Five Qualities of a Congregational Song
Matt Boswell from 9marks.org asks: can we sing any kind of song when gathered together?
Christians are a singing people.
Muslims don’t gather to sing. Neither do Hindus, Buddhists, or Rastafarians. Christians do. Also, while not everyone preaches, or leads in prayer, or publicly reads Scripture, we all sing.
But what can we say about the nature of a corporate Christian song? What should it be like? Can we sing any kind of song when gathered together?
WHAT A CONGREGATIONAL SONG SHOULD BE
Whether our corporate worship is subject to the regulative principle or simply the principle of conscience, the exercise of singing ought to be seriously considered in light of Scripture. And Psalm 96 offers some crucial perspectives regarding the nature of a right song and its effects. Originally written for the covenant people of God for the entry of the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem (see 1 Chr. 16), this Psalm offers us much regarding the practice of singing today.
A Congregational Song Should Focus on God
God is at the center of a Christian song. When God calls his people to sing, it is a qualified type of song. In Psalm 96:1, God says, “Sing to the Lord.”
When the church is gathered together in the name of God, the glory of God is the aim of our melody making. We are to sing to him, about him, and for him. We don’t sing merely as the world sings of created things, our song is elevated to the Uncreated One. The songs of the church proclaim the character, attributes, and ways of the God of our salvation.
For those who choose songs for corporate worship, this is a task to be carried out with sobriety. Mark Dever and Paul Alexander give this advice to pastors: “As the main teaching pastor, it is your responsibility to shepherd the congregation into the green pastures of God-centered, gospel-centered songs, and away from the arid plains of theological vacuity, meditations on human experience, and emotional frenzy.” If our songs are never set above vacuity, human experience, and emotions, we have fallen short of our goal. God must be the center of our worship; therefore God must be the center of our songs.
A Congregational Song Should Be Biblical
The songs of the church ought to be built on, shaped by, and saturated with the word of God. Singing is a unique way to let the word of Christ dwell richly in us (Col. 3:16).
In Psalm 96:2, we see that we are to bless his name. Apart from God’s revelation, we would not know his name, or how to bless his name. Our singing and the whole of our worship must be biblically informed in order to carry out these commands. The songs of the church should be intentionally biblical.
We might think of singing as a form of exposition that uses poetry to teach the word of God. When Isaac Watts published Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, this was his intention. His goal was not to sing Scripture line by line, but to create poetic and emotive renditions of Scripture that allow a church to sing the truths of Scripture.
Songs are sermons. They don’t work like homiletical exegesis, but they articulate, exegete, and pronounce biblical truths. Our hymns teach and shape the way people view God, man, Christ, and how we are to live in light of the gospel.
One way to ensure our singing is biblical is to comb through our songs to see if we cover the breadth of themes presented throughout the canon. Our songs should be held up to the light of God’s word to ensure we are singing the glories of its truth.
A Congregational Song Should Point to the Gospel
The contours of the gospel should shape our hymnal. We should “tell of his salvation” (v. 2), so that the gospel rings forth as the theme of our songs. If we are convinced of the primacy of gospel-centered ministry, we should surely practice gospel-centered singing. The songs of our churches must be fluent in the gospel.
One approach toward gospel-centered singing is to build on the framework of God, man, Christ, response.
- We sing to God as the holy creator of all things, who is worthy of worship.
- We sing of man and our sinful nature, our alienation from God, and our need of forgiveness.
- We sing of Christ who is fully God and fully man, who lived a sinless life and died on the cross to bear the wrath of God.
- We sing a response. In these songs of consecration and repentance, faith and praise, we joyfully respond to the good news of Jesus.
A Congregational Song Should Be Congregational
The preface to this Psalm says it is to be sung by both Asaph and his sons (1 Chr. 16:7). Christian singing is congregational at its core.
The song of redemption is not meant for one, but for many. In the torrent of individualism and self-help, the people of God don’t sing as a collection of individuals, but as one people united to Christ. Christian singing is not meant to highlight the talented few, but to include the voice of the many. Congregational participation protects the gathering from pageantry and pomp, and provides an environment for an exultant, grace-infused response to the revelation of God.
This choir of the redeemed lift a collective voice of praise as a testimony that we have been reconciled to God and to one another. Singing together in worship is a mark of unity within a church. The song of the redeemed is to be sung by young and old, rich and poor, strong and weak. Verse 7 reminds us that families of peoples will ascribe praise to God: peoples from every tribe, tongue, and nation on the earth.
A Congregational Song Should be Evangelistic
While worship is theocentric, it is also declarative. Our singing is aimed at God, but it also rings in the ear of our neighbor. God-centered worship is proclamation. As we sing of the glory of God we understand that all have not seen his glory. As we sing of the goodness of the gospel, we realize that it is not good news to all.
Spurgeon called this Psalm the “Missionary Psalm,” and for good reason. In verses 10 to 13, we see that God-centered singing intrinsically works as a declaration to the lost. God-centeredness and evangelism are not two competing targets but one inside of the other. The worship of God is the aim of evangelism.
In the same breath, we sing of the love and wrath of God. In the same melodies, we declare his holiness and the grave effect of sin. Christ is the king who will come to judge the world in his righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness. We say among the nations “The Lord reigns!” in the hope that men and women will repent of sin and trust in Christ.
A HOLY PRACTICE
The church has been given a song to sing, and Christ is its author, its substance, and its aim.
A church’s songs are not a mere preamble to the sermon. Singing is not filler time to warm up a congregation. Singing is a holy practice. We sing because God has commanded us, and our songs should fill our hearts with delight.
Matt Boswell is pastor of ministries and worship at Providence Church in Frisco, Texas.
 Thanks to Collin Hansen for articulating this idea in a conversation.
 Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), 85.