Why We Sing What We Sing
There are often two song books in most congregations. I’m not talking about the supplemental book of “new” hymns that the younger people sing, but the older disciples aren’t so sure about. I mean that there are the songs in the book that we have available, and the songs that we know. Those two catalogues are often very different from one another. A good brother Ethan Longhenry wrote not long ago, “Do you want to understand the theology of a group of believers? Consider not only their song book but the particular songs they frequently sing!”
When we are choosing which songs we will sing as a church it is important to know why we sing. Surely, we are using our voices and not instruments as an expression of the authority of the New Testament, but the charge we read there is so much more involved than just the command to sing. There is always an explicit, or implicit, motivation behind why we are to sing, and we may be well-served to take that into consideration when developing that “familiar” songbook.
In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul addressed their song motivation as, “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.” (Ephesians 5:19-20) Singing is communication to our fellow saints, as well as communication to God. It is to be done with the heart as well as the voice, and it is to be done with an attitude of thankfulness. We can see that the primary purpose of singing hymns has to do with transmission of content and ideas. If we would not speak an idea, or teach an idea, then we must also apply that same standard to what we choose to sing.
This same author wrote to another church that they were to “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.” (Colossians 3:16) Our songs are an expression of the word of Christ. They are to be for the purpose of teaching, and admonishing (bringing truths to mind), and this is to be done with wisdom. If a hymn is popular, but it fails to teach, or is not in accordance with wisdom then is it still accomplishing this purpose?
There are many other motivations to consider such as encouragement in hard times (Acts 16:25), or expressions of joyful attitudes (James 5:13), but we must make sure that we always have the purpose of our song choices in mind. We must ask ourselves what truth we are communicating, and what wisdom we are learning through what we sing. We must also not forget to be thankful to God for allowing us this avenue of praise.