As I look back to a gathering of believers at a church conference, it must have been around 1982, the host pastor was leading the singing. I can still feel the frustration of that experience. He was one of the early proponents of change and at that moment was trying to push us into his style of music even though we were singing familiar songs. Before the congregation, and even the pianist, could end a verse or chorus, he would start the next. I thought at first it must have been a mistake. However, he continued this throughout all of the singing in every plenary session. The result was to put a damper on the entire conference. Whatever he intended to achieve; my reaction was that he cared more for his own idea of singing than those of us who were trying to keep up with him.
My ministry has been in church planting and small church health. So it was several years before I encountered a similar experience. This time, my family and I moved to a large metropolitan community and back to the church where my wife and I were married and we considered our home church. I entered the auditorium as the service was just beginning. There was a “worship team” leading the congregation in singing. The music was loud, fast, and unknown to me.
As I stood at the back of the auditorium and observed, it was obvious that the music was not known to the majority of the congregation. Few were attempting to keep up. Instead, they were just observing. It was a performance, not congregational singing.
Worship in the Book of Ephesians
What is the purpose of congregational singing? The apostle Paul instructed the churches in his epistle on the Doctrine of the Church, the book of Ephesians, regarding a number of topics. With respect to corporate worship, he instructed:
In the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul explained what the Church is and how and why it exists. Read the entire first three chapters. They are not long. Granted, there is a lot of doctrine. Many want to focus and argue over specific points. But the broader view is to see a marvelous creation by and for our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The focus is the Church.
In Church, we see a wonderful union between believers as individuals connected with one another and with our Lord. It is essential to understand what the Church is.
Paul ends the section on the Doctrine of the Church with a prayer:
For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fulness of God.[ii]
He ends with this great crescendo:
Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. [iii]
In chapters 4, 5, and 6, Paul provides instructions regarding how we are to act as Church. His sincerity is noted in verse 1 of chapter 4:
I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.[iv]
Can you feel Paul’s earnestness here? He is in a prison in Rome, concerned for all of the local congregations he has been privileged to plant and/or encourage over that past decade. He is not thinking about what it cost him. He is thinking about those congregations and how he can encourage and strengthen them.
So he pointed to what the Lord has done for, those congregations, Christ’s Body, by giving them gifted individuals tasked with doing what Paul was not able to do because of his imprisonment. He instructs these gifted individuals, who fulfill important functions in the church, in how to do their tasks.
Chapter 5 begins with a gentle exhortation:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.[v]
Viewing the Church as a whole and individuals corporately, Paul wrote:
Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.[vi]
What better place to practice walking in love toward one another than in a gathering of believers? Yet many believers today are feeling disenfranchised by the style of worship. Others, not understanding the purpose of congregational worship, reject words of caution regarding this phenomenon. Churches are setting styles of worship that exclude rather than include, either by demanding change or by wanting only traditional styles of worship. This is not the picture of what Paul had in mind when we consider the entire context of Ephesians.
Worship in the Book of Colossians
During the time Paul was in prison in Rome, he wrote a number of letters to the churches regarding various topics of concern. The book of Colossians was written to address error that was creeping into the churches, specifically the church at Colossae.
This congregation was not the only local fellowship buffeted by false philosophies. The Holy Spirit led Paul to write this epistle addressing a specific philosophy, probably Cerithian Gnosticism, that attacked the person of Christ Jesus. What he wrote is a good yardstick to identify such false philosophies today. It also provides instructions on how to combat them.
He began by commending the believers for their love for each other and for the entire Body of Christ and their genuine faith in Christ:
We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints; because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel, which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth; just as you learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow bond-servant, who is a faithful servant of Christ on our behalf, and he also informed us of your love in the Spirit.[vii]
In chapter 2, Paul expressed his concern that many false teachers were using persuasive means to divert the believers away from the truth about Christ and the church. He warned:
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. [viii]
Today we see the same attacks upon the church. Because of the ability to reach large gatherings of people, false teachers are leading many astray.
I recently received a link to a YouTube video playing hymns that really moved me emotionally. A brother-in-Christ sent this to me seeking to encourage me, and at first, I was very moved. Small and Large groups of singers and musicians provided the same music God used to strengthen my faith early in my Christian life.
