12 February, 2015 Richard Simpkin
Evangelical churches have always invested healthily in the preaching and proclamation of the Word of God. We’ve also been rightly wary of the way that music often tries to dominate the Word of God because of its power over the emotions. However, often our wariness has resulted in a lack of investment in the singing of God’s Word. I would like to propose that, if our singing reflects the pattern of Biblical songs where the deep truths of God are expressed, then it is a crucial part of our Word ministry. All the songwriters in the Bible are clearly committed to the communication and dissemination of God’s Word, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of using the medium of music to continue their work.
I would also like to suggest that, if singing Biblical truth in church meetings is counted as Word ministry, then we would avoid a lot of misunderstanding about the place of music in the Christian gathering. Here are some of the consequences of divorcing the singing of God’s Word from Word ministry.
· In one extreme, we say that we don’t need to sing at all: ‘Teach the Bible, pray and go home.’
· In the other extreme, we have to develop a special role for music, so that the pastor does the ‘Word’ bit and the musicians do the ‘Spirit’ bit. For example, I’ve heard this from a student meeting: ‘We’ve heard from the Bible, and now we’re going to listen to what the Spirit has to say to us.’
Most of us wouldn’t subscribe to either of these extremes, but there are many symptoms in our meetings which, though they are less extreme, show that we’re just as unclear. Only recently I asked a Bible study leader to help with the music for a church meeting. He said, ‘Will it get in the way of my ministry?’ Love it!
Here are some more examples of what happens when we divorce the singing of God’s Word from the speaking of God’s Word.
1) We’re often lazily undiscerning about the songs we sing. Our pastors say, ‘The sermon’s the most important bit of the meeting, so we need a jolly song just before to wake us up.’ Our temptation then is to go for singing a jolly song before singing a truth-full song.
2) People are late for church. I’m sure that the original intention of a Gathering Hymn was for people to sing to God once everyone has gathered. Instead, we nearly always use it as a stalling mechanism so that late-comers can sneak in the back while everyone’s standing up and making a lot of noise.
The abuse of the ‘Gathering Hymn’ shows a similar mindset to the one that produces the first symptom. It’s true that we are fed as the Word is preached, and so the sermon should rightly be the main focus of our meetings. However, if we teach that the sermon is the only reason we meet, then our congregations are just being taught to come and be fed, while neglecting the need to be ‘truthing’ each other. Hence the reason they arrive late in the first place. The more Biblical balance is for the meeting to achieve both these ends (Ephesians 4).
3) The standard of our music is poor. As I said at the start of this blog, we are rightly wary of placing too much emphasis on anything that isn’t purely Word-focussed. We see other less Word-focussed traditions investing heavily in music and then we decide not to invest in music at all. Look at the music in the cathedrals and at Hillsong. I don’t want to suggest that the teaching of the Word is absent in either of these institutions, and we may not like either style of music, but the quality of music in most Word-centred churches doesn’t even come close to their standards. If visitors to our churches go away more embarrassed by the quality of the music than edified by the teaching of the Word (however faithful), they will be more likely to search for somewhere to go where the music is good, regardless of whether the Bible is taught or not. Many of us will be working for churches, faithfully preaching the Gospel, but experiencing the pain of seemingly keen Christians leaving us to go somewhere where they feel more comfortable with the music.
The trouble is that we invest in training preachers and Bible study leaders, but not musicians. This means that if you are a good trombonist with Bible-handling skills, you’ll be more likely to be helping teach in Sunday School than helping out in the music group. One musician told me he wouldn’t be able to play any more because he needed to look out for students during the meeting (though I reckon it’s easier to look out for students if you’re playing in the music group rather than sitting in the congregation, because you can see their faces rather than the backs of their heads!).
4) Christian musicians either feel unsupported doing a job that no-one sees the point of, or they move away to where they feel their talent can be better employed.
However, if we were to treat our singing as an integral part of Word ministry – that of building the church on the truth of God – then we would be more careful about the theology we sing; more appreciative of the diverse talents within our congregations; and we’d help educate Christians to understand that singing is very much part of our worship of God as we build the church together.
If you’d like to do more thinking on this, please go to www.music-ministry.org, which has lots of blogs about how we can use music to serve Word-centred churches.