In their cars. In the shower. In choirs. At football games. At birthdays. At weddings and funerals. At rock concerts. In musicals and operas. When there’s sunshine. When it rains. When it’s stormy. In the morning, afternoon, and night.
But when the church gathers on Sunday morning (or Saturday night, etc.), our earthly voices join the choirs of heaven and the singing is like no other. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been moved as I added my voice to the beautiful, engaging, powerful, awe-inspiring, robust singing of a congregation.
But sometimes our sound is halting and weak. Out of tune and out of time. And not so beautiful. What should we do then?
One common response has been to improve the excellence of our music, art, and technology. But that doesn’t automatically solve our problems. Our music might sound better, but our worship might be worse. Consider these recent posts on the downsides of contemporary worship, megachurch worship, and celebrity culture worship.
My aim in this post isn’t to critique styles of music or liturgical forms. Rather, I want to highlight some of the differences between people gathering to sing and the church singing. I want to remind us of who it is that’s singing, how we came to sing, and Who we’re singing to. In other words, I want to talk about singing as the church.
One of the primary reasons our singing goes awry is because our doctrine of the church, or our ecclesiology, is messed up. Minimal, distorted, or non-existent. We forget the church belongs to Jesus, not us. In 1 Corinthians, Paul says God will destroy those who destroy his church (1 Cor. 3:17). That’s a sobering word. It seems some churches today are being destroyed, bit by bit, through musical leadership that confuses what happens on Sunday mornings with something else.
What the Church Isn’t and Is
Recently, I started making a list of the distinctions between singing, say, at a concert, and singing as the church. This isn’t exhaustive, but I’ve tried to include some of the more common areas of potential confusion. Each point contrasts what the Sunday gathering isn’t with what God intends the church to be.
1. First, the Sunday gathering is not a group of Gnostics who are unaffected by their physical, material surroundings. Good aesthetics, skillful communication, undistracting creativity, reliable sound systems, musical gifting, and other practical areas can make our meetings more impacting and edifying. God uses physical means expressed through spiritual gifts to accomplish his purposes for the church (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Cor. 12:28; Rom. 12:6-8). Though he doesn’t need them, he chooses to use them.
2. The Sunday gathering is not a random group of individuals who meet once a week but whose lives rarely intersect any other time. The church is the body of Christ and a temple being built together in which God dwells (Eph. 1:22-23; Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:4-5).
3. The Sunday gathering is not a homogeneous group of people who shop at the same stores, play the same video games, have the same iTunes playlists, and wear the same styles of clothing. The church is a supernatural entity, made up of people from diverse backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, and economic classes who have been joined together through the substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross for their sins (Eph. 2:11-16; 1 Pet. 2:9-10).
4. The Sunday gathering is not a production company, offering a weekly event defined and driven by lighting, video, and staging. The church is the place where the treasure of the gospel of Christ shines forth through jars of clay, and where our confidence rests in a demonstration of the Spirit’s power. That power is shown primarily through the weakness of our preaching, not the glitziness of our productions (2 Cor. 4:7; 1 Cor. 2:3-5).
5. The Sunday gathering is not a theological lecture filling people with head knowledge but doing little to shape or affect their passions and desires. Meeting together gives us opportunity to shout for joy as we sing with thankfulness in our hearts to God (Ps. 71:23; Col. 3:16), while the Spirit transforms us into the image of Christ, from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18).
6. The Sunday gathering is not a concert where gifted performers entertain a group of passive spectators. The church gathers to build one another up, stir up one another for love and good works, and be equipped for the various works of ministry God has assigned us (1 Cor. 14:12; Heb. 10:24-25; Eph 4:11-16). Every member is valuable, even the “unpresentable” ones, and every member is meant to sing, although not necessarily with a microphone (1 Cor. 12:14-26; Eph. 5:19).
7. The Sunday gathering isn’t focused primarily on how we feel, what we think, and how we’re doing. The church is a unique and holy people, set apart for the express purpose of drawing attention to the greatness and goodness of the one true God who has brought us from darkness to light through the substitutionary atonement of Christ (1 Pet. 2:9-10). The two sacraments we’ve been given (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) both draw attention, simply and powerfully, to God’s works and worthiness, not ours (Rom. 6:1-4; 1 Cor. 11:23-26).
8. The Sunday gathering is not a platform for personal ministry or a stepping stone for a musician’s career. Church leaders and musicians are meant to model the heart of the apostle Paul: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).
9. The Sunday gathering is not a business venture or fast food franchise, driven by principles of pragmatism, marketing, and financial success. The church is God’s field and God’s building. Growth typically takes time and God cares about the means we pursue to achieve that growth (1 Cor. 3:9-11; 1 Cor. 3:16-17).
