One answer is to think that singing has always been how God’s people have responded to him and his saving acts. After being freed from Egypt, God’s people sang (Ex 15). When remembering what God was like and all he’d done, Moses sang to Israel (Deut 32). Psalms 105 and 106 echo those, and many other Psalms speak either of God’s character or his salvation. Then in the New Testament, many think that Phil 2:6-11 is one of the earliest Christian songs – focusing on Jesus’ life and death and exultation. So the first answer to the question of music in church is that singing has always been the right response to knowing God and seeing his saving acts.
We could push that a bit further and ask why singing in particular, why music, why singing? There’s two major answers to that, and they’re both important: transformation and captivation.
When God calls us to himself he changes us. There are loads of descriptions of that throughout the Bible. But take a look at Eph 5:18-21 and you’ll see 5 things that result from being filled with the Spirit, as all Christians are. They are: (i) speaking to each other with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs; (ii) and (iii) singing and making music in our hearts to the Lord; (iv) giving thanks; and (v) submitting to one another.
No Christian can read Eph 5 and say ‘I’m not a thanking God’ Christian or ‘I’m not a speaking to others’ Christian. We’ve all been changed, filled with God the Holy Spirit. And that changes us.
The emphasis here is not on our personal relationship with God as expressed through singing, but on our corporate identity and service of each other as we speak to each other with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. (And please note the command to musical diversity – psalms and hymns and spiritual songs!)
The other reason for singing is that our hearts have been captured by the glory of Christ Jesus. I take it that’s why the singing and making music is located in our hearts, the very place within us which God has radically changed.
I didn’t hear the Jubilee song released this year, but I’m told that one of the lines was something like: ‘some truths cannot be said, they must be sung’ and that’s what a Christian feels.
John Piper summarises this well:
The realities of God and Christ, creation and salvation, heaven and hell are so great that when they are known truly and felt duly, they demand more than discussion and analysis and description; they demand poetry and song and music. Singing is the Christian’s way of saying: God is so great that thinking will not suffice, there must be deep feeling; and talking will not suffice, there must be singing.
Hopefully these are fairly obvious, but we need to be careful not to either over-prioritise or undervalue music at church.
Some of us would find it very difficult to imagine being at a church that doesn’t have great music. It just winds us up and distracts from the Lord! So if we’re ever looking to pick a church then music is top of the list. We could put up with weak preaching for good music. Eph 5 is a warning against that, as music is a word ministry, a way that the word dwells in us richly. So good technical musicians are never going to be an alternative to excellent Bible teaching since the musicians’ role is to support the word dwelling in us richly.
Some of us probably don’t think music matters much, if at all. And that same Eph 5 passage warns us: music is a word ministry, so if we care about the word of God we will care about the music in our churches. Of course there are other reasons to care – such as the fact that worship is an attitude of heart and bad music distracts our hearts from Jesus. But that’s for another time!
So music is the natural response of God’s people to knowing him and all he’s done. We need to care rightly about our church music, whilst being careful not to make it an idol. And we sing because God has transformed us and captivated us!