We are a generation of worshipers – or so we like to think of ourselves. We have worship songs, worship teams, worship leaders, worship conferences, worship…well you get the idea. We know all about worship. But I wonder if we can learn anything else? And I am not speaking about learning new techniques or methods. I wonder if God’s word has anything to say about worship that we haven’t given thought to lately. And if it did I wonder if we would even accept it or if we are too entrenched in our practices, techniques, and understanding about worship to change.
I ought to confess that I am not a worship leader (or a music pastor). I do not make the musical decisions for my church much less serve in any public format through the vehicle of music. But I care about the music and worship in churches because I am a Christian and a pastor.
Much has been written regarding the vertical nature of worship and music in our churches. And this is just fine because worship is primarily all about expounding and exulting in the glory of God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. I do not want to add to that discussion here for there have been some worthy treatments of that subject. Instead I want to think about the horizontal aspect of our worship.
In the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossian believers, he writes: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” These songs are to flow from our identity in Christ (the elect of God, holy, and dearly loved – Col. 3:12). And they are to be sung “to the Lord” which is obviously the vertical aspect of our singing. But even more important for our subject is that this verse shows that our singing has a horizontal aspect as well.
In the context Paul is telling the Colossian believers what their lives ought to look like (and not look like). Those who dwell on and delight in the supremacy of Christ in all things (Col. 1:15-23), avoid the dead end short-cut of human spirituality (Col. 2:6-23), and instead remain grounded in the gospel-reality which has fundamentally changed them (Col. 3:1-4) will find their lives radically altered for the glory of God (Col. 3:5-4:6). And part of that radical alteration is that the word of God dwells in them richly.
Now we expect that those who let the word of God dwell in them richly would teach and admonish others. And if we put the period there it might make practical sense for pastors and teachers but not for everyone else. But Paul is not saying that preachers and church leaders ought to let the word of God dwell in them richly (though they should). He is saying that this ought to be an attribute of every believer (the “you” is plural and Paul is writing to the believers in the church and not to a small group of teacher/preachers). So how is every believer, assuming that we let the Word of God dwell in us richly, to teach and admonish other believers? Through singing! And not just any kind of singing but specifically in congregational singing. This is the horizontal aspect of all worship.
Why do I say Paul is speaking about congregational singing? I say this because we are to sing with the purpose of “teaching and admonishing one another.” And the only time that this “one another” or horizontal aspect of singing is possible (at least for the believers in Paul’s day) is when believers gather together for church. And notice that Paul isn’t speaking to the choir or the worship team but to believers gathered together – he is writing to the church. So as we sing to the praise of King Jesus (vertical) we also teach and admonish one another (horizontal). This is both an effect of our worship to God and a desire in our worship to God.
Here are a few of the many implications of this truth:
- Christians need local churches. It is only in the context of the local church that this type of command makes sense. The reality that this points to is that we as Christians all have a responsibility to first, let God’s word dwell richly in us (a phrase worthy of much reflection) and then to build one-another up while we ourselves are being built up.
- Congregational singing is a God-given means to his people to disciple one another. This means we need to give it a priority of place. If your church is the type of church where choirs, special groups, or worship teams do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to singing it might be time to rethink what you are doing. But I don’t think you ought to leave your church over this. That would be ridiculous.
- Some of you love your worship bands. Others of you may value your organs (though I am inclined to think that there may be fewer in this category). (Whether you are traditional or contemporary in worship is outside the goals of this article.) But if congregational singing is a God-given means for discipleship in the church then maybe we can turn the volume down a little. I have been to far too many churches of both kinds where the drums throb and organ swells but nary a voice can be heard. How we expect to fulfill Paul’s command in a context like this is beyond me.
- I think this means we need to sing – no really sing – as church members. This may be the most difficult for guys but it is needed nonetheless. Men, singing in church isn’t for pansies. It is about exulting in God and doing the hard work of building up others.
- Here is another one for music pastors and worship leaders – stop singing songs about hugging Jesus or the like. Beyond just creeping every guy out it lacks any kind of Word-centeredness. Remember our singing is to arise out of the the Word of God dwelling in us richly and is to allow us to teach and admonish one another. It is hard to imagine many traditional hymns and modern praise songs doing either. If the songs that echo in our churches lack any doctrinal clarity (at best) but are robust with emotional terminology we ought not to be surprised when our people begin to mirror this reality.
- It is also imperative that our music pastors and worship leaders continue to be those individuals who seek to be indwelt by God’s word. Mere musical ability is not enough. It would be better to have one with less polish but with a deep thirst for God’s word guide the church’s music ministry than to have a music pastor with little knowledge of God’s word but with extraordinary musical gifts. The former will lead the church in word-saturated, Christ-centered singing. The latter will be little more than a practitioner.
What are your thoughts?