Is Worship Listening or Participating?

Kevin sent in a question after attending two conferences. At one, the corporate worship times were about 90% congregational with a few special songs that everyone sat and listened to. At the other, the attendees only sang about 40% of the worship time. The rest was choirs, special numbers, and soloists. Here’s his question.

Is one “better” than the other? I lean quite heavily toward the participatory level; I want my people worshiping together, participating together, not simply watching (they can do that at home on TV or video). This topic has come up a few times within our Worship Ministry Team meetings and I’m quite interested in your input.

Here are some principles I’d think about in processing this question.

1. There are examples in Scripture of people listening to others singing God’s praise. The Levites at the temple were responsible for ministering to the Lord with sung and instrumental praise (1 Chron. 16:4). Singers, choirs, and instrumentalists were appointed to praise God while others listened (Neh. 12:46).
2. The purpose of gathering together is not simply to fulfill external actions like singing, but to see God’s glory in Christ (2 Cor. 4:6), to build one another up (1 Cor. 14:12), and to spur one another on to good deeds (Heb. 10:24-25).
3. Congregational singing seems to be the norm in Scripture, especially in the New Testament. We’re commanded numerous times in the Psalms to sing to the Lord. Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, the two passages that directly address singing in the New Testament, say we’re to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another. In Revelation, all of creation joins in to worship God in song.
4. Col. 3 and Eph. 5 don’t specify that everyone has to sing at the same time. Singing to one another could mean taking turns, a solo or group singing to everyone else, or singing antiphonally.
5. We live in the American Idol, iPod, downloaded MP3 culture, where music is everywhere and its primary purpose is to keep us entertained.
6. Our own sinful hearts tend to like it when others notice us, think we have a great voice, or comment on how much they loved our contribution.
7. A large part of a how a song is perceived is the way it’s done. When I see a musician move erratically or excessively, I’m more aware of them. If instrumentalists never sing the words, I’m more aware of the music. But if musicians move naturally and seem engaged with the words, I tend to think about what they’re singing.

All that to say, in congregational settings I’d lean towards mostly congregational singing. We meet as God’s people to proclaim his praise, not only listen to it being proclaimed (Ps. 40:5).

But listening doesn’t mean that people aren’t participating. If we can worship God while listening to a message being preached, we can probably worship God while listening to a God-honoring songs being sung. Solos can be used effectively if they’re done humbly, presented wisely, and direct people’s hearts to savor Jesus Christ. We’re giving folks an opportunity to hear God’s word in song, so that they’ll be encouraged to worship him with their own songs and lives. We often project the lyrics to any special song that’s being sung. That’s one more way of directing people’s attention to the truths they’re hearing.

Another way we can help people in this area is to tell them what they should be doing while a song is being sung. Something as simple as, “Let this song you’re about to hear remind you of how merciful God has been to you.” We can also emphasize the right things when a song is over. It’s fine to say, “Let’s thank the choir for a great job and all the hard work they put in!” It’s better to say, “Let’s thank the choir for reminding us of how great a salvation God has given us in Jesus Christ!”

As leaders, we want to do everything we can to remind the church that every part of our meeting, whether we’re speaking, listening, singing, or playing, can be an act of worship to our glorious God, made acceptable through Jesus Christ.

One Response to Is Worship Listening or Participating?

  1. Tyler May 7, 2007 at 12:41 PM #

    It’s hard enough to find people to fill spots for solos (our church does these during the offering). As a result, it is easy to just breathe a sigh of relief when the calendar is full. But Bob brings an important point indirectly by saying that they project the words up for all to see. This necessitates the worship leader to examine the lyrics ahead of time, so something unbiblical doesn’t slip in during an offertory. A worship service carefully crafted during the week, can be undone if careful revision of the offertory is not also done. This is an easy thing to overlook which is the reason for my post. An encouragement to all in this position of service to the church.

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