Whatever happened to headphones? Or even earbuds, their scrawny successors?
Since the advent of the iPhone, it seems to me that more and more people project their music into the air around them instead of into their ears. I see this—hear it, rather—everywhere: the gym, the airport, the reservoir I walk around near my home. I’m constantly bursting into other people’s personal Beyoncé or Bieber bubbles.
I could talk about how technologies like tiny speakers only reveal the self-absorption already present in the heart, but I won’t. Instead, there’s a parable here I want to probe, a parable that portrays the difference between how we tend to listen to music individually and how we should approach music in church.
These projected musical spheres picture the fact that for many people today, music serves as a kind of stylized soundtrack to our lives.
Why do you listen to the music you listen to? The reasons are likely layered and sometimes subconscious. On some level, most people’s aesthetic judgments are intuitive: you like what you like. But musical preferences are also influenced by where you grew up, what your parents listened to, what your parents forbid you to listen to, and—especially—what your friends listen to. And preferences can shift over time in large and small ways.
What you listen to also depends on the mood you’re in and the mood you want to set. If you’re depressed, melancholy music can feel cathartic. If you’re exercising, you want to get your blood pumping. If you’re working or studying, you probably want music that will tune out distractions without turning into a distraction.
And what you listen to depends on present company. Hence the eternal struggle, in some families, for control of the car radio.
What’s the big picture here? In the late modern West, and increasingly throughout the world, music functions for many like a movie score writ small. It signals the cultural niche of the characters, sets the mood, and enhances the action.
That music works like this is more or less a fact of life today, but it’s not a fact of nature. Customized music consumption is possible only because of the technology and commercial structures that enable it. To paint in broad strokes, prior to the advent of mass media most people’s experience of music was just like all their neighbors’: they heard and sang the songs of their people. People used to hum folk songs, the common property of generations, while they plowed the fields and baked the bread. By contrast, the cornucopia of choice that characterizes today’s music consumption is a feature of advanced capitalism.
That doesn’t make it wrong. But it does mean we should look out for instincts programmed by the habit of customized consumption that might need to be deprogrammed when we step into church on Sunday morning.
Why? Because music in church is doing something very different from what it’s doing on our iPhones.
In Colossians 3:16 Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” The parallel passage in Ephesians 5:18–19 exhorts us not to get drunk, but instead to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.”
In these passages Paul addresses the whole congregation. He commands the whole church to sing, just as God frequently commands his people to sing to him throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Psalm 9:11, 30:4, 33:3, 47:6).
It’s not that the band plays music up front while everyone listens or maybe sings along, like at a concert. Instead, the church is the band. What accompaniment there is simply serves and supports the church’s singing.
In church, music isn’t something we consume but something we create.
And what exactly is this music for? It is a means by which we make melody to the Lord and give thanks to him. It is also a means by which we address, admonish, and instruct one another. Our singing in church is directed to God and each other. It aims at God’s glory and the good of the body. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:26, “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson…Let all things be done for building up.”
That this singing is corporate rather than individual is not accidental but essential. Paul prays for the church in Rome, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5–6). Paul wants the church in Rome to live as one so they can glorify God as one. He wants their unified songs of praise to express their unified life as a church. We glorify God by singing together because in Christ God has brought us together.
In the church, music is a means by which we all, as one body, glorify the Lord and edify each other by singing the excellencies of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Far from being a stylized personal soundtrack, music in church is more like a score for an orchestra: the church is the orchestra, and every single member is an instrument. Note that in moving from everyday music to music in church we’ve switched from passive to active. Again, you don’t consume music in church; you create it.
We’ve also switched from individual to corporate. The point of music in church is not that you would have a private spiritual experience of the presence of God as you sing or as others perform. Instead, the point is that your voice would combine with dozens or hundreds of others into one voice which praises God and proclaims his grace to his people.
When an orchestra shows up to perform, everyone knows it’s a team effort. Dozens of musicians play from one score so that the orchestra plays as one. Out of the dozens of musicians comes one unified sound. It’s unthinkable that the members of the orchestra would insist on only playing the parts that resonated with their personal preferences. For many to sound as one, the many must lay down any agendas that have potential to fragment their unity.
