If I don’t enjoy the songs at church, is it alright not to sing?

One element of corporate worship is singing. The Bible is very clear that believers are to sing worship to the Lord and, corporately, truths to encourage one another. There is, of course, the book of Psalms dedicated to this very thing – the Bible’s own song book for corporate worship. Incorporated into it are commands to sing (eg. Psalm 96). And then there are the New Testament commands and examples (cf. Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; Heb 2:12, etc). Without labouring the point, it is clear that singing is demanded of God’s people and this ought to be an element of our corporate worship.

But there are those who just don’t get all that into it. Some aren’t so expressive. Others just don’t like the style of hymns or songs that we sing. Others still just seem to struggle with corporate singing altogether. Can’t we just accept that we are people with different temperaments and personalities? Can’t we accept that while some people lap up the singing, others just aren’t going to get into it so much? Can’t we extend some Christian charity to one another over this?

Certainly, I think we can extend charity to the extent that different personalities and temperaments are going to appreciate, to a lesser of greater degree, any element of a church service. Each of us will find certain commands of Jesus easier or harder than others, in large part, due to how we are built. I know folks who absolutely cannot get enough of prayer, and find private prayer comes naturally and easily for them, but struggle more with listening to a 40-minute sermon. Others love singing and find the truths of scripture speak to them most clearly through the words of hymns and songs they love whilst they find private prayer a real struggle.

I am one of those who find sermons a blast – I genuinely love a decent sermon (and can even get behind some fairly ropey ones). But whilst I am glad to be encouraged by corporate prayer in church, I find private prayer extremely difficult. And I have never been wild on congregational singing – whether in church, at the football or down the pub – and the style of music we mainly sing in church is not like any of the music I would choose to listen to outside of church. For more on this, you can see here. It might help you understand how and why you engage with different elements well and why you struggle with other bits. It may also help you understand others who aren’t really like you. In the sense that we can empathise with people of different personalities and characters regarding what they find easy or difficult, what they like more or less, then yes, we can have a bit of charity.

But can we extend charity on an the commands of Jesus themselves? If we don’t feel like praying, well, it’s just who I am so the Lord doesn’t mind that I don’t bother? If we don’t feel like listening to the sermon, God hasn’t wired me that way so I can check out? I’m not wild about singing, so I can keep schtum and Jesus doesn’t really care? I think we all know that’s something of a problem. We can’t set aside the commands of Christ because we don’t feel we’re wired to enjoy them. The fact is, God’s commands aren’t to be set aside. There may be some we find easier than others to keep. We aren’t all tempted toward the same sins and our varying personalities will mean different bits of what is commanded in worship will appeal to us differently. But none of that is legitimate enough reason to not do what Jesus asks us to do in his Word.

Which brings me round to the question I really want to address: what do we do about people who look bored when we sing, who don’t seem to engage or who outright refuse to sing? A discussion about this broke out on twitter yesterday. If people sing or shout at a football match, or at a gig, does their refusal to sing in church mean they love Jesus less than those things?

As I said above, I am rarely wild about the style of music we sing in church. I’m not mad on the particularly old, traditional hymn music and I don’t especially enjoy the style of more modern worship songs either. Nothing we sing in church – in any church I have ever been in – comes close to the style of music I enjoy most outside of church services. I don’t think any of that is a sign of my love for Jesus; it is merely a sign of my particular musical preferences.

It bears saying – despite what some wish to claim – the Bible has nothing really to say about the style of music we use in church. It being among the most indifferent of things, it can’t be a measure of our spiritual temperature how much we enjoy the music itself. And that is good news for the overwhelming majority of us who – even if we do like the style of music at our church – will go to churches that don’t have brilliant musicians and who rarely do justice to our particular musical preferences. I don’t doubt some of us love the music and have an awesome band that thrills our souls every week, but many of us have ropey pianists or passable groups doing their level best to just not make too many mistakes.

Nor does it point to my love of Jesus that someone might enjoy singing at a gig but not relish singing some of the worship songs at church. The whole point of going to a gig is enjoyment and entertainment. You are there because you like that style of music, and that particular band/artist, and you may so enjoy them that you sing along a bit. But if the musical style in church is not your bag, it is understandable that you might enjoy it less from a musical standpoint. Again, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with that.

But none of that is reason not to sing in church. Whilst I wouldn’t go to see a band that I didn’t enjoy, that is specifically not the primary reason of my going to church. I am not there for the excellent quality music. I am not there because I particularly like the style of music at all. I am there principally to worship the triune God in a manner he has called me to worship him – namely, in song (amongst other things) – and to build up the saints with whom he has called me into membership. I am not singing to be entertained, or principally for my own enjoyment, but to glorify God and encourage his people.

If our position is that we won’t sing in church because we don’t really enjoy it, or we can’t get behind the music, but we will sing/shout at the football or a secular gig because we do enjoy it, we have somewhat missed the point of why we are singing at all. This makes me the centre of my worship rather than Christ, who demands it, and the service of our fellow believers who benefit from it. Rather than ask if someone would sing somewhere else, so why not in church, I would prefer to ask why they object to worshipping God and serving their fellow believers as he has commanded? You might loathe this particular song, but what if you knew that it was Mrs Jones’ favourite song and it so encourages her when she hears everyone singing – would you not sing it for her? You might really not like the tune to this next one, but can you not get behind the sentiments and sing it for the Lord, who loves to hear his children sing his praises? I think the attitude misses the point of worship and doesn’t understand the nature of the church.

But it also misses the ways it does serve us personally too. Like any command we find hard, the Lord hasn’t given them to us mainly for his sake, but for ours. Given that he could save anyone he wanted without any reference to us at all, we have to ask why he would give us the task of doing evangelism, which is hard and difficult? The only answer to that question is that he does it for our benefit. He uses that task – which he could accomplish more easily and without as much mess entirely without us – for our personal benefit. I think it is one of the principal ways God grows his people. By empowering them for works of service.

In exactly the same way, singing operate a bit like that too. It might not be our particular thing, it may not be something that comes naturally to us (a bit like evangelism or discipleship or whatever), but it serves our growth. The truths of scripture are spoken to us in a different way when we sing with and to one another. Nobody ever goes home singing my sermon, and most struggle to recall every part of it, but many are able to sing and recall the words of the songs we sing. If we engage with the singing, even if the music isn’t our bag and we fell a bit awkward because we’re not an expressive type, we might just find that truths of scripture sink into our hearts more clearly. We may not get on with singing ourselves, but when we know it serves our fellow believers, oughtn’t that to spur us on to lay our preferences aside to encourage them and build them up? It is a means of serving the Lord as he commands, building up his people and dwelling on the Word in our own hearts in ways we might not do otherwise.

We do it with children all the time. I don’t know many people who say the Alphabet song is their favourite. Musically, it is never going to be in anyone’s top 10 best hits. But we all know and remember the alphabet because of it. When I was learning Greek, I learnt a song to remember the letters of the Greek alphabet. It has helped me remember them in a way I suspect I wouldn’t have just sitting reading them. In the same way, singing scripture and the praises of the Lord will help us to remember and dwell on those truths in a way just hearing a sermon won’t. The music might not ever be our favourite, but that’s not really the point. It may be someone else’s favourite – who we can serve by singing it – and, whatever the tune, it will help us recall those truths when we can’t recall all 10 points of the hour long sermon we sat through.

So I don’t think your love for the music in church is any sort of measure of your love for Christ. But your willingness to sing as he commands us to do might be. He said clearly enough, ‘if you love me, you will keep my commandments’, and that necessarily includes this one, no matter how much you enjoy the music or not.