What Happens When We Sing?

(The following is an adaptation from a message presented by Bob Kauflin during the Desiring God National Conference.)

Singing has been a major part of my life, but I don’t assume you share my background. To appreciate this message, you don’t even have to enjoy singing. But if that’s where you’re at, remember that God has a passion for singing. “Sing to the Lord a new song. Sing to the Lord all the earth … tell of his salvation from day to day” (Psalm 96:1-3; cf. Psalm 47:6).

The Bible contains over 400 references to singing and 50 direct commands to sing. We’re commanded twice in the New Testament to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19Colossians 3:16).

Why does God command us not only to praise him, but to sing praises to him?

We can begin by realizing that God himself sings (Zephaniah 3:17). Jesus sang hymns with his disciples. Ephesians 5“>Ephesians 5 tells us that one of the fruits of being filled with the Spirit is singing. So we worship a triune God who sings, and he wants us to be like him.

How does music relate to words?

Some Christians think music supercedes the word, both in its significance and effect. Others think that music undermines the word. But God himself wants them together. He gave us music to serve the word. How music does this is the theme of this message.

Three Ways Singing Serves the Word

1) Singing can help us remember words.

Ever notice how easy it is to recall the words of songs you haven’t heard for 20 years? We store literally hundreds, even thousands of songs in our memory vaults. Music has an unusual mnemonic power. We remember patterns in music much better than patterns in words alone. Rhyme, meter, and song are the most powerful mnemonic devices. They govern and restrict the way we say words and the time it takes to say them. Notice in Deuteronomy 31 that God uses music to help his people remember his words.


1. In the church, we should use effective melodies, that is, melodies that people are able to remember and that they want to remember. Both familiar and new melodies have their place among the people of God. Some great hymn lyrics have been ruined by new melodies while others have been revived by it.

2. We should sing words God wants us to remember. It matters not only that we sing but also what we sing. Colossians 3:16 – It is the word of Christ, the gospel, that should dwell in us richly as we sing. The largest portion of our singing content should be the truths that we are responding to, not just words about the effect that truth has on us. Also, the lyrics of our songs should reflect the broad themes of Scripture. Ask yourself, “If the teaching of our church was limited to the songs we sing, what would our people know?”

3. We should seek to memorize songs. Don’t be too dependant upon screens or hymnbooks.

2) Singing can help us engage the words emotionally.

Music is a language of emotion in every culture of every age. It is capable of affecting us in profound and subtle ways (like when Saul’s spirit was calmed by David’s harp).

Why does music affect us deeply?

One reason is its associations. In our culture, a fast song in a major key is usually associated with happiness, whereas a slow song in a minor key is associated with sadness. Music can also bring forth old associations of things that happened in certain periods or experiences in our lives.

Musical skill also has a role in affecting us deeply. If it is played well it can affect us to a deeper degree, whereas poorly done music can be distracting or less effective.

Music also helps us engage emotionally with the words we’re singing by stretching things out. It gives us time to think about the words more carefully. Consider the repetition of Psalm 136“>Psalm 136 or the hymn “It Is Well.” Through repetition, the words and emotions are amplified.


1. We need a broad emotional range in the songs we sing: reverence, awe, repentance, grief, joy, celebration, etc. The jubilant triumph of Christ’s victory over sin cannot be duly communicated in an acappella hymn.

2. We don’t need to pit different styles or traditions against one another. They each serve to help us in different ways.

3. Know that there is a difference between being emotionally moved and spiritually enlightened. Music has a voice, but we’re not always sure what that voice is saying. It can make us feel peaceful, but it can’t tell us that the Lord is our shepherd or that Jesus endured God’s wrath in our place to bring us eternal peace with God.

4. Singing should be an emotional event, and the emotions should be religious affections. We won’t always be moved in the same way or to the same effect when we sing, but when the emotions aren’t there, we should repent and cry out for mercy to feel them appropriately again. God is worthy of our highest, purest, and strongest emotions. Singing helps express and unite them. Singing without emotion is an oxymoron. Vibrant singing enables us to connect truth about God with passion for that truth. We can sing theologically profound truths and not be affected, but none of that changes the fact that God wants to use music to help break through the apathy and hardness of our heart and engage him emotionally.

3) Singing can help us use words to demonstrate and express our unity.

The first two points can be accomplished when we sing by ourselves, but this point needs other people.

People sing together in the strangest places: rock concerts, sporting events, birthdays, weddings, funerals. Singing together tends to bind us together. It enables us to spend extended periods of times expressing the same thoughts and passions. When it comes to the church, it has significant implications.

Scripture doesn’t only speak about congregational singing–God can be honored when we sing alone or when soloists sing in the church. But it is clear that the dominant theme of Scripture is believers singing together. Jesus died to redeem a universal choir, and every individual voice matters. We are not called to listen to others sing or to sing by ourselves. We are called to sing together. The question is not, “Do you have a voice?” The question is, “Do you have a song?” If you’re redeemed by Christ’s cross, then you do have a song.


1. We should sing songs that unite rather than divide the church. We can appreciate the diverse musical styles and genres, but we shouldn’t try to make church worship “something for everybody.” There should be a unifying musical center that focuses on the sound of the people themselves. God commands us to worship him with instruments, but the majority of the commands tell us to worship him in song. Instruments are only there to aid the singing. So if you never sing without instruments, you should start singing acappella at times.

2. Musical creativity in the church has functional limits. Your iPod shouldn’t be the starting point for selecting songs to sing together. We want to pursue a creativity that is undistracting and not just innovative.

3. We must be clear that it is the gospel and not music that unites us. We should guard against gathering together in churches based upon our musical preferences rather than according to our unity in the gospel. The gospel is what unites us. Ephesians 2:14 – Jesus has united us, not our music. I don’t connect with people at my church because they have the same song selection on their iPod. I love them because Christ has enabled me to love them.

The host of heaven is not united in their style of music but in the words of their song (Revelation 5:9-10). What kind of music do people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation sing? We don’t know! But the Bible tells us what the focus should be: Worthy is the Lamb who was slain. The Lamb must always be central to our corporate singing. Why? Because Jesus is the one who makes it possible. God doesn’t hear us on account of our skill in singing. He hears it because it is in his Son. We shouldn’t look for music to move us to sing. God has already done something worthy of moving us. How then can we then keep from singing?

4. Ask yourself, “What are we doing to encourage our church in corporate singing? What are we doing to discourage it?” Our singing should more and more resemble what we see in Revelation. Whatever we experience here in terms of the active presence of God, it is a mere glimmer of what is to come. In the new heavens and earth we will sing gloriously and for a long time. Our thoughts and passions will be focused, and we will have the strength to give him the glory he deserves. Part of our singing here on earth is anticipation of what is to come. What a glorious thing to anticipate that time!

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