10. The Sunday gathering is not a place to push the boundaries of creativity for the sake of doing something new. It’s a context in which leaders seek to communicate faithfully the gospel they’re received from God himself (1 Cor. 4:1-2; Gal. 1:6-9). While creativity can help us proclaim the truths of God’s Word and the gospel in fresh ways, the medium is never meant to overshadow, distract from, or distort the message.
11. The Sunday gathering is not an art gallery, giving more value to visuals and videos than the preached and proclaimed Word. The church is built on, sustained by, and grows by the faithful preaching of God’s Word and the gospel (Ps. 19:7-11; 2 Tim. 4:1-2; Rom. 10:17).
12. The Sunday gathering is not a theater performance, led by actors whose words and actions bear no resemblance to their daily lives. As we sing, the word of Christ is meant to dwell in us richly, motivating us to say and do everything in the name of Christ for the glory of the Father (Col. 3:12-17).
Eph. 3:10 says the church is to “make known the manifold wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” When we prioritize worldly values and practices, esteem cultural relevance above all else, or pursue our own preferences, we’re not revealing God’s wisdom, but our own foolishness. The way we lead our meetings is integrally and inescapably tied to our theology.
Different perspectives on how the church should sing will always exist. But at the end of the day, our singing will be more satisfying, life-transforming, and Christ-exalting if our thoughts are rooted in the words of the One who gave us a song to sing in the first place.
For a few more thoughts you might want to check out How Exciting Should Our Sunday Meetings Be?
Traducción en español: http://teogracia.com/especial-cantar-los-domingos/
First I just want to say thank you Bob for being a servant of the Lord and sharing your gifts with us. My brain has been stretched thru out the years and I think thats a good thing. This article hits it right in the heart. I spent about 20+ years as an audio consultant. I designed, installed and trained folks how to best operate their sound systems. We spent a lot of time talking about avoiding distractions with the system. The goal was that nobody was supposed to notice the actual system. I am a worship leader in a small start up church. I hope in some ways we as a team can become like the un noticed sound system. That as we lead others in the musical portion of our worship, that they would be completely focused on our awesome God. Sometimes it not what we do, but why we do it. I am 58. I have been involved with worship teams for over 30 years. I never tire of worshiping God, maybe a little outta breath once in a while. But I do tire of the “business” of worship. At times its like the cat chasing its tail. It seems like so many get caught up in the latest trends. We watch videos of mega churches where many of the musicians are on staff and then try to replicate what is happening in the videos into our local churches. Sometimes there 20 or more people on stage. I can remember being at one of the Sovereign Grace worship conferences where you spoke to us about our expectations when we get back home. We go from being at a conference where everybody there loves to sing, then going back home and leading a congregation that doesn’t share the same musical enthusiasm. They love God but music isn’t their major. But our worship can still be passionate and purposeful and done with a spirit of excellence. If our worship or any other part of our services become the priority, we drift away from the real reason for our gathering. God is who He is and our worship improves Him in no way. But if we lift Him up in all His Glory, He will draw all men unto Him.
Thank you for your comment Tom! It really spoke to me… “about our expectations…leading a congregation that doesn’t share the same musical enthusiasm. They love God but music isn’t their major. But our worship can still be passionate and purposeful and done with a spirit of excellence. If our worship or any other part of our services become the priority, we drift away from the real reason for our gathering. God is who He is and our worship improves Him in no way. But if we lift Him up in all His Glory, He will draw all men unto Him.” It was a BEAUTIFUL REMINDER of why God has placed this calling on my life!!! THANK YOU again.
Thanks for sharing your response. This could have just as well have been me writing, but not eloquent. May God be blessed in your continued service to Him.
” But I do tire of the “business” of worship. ” Amen, brother, amen.
I fear a new book of Lamentations could be written just from observing modern “worship”.
This is good. Sitting here dissecting this for my devo tonight. “When we prioritize worldly values and practices, esteem cultural relevance above all else, or pursue our own preferences, we’re not revealing God’s wisdom, but our own foolishness.” WOW. Thank you for sharing.
This. A thousand times this.
This is so helpful! Thank you!
Thank you Mr Kauflin! I have been a volunteer worship leader for about six years now, and I have a strong and passionate desire to see God’s people Worship Him in Spirit and in Truth. I am so happy that the Lord brought me to this article this morning. It has spoken to my heart in so many ways; it has held me, taught me, instructed me, uplifted me, and encouraged me!!! I will be coming back often, and I look forward to more of your teaching. Thank You!
Leslie, I’m so glad this post served you. Thanks for serving the church with your gifts!
I totally ditto everything you said, Leslie. I lead worship at an assisted living facility as a chaplain and couldn’t agree with you more. I have printed it off and will review it more carefully and might even use it to teach my people why we come together and sing!!!