How should we sing when we sing to the Lord?

There is much contention over the issue of music in the Church. It is generally accepted that singing is to take place as part of our corporate worship. Indeed, the Apostle Paul states, in two separate places, that we are to sing as part of our worship to God. To the church in Colosse Paul states:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your heart to God (Col 3:16, ESV)

 To the Ephesian church Paul says:

be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord in your heart (Eph 5:19, ESV)

Throughout the OT we see many instances of people singing to God with the book of Psalms largely given over to this. James also states “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise (Jam 5:13, ESV).” In Acts we are told “Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God (Acts: 16:25, ESV)” whilst they were in prison. Throughout the Scriptures we see instances of people singing to God and it seems clear that we are also to sing as part of our worship today.

Before we can deal with the issue of what we are to sing we must firstly establish why we are to sing at all. In the verses previously mentioned, singing is linked to praise and thankfulness. Ultimately, when we sing, we are to sing praise to God. This should be a heartfelt act of thankfulness in light of God’s goodness to us. Even Paul and Silas, though beaten with rods and imprisoned, sang hymns to God. If what Paul states is to be believed,  that we should “rejoice in our sufferings (Rom 5:3, ESV),” and Peter echoes in 1 Peter 4:16, then we must naturally conclude that even in imprisonment Paul and Silas were singing praises to God with thanksgiving. As such, we can establish the principle behind singing in worship as that of thanksgiving and praise.

This leads us back to the question ‘what are we to sing?’ It seems clear that we are to sing songs of thankfulness and praise to God. If Paul and Silas were singing such songs in prison, rejoicing in their suffering for Christ, it would seem natural for us to want to sing these songs both in our suffering and wherever we experience the grace and goodness of God. This covers all of our experiences in life. We are continually experiencing the grace and goodness of God in a variety of ways, not only on a daily basis but, on a minute-by-minute and second-by-second basis. However, when we lose sight of this – perhaps understandably in the midst of suffering – our example, and indeed the instruction given in Scripture, is to rejoice in our sufferings and give thanks to God. When we are suffering we are to rejoice in our suffering (Rom 5:3, 1 Pet 4:13) and when we are not suffering we should be giving thanks to God for his goodness to us. Therefore, we must conclude that we are to sing songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.

Beyond this example there is little for us be dogmatic about when it comes to singing in worship. Psalm 150 suggests that the instruments we employ for praising God are all acceptable. David lists instruments that would cover most types available today. He mentions trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines and cymbals specifically. He also speaks of pipes and strings as groups of instruments acceptable for praise ending the Psalm with the well known statement “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD! (Psa 150:6, ESV).” The suggestion in this Psalm is that all instruments are legitimate in the worship of God. There are those who suggest that we should sing unaccompanied hymns. This Psalm teaches that we can praise God with a variety of instruments. Others teach that only specfic instruments are acceptable in worship. This Psalm suggests that pipes, stringed instruments, tambourines and cymbals are all acceptable for the worship of God. The inference in this Psalm is that there are no restrictions on the instruments employed in the praise of God. We are simply told “praise the LORD!”

Although the Psalm teaches that there are no restrictions on the instruments with which we may praise God this does not mean that we must use them all in our worship. As such, those inclined to use many instruments should not sneer at those who, for whatever reason, have chosen to employ only a few. Likewise, those who only employ a few instruments, by virtue of the statements in Scripture, should not sneer at those who employ many. Instead, we should recognise this choice as nothing more than the matter of preference it represents.

There are some who are drawn to many instruments playing lively songs of thanksgiving and praise. There are others who are drawn to a more understated, quieter form of worship. The Bible only teaches that we should give praise and thanks to God in song – the way in which we do this is up to us. The Christian accompanied by an organ with his hand in his pocket may be no less thankful, and in many cases may be more thankful, to God than the Christian with his hands in the air singing loudly along to a band. The louder our praise is not necessarily a reflection of greater thanksgiving in our heart. We should recognise that the Biblical teaching is for us to give thanks and praise to God in song. In the same way as different people are drawn to different styles of music, individual Christians may be drawn to different styles of worship. In either case, God is concerned with the thanksgiving and praise in their heart rather than the instruments and volume with which they outwardly show it.

We must conclude then that our singing must be praise and thanksgiving based. How we achieve this is up to us. The Bible does not insist on a style of worship but instead insists on praise and thanksgiving being directed towards God. Where our praise and thanksgiving is heartfelt the outward way in which we express it is little more than a matter of preference.