Singing that Honors God
We just returned from a worship service where the Word was preached and God was exalted. The testimonies were inspiring, and the fellowship was warm. The congregational singing was exceptional. Whether overseas or in North America, whether in Spanish or in English (or some other language), we’ve experienced various forms of corporate worship. All of them, without exception, have included corporate singing. With this breadth of experience that began when I was a boy attending worship services with my parents, I can say that the music and singing that have always stood out has not been limited to one style of music, or to the instruments employed, or to the talent of the worship leader and team.
We all evaluate sermons and singing when we attend a worship service. I have often heard people base their evaluations on how they “felt” during the service. Some churches are renowned for their “awesome worship.” Not a few Christians select their church home based on the excellence of the music heard and sung in the services. The importance of singing in worship is unquestioned, beginning with songs and Psalms we encounter in the Scriptures. But I want to make the case that regardless of style and musical excellence, exceptional corporate worship that honors God in singing is Christ-centered, heart-felt, and participative.
Christ-centered worship in singing
Perhaps the most important responsibility of the music leader (I call him or her music leader because worship includes every aspect of the service) is to lead the congregation in singing songs, choruses, and hymns that exalt Christ. This does not exclude singing that exalts the Triune God, but it does focus Christian worship on Him who is praised eternally for His work of redemption (Rev. 5:9-14).
I have sung songs with congregations that focused on me and on my needs and on my devotion. In the Bible, many of the biblical Psalms begin lamenting the situation of the psalmist. Yet they always end with praise to God. They may include the declaration of worship of the writer, but there is always a distinct turn in the Psalm from being man-focused to being God-focused.
Some songs we sing talk more about what we will do for God than what He has done for us in Christ. Sometimes the singing begins to focus on the feelings of the worshippers and is purposely designed to elicit an emotional response. God-honoring worship in singing will stir our emotions. But the focus is not on our emotions, but on Him who is worthy of praise and adoration. There can be a fine line here, but if Christ is not exalted in the singing so that praise is focused on Him, then it does not honor God and it leads the worshipper to honor something else besides Him. Worship in singing that honors God is Christ-centered.
Heart-felt worship in singing
The lyrics in our corporate singing can be theologically correct and Christ-centered, but if the singing is not heart-felt, it is does not honor God. Jesus cited the prophet Isaiah, accusing the religious leaders, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mt. 15:8; Is.29:13).
Have you ever done something and your heart was not in it? Lots of things can be done that way. Some tasks can be accomplished whether your heart is in it or not. But worship that is not from the heart is not truly worship. God seeks worshippers who worship Him in spirt and in truth (Jn. 4:24). He is always after our heart.
The individual or congregation that just goes through the motions of singing well-known music without being engaged whole-heartedly does not honor God. His or her singing would be, at best, half-hearted. At worst, it would be motivated by the pursuit of human recognition.
God-honoring heart-felt worship in singing is both the easiest responsibility of the music leader to fulfill, and the hardest responsibility. It is the easiest because the leader can focus on preparing his or her heart before the Lord in worship. That preparation in prayer, in the Word, and in personal devotion honors God. He delights in such personal worship and is faithful to minister to the individual’s inner being.
But heart-felt participation of the congregation in worship singing is nothing the leader can generate by his or her own effort. Before the Lord, preparing his or her own heart, the leader seeks God that the Holy Spirit prepare the heart of the congregation for worship. The leader, by faith, believes that the power of God in His Word and in the Gospel will foment heart-felt participation that arises from repentance, gratitude, and thanksgiving. He or she points people to Christ and trusts the Holy Spirit to engage the hearts of the worshippers. In so doing, the leader acknowledges his or her dependency upon the Lord, and not upon professional excellence or emotional techniques. Leading from a Christ-centered heart and seeking that others worship from the heart in response to the Word and to the redemptive work of Christ, the leader leads the congregation into God-honoring worship in singing.
Participative worship in singing
While this may seem obvious, it bears emphasizing that congregational worship in singing involves not just the music leader and team worshipping while others listen in. Rather, God-honoring corporate worship in singing involves the whole congregation as individuals together lift their voices in praise and adoration.
You can’t force people to sing, but you can create a context for them to participate whole-heartedly. One of the simplest ways of doing this is to choose music that most people can sing. Some songs, while being Christ-honoring and inspiring, even well-loved, are not easy for a lot of people to sing. Maybe the music requires a professional voice, or the tempo is irregular. Sometimes we sing songs that many people have never heard. This requires teaching them the songs, but also returning to those songs in future gatherings for people to practice them and incorporate them into the corpus of the church’s hymnody.
At the risk of over-stating the obvious, participative worship in singing means that most, if not all, of the individuals are engaged in actually singing. The surest way of gauging this is by hearing the congregation sing. But when the members of the congregation cannot hear others beside them singing, they may be discouraged from participating. The leaders, who know the songs well and who have the full force of the instrumentation behind them, are left performing for a passive audience. The onlookers are invited to experience worship vicariously through the professional-quality leaders, but do not actively participate. On the other hand, corporate worship singing that exalts God involves everyone in the meeting. It is Christ-centered, heart-felt, and participative.
This type of God-honoring worship in singing is within reach of every congregation, regardless of the quality of music, the style of music, or the abilities of the music leaders. Let’s worship God together!