Why do we sing?
A church service can feel like a strange place to those who lack familiarity with the practices that take place in gatherings for worship. One of the practices that sets the church apart is corporate singing. While it may seem non-negotiable to those of us for whom church attendance is a regular discipline, it can seem a bit odd to someone experiencing it for the first time. Or, for that matter, there may very well be those among us who have attended for years and they are asking the same question!
“Yeah, I’ve always wondered…why DO we sing so much?”
Let’s consider this for a moment. Even if you have taken this as a given in your life, I think it is a subject worth exploring to understand the extraordinary practice of corporate singing. Historically, it has been a part of the Christian church since its inception. Music as part of worship predates Jesus’ life and ministry. The first documented song of worship goes all the way back to the book of Exodus. I mean, if it’s good enough for Moses, I guess we should consider it, right? I think the greater question, however, is ”Why”. More specifically, why has the use of the song and the participation of the congregation in singing been such a primary medium in worship? And why does it continue to be? Why should I sing?
I could probably write about four chapters of a book on this, but I think I will limit myself to two primary reasons why singing plays such an important role in worship.
First, it’s biblical.
OK. I know this sounds like a “Cuz the Bible says so” argument. But for those who take Scripture seriously, this is not an argument to be brushed by or easily disregarded. If one is an earnest student of the Word of God, then there is an understanding that precepts are followed by practice. For those of us who are interested in what God’s Word has to offer on this matter, let’s just say there is a great deal of biblical evidence that suggests this has always been an important aspect of Christian practice.
Singing is directed and commanded in Scripture (Deuteronomy 31:19-22, Psalm 5:11, Psalm 33:1, Psalm 47, Psalm 95, Psalm 96, Psalm 149, Psalm 150, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Singing is something God does (Zephaniah 3:17) and a practice Jesus participated in during His earthly ministry (Matthew 26:30). Throughout Scripture, we see singing as a way of proclaiming who God is and what He has done, as well as a means of communicating with and responding to God (Exodus 15:1-21, Luke 1:46-55, the entire Book of Psalms). And while this certainly doesn’t capture the breadth of the subject, there just doesn’t seem to be any lack of evidence that singing has been, is, and will be an expression of God-worshiping people.
You might be thinking, “All right. I figured there had to be some biblical evidence, but why? Why…singing?”
Second, it’s formative.
I am reminded that God has given us a responsibility “…to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12-13 CEB) So when we gather together, we are seeking to form one another in the unity of our faith and a greater understanding of the person of Jesus. And singing helps us to do that.
“How?” I’m glad you asked.
This reminds me of God’s incredible hand of creation and His intimate understanding of those He has crafted in His own image. Because as He commands, “Sing!” He also understands what singing does for us as a means of spiritual formation. And I think it is vital that we understand that corporate worship and singing as a part of corporate worship are distinctly formational practices for the follower of Christ.
In an interview in 2015, Keith Getty, co-writer of In Christ Alone, provided this anecdote regarding the role of singing in worship. “My joke with all my preacher friends,” he mused, “Is that if they finish a good sermon, people go out singing the last hymn. And if they do a really bad sermon, they go out singing the last hymn. So it really doesn’t matter what they say.”
And while that may seem like a lighthearted proposition, scientific research affirms the sentiment. It begins with how music connects with memory. You might understand this more inherently than you realize. For instance, has there ever been a time when you heard a song and it took you back to a particular time and place? Or it stirred up a feeling or a particular emotion? That is the associative power music has in creating memory. And therein lies the power of music and the understanding God has of the human mind He created, the medium of music He created, and the way the two interact.
One of our worship leaders at the Leawood Campus, Amy Wilson, is a highly educated, licensed music therapist. In a lecture she presented in 2011 on Music and Memory, she helps us understand how the glory of God’s creativity, the way the mind stores information, and the human experience interact.
”Long term memory is the relatively permanent and limitless storehouse of the memory system. However, we need cues to recall this information. When we encode memories, neurons form connections called neural networks. When we access one aspect of a network, this leads to other bits of information stored in the same network. Stronger emotions related to these networks create stronger memories.”
So here’s the incredible byproduct of singing in church. Because of the strong emotions intrinsically embedded in a song and the experience surrounding it, you are encoding memories and creating a memory storehouse when you physically participate in it, leading you to inevitably remember what you sing and build meaning around it. It’s how we learned the alphabet and, more than likely, why you have a library of Scripture in your head without really knowing it. Ultimately, that means that when we sing in church, we create a storehouse of the songs we sing. And the words of those songs – the lyrics – serve a valuable role in forming the way we understand and interact with our faith.
This collection of memories we store shapes our imaginations and reorients us to the story of who GOD is, what GOD says about us and the world, and who GOD says we are. And in response to the incredible story that God is writing in our lives, our singing gives us language to reflect our emotional response to Him – songs of thanksgiving, praise, adoration, devotion, longing, commitment, and love. It is by no means a passive activity. It’s participative. It requires something of you, and it involves our body, mind, and heart.
Not to be overlooked, there is an incredibly unique characteristic found in singing which is something we desperately need today as the people of God – unity. When we sing together, we sing in agreement. We say the same thing, we pray the same thing. The songs we sing literally put words into one another’s mouths. We sing these words – words of shared expression, belief, devotion, commitment and prayer – for one another, over one another, and with one another as a means of shaping one another. It is a sung covenant to be the people of God together. And we are forming one another into a new creation, a new community. Keith and Kristyn Getty put it this way in their book, Sing!
“As we sing to God and about God together with the people of God, we reflect the truth that we were designed for community, both with God and with each other…and singing together engenders and expresses that we are family. When we sing, we show the community that reflects our Creator, our triune God. When His Church sings together, voice upon voice like arms linked across a room, and indeed across all the gathering places of His followers around the globe, across history, we are doing what we were designed to enjoy-using our God-given voices to sing praises together to the One who gave us those voices. It expresses what unites us, and it reminds us of our interdependence.”
Perhaps you didn’t realize all that was happening and being communicated as you sing!
So when you come to church again this Sunday, be reminded that your participation in singing is not only a biblical directive but is a meaningful part of your spiritual formation and the formation of those around you. Listen to what you are singing about God, to God, and to one another, because it is quietly forming you (or not so quietly, depending on how loud you sing) into fully grown followers in the fullness of Christ.
Songs of Faith,” CBS This Morning, Columbia Broadcasting System. CBS, New York. 17 Apr. 2015. Television.
Wilson, A. (2011, October 5). The Songs of Our Lives: Music and Memory [Conference Presentation]. Cross Train Your Brain Symposium, Leawood, KS.
Keith Getty and Kristyn Getty, Sing!: How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church, (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2017), 8.