Wanting to know the source, I searched and found that it was a preacher and his followers in the Philippians. It was glitzy. The songs were familiar. It was emotionally moving. But the teaching was pure heresy. The preacher claimed to be none other than the messiah. I immediately sent a text to my friend warning him not to send the link to anyone else.
Simply because someone has the ability to move a large gathering of individuals emotionally, does not mean that genuine worship is taking place. It does not mean that the gift of music, so important to the Body of Christ, is being used properly nor that the whole body is being built up in the faith.
In chapter 3, Paul wrote:
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. [ix]
We recently saw a fad, fortunately losing its appeal now, promoting “seeker sensitive” in our public gatherings as Church. This is not consistent with any teaching in the New Testament. Our public gatherings for congregational worship are for the edification of the church, not for the world.
As Christians, we have a responsibility to reach out to the world with the gospel. Paul instructed the church at Colossae:
Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person. [x]
To the churches of Galatia, he wrote:
And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.[xi]
But this is not the purpose of our gathering together as Church. Outsiders and unbelievers should be welcome, of course. Who knows but God might use our public gatherings to bring someone to Himself. It is not out of place to have evangelistic services where the expressed purpose is the present the gospel to unbelievers. But to preach evangelistic sermons Sunday after Sunday leaves the congregation weak and anemic, never developing a taste for the meat [xii] of the Word of God.
Congregational worship is a time to celebrate Church. It is a time to come together to learn and encourage one another. We do this by participating. By sharing our faith in a corporate gathering.
We are not all preachers or teachers and so should allow, even welcome, those who are so trained and gifted to lead us. But those who have these gifts, need to recognize the purpose of those gifts and how they are to be used for the benefit of the Body of Christ.
Some Do’s and Don’ts
First, some don’ts:
- Don’t ask for requests during a gathering for congregational worship.
This is my personal opinion, not Paul’s. There is a place and time for gatherings when individuals are given opportunities for their choices, but not in the types of meetings where the focus is on corporate worship.
- Don't stand in front of the mike unless you have a good voice and must lead with your voice. It drowns out the voices of others and prevents them from hearing each other and the instrumentalists.
Now some do’s:
- Do ensure that the selections are doctrinally sound. Because a song is familiar or fun to sing, does not mean it is appropriate for congregational worship. Simply putting a verse of Scripture to music does not make it doctrinally sound if it is out of context.
- Do follow a plan for the entire service. Each element should support the following elements. The songs should support the message as should the Scripture reading.
Changing the topics of each element fails to assist the congregation in preparing for the truth presented from God’s Word which is the ultimate purpose of the gathering of the congregation for worship. Multiple messages only weaken the message that follows and ultimately the sermon.
- Do avoid vain repetition.[xiii]
I mention this, not to be offensive or critical, but to note and dispute those who use music simply to heighten emotion. As believers, we must avoid any behavior that could constitute substituting pure emotional appeal for the moving of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of believers. This is vain if not dangerous, and not true edification.
One overlooked type of vain repetition is to sing the same songs every week. To avoid this, when I was in charge of music, I kept a record of the songs chosen ever Sunday so that I did not select the same ones over and over. I wanted to familiarize the congregation with the entire collection of songs and hymns available. In this way, during any given time, I was bound to choose something everyone knew and enjoyed.
- Do choose new songs carefully. There are many great new songs, hymns, and spiritual songs being written all the time. These will become part of our Christian heritage if they are singable, are doctrinally sound, and repeated often enough.
- Do remember that the purpose is to assist the congregation in their worship individually and corporately.
Paul, summarizes how to avoid the pitfalls of false philosophies through corporate worship this way:
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. [xiv]
[i] Eph 5:19.
[ii] Eph 3:14-19.
[iii] Eph 3:20-21.
[iv] Eph 4:1-3.
[v] Eph 5:1-2.
[vi] Eph 5:15-21.
[vii] Col 1:3-8.
[viii] Col 2:8.
[ix] Col 3:15-16.
[x] Col 4:5.
[xi] Gal 6:9-10.
[xii] Cf. Heb 5:12-14.
[xiii] Cf. Matt 6:7 KJV.
[xiv] Col 3:16.