A Shallow View of Singing
Shallow worship music has received a lot of well-deserved criticism. The very fact that worship has been industrialized, marketed, and filtered for Instagram is disconcerting. There are bright spots in modern worship—thank you Gettys and friends—but, too often, songs are paper-thin, or just theologically wrong.
However, the worship industry is not the form of shallow singing I want to address. Shallow songs are a problem, but they can be fixed with better songs. But what happens when our whole view of singing is shallow? Too often, “paper-thin” describes the singing in our own Reformed circles. We still have congregational hymns or songs in our services, but they are treated as the appetizer before the real meal. We mumble through the songs as we wait for that moment, later in the service, when we will hear from God.
Calvin, who no one can accuse of downplaying the importance of preaching and the sacraments, said of singing in worship,
“From this, moreover, it is fully evident that unless voice and song, if interposed in prayer, spring from deep feeling of heart, neither has any value or profit in the least with God. But they arouse his wrath against us if they come only from the tip of the lips and from the throat, seeing that this is to abuse his most holy name and to hold his majesty in derision” (Institutes XX.31).
God is not pleased with shallow singing. So, how do we “deepen” or “thicken” our singing in worship?
One way to deepen our singing is to view it as multi-directional communication with God. Dialogue is an essential principle of Reformed worship. Through the order of worship, the people of God enter into conversation with the King of the Universe. He calls us to worship through His Word, and we respond with a prayer, invoking His presence. We hear the Word declare His greatness, and we reply by praising His name. He shines a light on our sin, and we confess it to Him. We are assured of our forgiveness through His Word, and we respond with thanksgiving. On and on through worship we dialogue with the Lord. What a beautiful picture of God’s presence among his people.
Many modern worship services trade in this dialogue for a monologue. For an hour and a half, the congregation speaks to God without ever giving Him a chance to speak. Not even the sermon, which is often no more than the reflections of the preacher, allows God to speak to His people.
Monologue is exhausting. Any passion for God, any holy affections, must be stirred up from within the worshipper. It is spiritual battle without a sword. Without the Word of God there is no cutting to the heart, or enflaming of the soul, or covering of our shame.
Here’s where we come back to Reformed worship. When we measure the dialogical nature of our worship services, we usually consider singing a unidirectional element, from the congregation to God. We pray in song and, therefore, psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are our side of the dialogue. However, that is not how we think of prayer in other contexts. When we pray, it is not a monologue but a dialogue between creature and Creator. How many times has God brought truth to our minds from His Word while we cried out to Him in prayer? This is also not how we think about the Psalms, our canonical songbook.
If I read the Psalms, God speaks to me.
If I read the Psalms out loud, God speaks to me.
If I sing the Psalms, God no longer speaks to me, I am speaking to God?
No, singing is more than unidirectional; it is a dialogue in itself. We not only express truth when we sing, but we also hear truth.
The heretic Arius unfortunately understood this. Arianism spread rapidly through the fourth-century world because he put his theology into song. Bands of his followers sung these songs near docks and market squares, so they would get stuck in the heads of those passing through. As the sailors and merchants traveled the world, they took Arius’ heretical tunes with them.
Paul understood this about singing. Passages like Phil 2:5-11, Col 1:15-20, and 1 Tim 3:16, which extol the divinity and messianic nature of Christ, appear to be hymns sung by the early church. These hymns were not only the people speaking to God, but God speaking to His people, anchoring them in the truth. This is in line with Pliny’s report to Trajan about the Christians who “were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god” (Letter 10.96).
Augustine understood this about singing. Writing of his baptism, he recounts,
“How did I weep, in Thy Hymns and Canticles, touched to the quick by the voices of Thy sweet-attuned Church! The voices flowed into mine ears, and the Truth distilled into my heart, whence the affections of my devotion overflowed, and tears ran down, and happy was I therein” (Confessions, IX.4).
The songs distilled the Truth into his heart. Hasn’t this always been a role of singing, the teaching of truth? Calvin confirms this as well:
“Yet we do not here condemn speaking and singing but rather strongly commend them, provided they are associated with the heart’s affection. For thus do they exercise the mind in thinking of God and keep it attentive—unstable and variable as it is, and readily relaxed and diverted in different directions, unless it be supported by various helps. Moreover, since the glory of God ought, in a measure, to shine in the several parts of our bodies, it is especially fitting that the tongue has been assigned and destined for this task, both through singing and through speaking. For it was peculiarly created to tell and proclaim the praise of God. But the chief use of the tongue is in public prayers, which are offered in the assembly of believers, by which it comes about that with one common voice, and as it were, with the same mouth, we all glorify God together, worshiping him with one spirit and the same faith. And we do this openly, that all men mutually, each one from his brother, may receive the confession of faith and be invited and prompted by his example."
Calvin not only commends corporate singing, he does so because, through it, we proclaim the confession of faith to our brothers and sisters. There is a teaching, hearing, learning element to singing. This is the same lesson from Paul to the Ephesians when he instructed them, “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” (Eph 5:19)
A thicker view of singing embraces the dialogical nature of singing itself. When we lift our voices in song, we are speaking to God, hearing from God, and testifying to each other. This means that singing is one of the most dialogical elements of a worship service.
There are two big advantages of embracing a “thick” or “dialogical” view of singing. First, it gives us even more reason for songs to be scriptural and infused with Scripture. If singing is more than just our words to God in prayer, if it is a dialogue, then we must ensure the words we sing are Biblical. God speaks to us through our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to the degree that they are in line with His Word. Second, it gives us more reason to emphasize the corporate nature of worship. When we sing together to the Lord, we are speaking and listening at the same time. Our voices raise to God, but our ears are attentive to the voice of our neighbor and to the voice of the Lord. This is something we cannot do alone in our homes. This can only be done with the body.
The Reformation returned singing to the people. No longer was the laity left to observe the dialogue; they became part of it. Let’s not allow for singing to be taken away from them again.
Let us sing in church as if we are in a three-way dialogue with God and our brothers and sisters, because we are. Let us sing as if our hearts’ involvement offends or glorifies God, because it does. Let us treat singing as rich meat and find our souls lifted. Let us reject shallow singing and find our worship enriched.
Josh Irby is a writer and teacher, having served with Campus Crusade and in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina for two decades.
"Worship and the Christian's True Identity" by Jonathan Cruse
"A Hymn That Would Not Be Written Today" by Gabriel Fluhrer
The God We Worship, edited by Jonathan Master