Gospel compels us to express these same emotions. We should rage at our sin. We should weep at the brokeness of our world. We should rejoice in the conquering of our sin by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. And our singing is a great place to begin to express these Christ-like emotions. Our singing is a great place to express the worship of God.
For those of us who do not feel that we sing well enough, and so we sing quietly (if at all). The Gospel frees us from our fear as well. We sing because God has shown us favor in spite of our abilities. We don’t sing to earn God’s favor. Your ability to be pitch perfect cannot save you! Your voice cannot get up on a cross and die for you, and it cannot get out of the grave and conquer death for you. That has already been accomplished by Christ, and that is why you are called to sing! So don’t think that your voice needs to be good enough in order for you to sing with the church. None of our voices are good enough for God. Christ has been good enough for you, so sing out of joy for what he has done and who he is. We sing because we have been loved and served so perfectly in Christ. Singing is not about us.
One last thought on why some of us may struggle with singing. I live in the Live Music Capitol of the World, and here everyone is a musician. Everyone has an opinion. We are used to having whatever kind of music we prefer available to us. And here in Austin some of us pick what church we join based on the music. Some of us choose not to sing certain songs with the church because we don’t like that particular song. I’ve been guilty of this. And I don’t think this practice is unique to Austin. When we decide what church family to be apart of based on our music preference, we place ourselves at the center of the gathering instead of God. We substitute our preferences as our motive for singing in place of worship of God. We are not the center of our singing. There is only one time a year when you are the center of the song, and that’s on your birthday. The Gospel frees us from this self serving mode of singing. Instead of trying to serve our musical needs and tastes, we sing because we have been loved and served so perfectly in Christ. Singing is not about us.
While singing is not about us and our individual tastes, it is about one another. In Ephesians 5 we are told to address one another with Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Again addressing one another with songs in person is not something we often do. When you meet a friend for coffee you don’t greet them by singing “Hey, we are getting coffee, and that is neat.” Yet the Gospel inspires us to encourage one another in song. Do you ever think of singing on Sunday that way? Do you ever think to yourself, “I’m going to sing this song not just because I need to hear it, but because other people need to hear it?”
Sadly many in the church don’t view our time together singing as a chance to serve one another. Often we view it as an “intimate” time between “me and Jesus.” We have the lights down low, our eyes closed, the music so loud we can’t hear our voices, and we don’t consider one another when we gather. And if we aren’t considering one another, if we aren’t listening to one another when we sing together, whats the point? Why not just put my headphones on and go sing in my closet? Parking would be easier.
To display the fullness of the gospel in worship, we need each other. We need the testimony and the encouragement of hearing one another sing the truth about God. We need to be formed by the Word of God dwelling richly in all of our hearts, and we need to hear it from one another. We don’t gather because we need more music. We gather because we need more of Christ through one another. I know I can think of many times when I have been encouraged, convicted, and refreshed by singing with the church. We need each other when we sing.
When we view singing as an act of service to one another, we are given even more Gospel reasons to sing. Men, your wives and kids need to hear and see you sing. The need to see a leader who unashamedly embraces the truth and emotions the Gospel inspires. You are given an awesome opportunity to teach your family the Gospel in song. You are given an awesome opportunity to show your son what it looks like to feel powerfully about the Gospel. You are given an awesome opportunity to show your daughters that a godly man feels powerfully about the Gospel. So sing all the time, as weird as it may feel! Sing around the table, sing on the way to school. Take the opportunity to get the Gospel stuck in their heads and hearts. For those of us who don’t feel that we sing well enough, singing as an act of service frees us from the fear of what others will think about our voices. It frees us because we are no longer singing (or not singing) to gain the approval of people. We're singing to share the good news of the Gospel with one another. For those of us who struggle with singing based on our preferences, or base what church we join on our musical preferences, the Gospel frees us to worship God by serving others through our singing.
This is why we sing together, to worship God, and to serve one another. Singing is one of the ways we fulfill what Jesus called the greatest commandment: To love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
Redeeming the time
Finally, worshipful singing is one of the ways the church learns to “redeem the time.” Said another way, how we act as a family shapes how we act when we are out on our own. Think of a newly married couple. They have individually learned all sorts of habits, quirks and expectations from their families, and they bring those to their marriage. For example, in my marriage, my wife and I have conflict over the placement of the hand towel in our kitchen. In my wife’s family, they hung the towel over the handle of the oven. In my family, we hung the towel over the counter in front of the kitchen sink. My wife would really prefer it if I would hang the towel over the oven handle. I don’t have a preference, but because I am so used to doing it the way I did it growing up I cannot for the life of me remember to hang it on the oven.
There are millions of different ways we are formed by our biological families. In the same way, we are formed by how we act together as a church family. Singing out of gratefulness to God and in service of one another forms and trains us to live like Christ out in the world. It trains and forms us to worship God, to place him at the center of our lives, when we are apart. It builds us up through encouragement, it teaches us through the truth we sing, and it disciplines us for service by giving us ample opportunity to serve one another through song.
Worship is all because of what God has done for us in Christ. We are freed from sin by his life, death, and resurrection. This is what inspires our gratefulness. The Gospel of Christ frees us from our fear of man and releases us into serving one another. It frees us from our consumerism, because Christ rightly puts himself at the center of our gatherings and our lives. This is how worship redeems our time - because in our singing, in our gathering, in our service, in our work, in our marriages, in our families, in our hobbies, in our hopes, in our fears, and in our struggles God is at the center. Because of Christ we have a reason to celebrate. Because of Christ we have hope. Because of Christ we have life. Because of Christ we worship.
Matt Oakes lives in Austin with his wife Joanie and two daughters, Isabella and Imogen. He serves as the Music and Arts Director at Austin City Life. He graduated from Corban University with a B.S. in Worship Arts and is currently working on an M.Div at Redeemer Seminary. He enjoys guitars, smoking meat, and loving the city with his church family. Twitter: @rubatomovement Blog: www.mattoakes.org
For more reading on the significance of worship, check-out Winfield Bevin's A Beginnger's Guide to Family Worship.