NOTE: This article originally appeared here on the 9Marks site and is reprinted with permission.
Spend some time with members of a Khosa church in South Africa and you will quickly discover how wonderfully they sing.
No instruments. No microphones. One individual leading, the rest following. Many hands clapping.
And how they join their voices in full-throated praise!
This article is not written for them. It’s written for a traditional Western church.
Westerners are accustomed to professional-quality and performance-oriented music. And for better or worse, this affects what Christians expect musically when we walk into the church gathering.
Unless a church deliberately pushes in an alternative direction, we expect the music to demonstrate the same quality of performance as what we hear on the car radio or through our MP3 ear buds. Anything less can sound clunky, tacky, even embarrassing.
What’s more, there are few places in contemporary Western culture where people learn to sing together. Maybe at a Christmas event? Or in the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field?
Church leaders underestimate how deliberately they must push against these cultural trends to get their church singing; to teach them that the untrained but united voices of the congregation make a far better sound than the Tonight Show Band; to teach them that singing loudly in the presence of other people is not awkward; to teach them that all our emotions don’t have to be individually spontaneous to be worthy, but that there is place to guide and conform our individual emotions to the group’s activity.
If church leaders want congregations that will really “speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19), they will have to work at it. They will have to try things that might seem strange or unnatural for people who are accustomed to sitting quietly and watching the performance on stage.
Here are a few tips, many of which, no doubt, fall into the realm of prudence.
1. Teach the congregation the importance of worshipping God in song.
Just as Christians must be taught the importance of prayer and other spiritual disciplines, so they must learn from Scripture how God intends for them to sing. When the Word of God dwells in us richly, singing is the natural result (see Col. 3:16).
If God sings over us in happy song (Zeph. 3:17), we who reflect our Creator should sing in return.
2. Encourage thoughtful, purposeful singing through private and public prayer.
How easy it is to honor God with our lips while our hearts are far from him (Is. 29:13; Matt. 15:8)!
So pray privately and publicly against thoughtless and hypocritical singing.
3. Make sure the congregation knows why they are singing the chosen song.
If it’s a prayer, briefly remind them. If it’s a song of commitment, point that out. If it reflects the preached message from God’s Word, make that clear.
Songs that are chosen just because they are favorite songs of the song-chooser are often not well-sung. Although congregations are generally compliant enough to sing whatever song is suggested, they will sing it more enthusiastically if they know why they are singing that particular song.
Help them to care about singing “in spirit and in truth.”