In moving from everyday music to Sunday morning, we’ve also switched from personal to prescribed purposes. On your own time, as long as you’re loving God and your neighbor, you can do whatever you want with music. But as we’ve seen, music in church has purposes that are precisely prescribed by God.
All music in church must enable the church to build each other up and praise God. That’s a matter of the whole church’s obedience or disobedience to the word of God. What matters most in church music is that it causes the word of Christ to dwell in the church richly. Substance, therefore, is more important than style. And the most important questions about style are not whether it meshes with someone’s preferences, but whether a song’s style serves the divinely mandated purposes of whole-church praise and admonition.
What then should you do about your musical preferences in church? To put it bluntly, leave them at the door.
You can turn your iPod back on as soon as you hop into the car and drive home. In church, though, lay down your preferences and gladly sing what the body sings. The eye, ear, hand, and foot may all have their preferences, but the body sings as one.
You should expect to check your preferences at the door, first, because of the differences between how we typically consume music as individuals and how we are to create music in the church. I’m not suggesting that most Christians think they can treat their church’s order of service like an iTunes playlist. But I do think our musical consumer culture is so pervasive that it takes hard work to give up preferences rather than insisting on them. We’re so used to crafting our own soundtracks that it takes effort to cultivate a musical culture where the many matters more than the one.
And giving up our preferences for the good of the body is exactly what the gospel calls us to do. The gospel calls us to give up so others can gain, to count others more significant than ourselves, just as Christ did for us (Phil. 2:1–11). So imitate Christ as you sing to Christ in the body Christ. If glorifying God in song is a sacrifice of praise (Heb. 13:15), don’t be surprised if it costs you something.
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway). He has a Bachelor of Music in jazz studies from the University of Southern California. While writing this article he listened to Gregory Alan Isakov, the Beatles, and Bach.
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Ask Granny Susie, who’s led the church choir longer than you’ve been alive, and you might hear, “Well, it’s Sunday mornin’ praise, baby!”
Ask Steven, the church band’s guitarist, and you might hear, “It’s the surge of God’s presence that I lead people into.”
The question of course is, What is true worship? Many in our churches define worship however they please.
But does God’s Word grant such freedom? Does it define worship, and if so, how? These are the questions Vaughan Roberts, rector of St Ebbe’s Church in Oxford, answers in his short book True Worship. He wrote it out of concern “that much of our thinking about worship is confused and often unbiblical” (Loc. 46).
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There’s not much analytical precision or hard data in Bottum’s portrait of the post-Protestants. Instead, much like a work of fiction, the trustworthiness of this book rests on the author’s close personal observations, and on what you might call the self-attesting resonance of his descriptions—whether the character development is believable, whether you recognize from experience who he’s talking about.
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Millar emphasizes two key elements in his definition of expository preaching: the text and the heart. True expository preaching is bringing the text of God’s Word to bear upon the hearts of people. Millar writes, “Expository preaching happens when the message of the text = the message of the sermon. Or perhaps better, expository preaching happens when the vibe of the passage = the vibe of the sermon” (31). Every text possesses a message and an ethos. The preacher’s task is to craft and communicate his sermon so that the main point and ethos of the text is main point and ethos of the sermon.
Expository preaching is not simply the relaying of knowledge or a download of information. The goal is that we both understand and feel the message of the text. So, authentic expository preaching includes the mind and the heart, the intellect and the affections. As you read the authors' definition of preaching, you might want to stand up and preach. I did.
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That’s why I’m a little skeptical of my own bias toward a book like Cornelius Plantinga’s Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists. “Of course!” says the writer. “Preachers should read more! And more widely!” But should they really?
Yes, says Plantinga, president emeritus of Calvin Theological Seminary. Why? To sum up the book with a phrase borrowed from it, a preacher should be the kind of person on whom nothing is lost, and reading widely helps (72).
“Helps” reflects the book’s refreshing modesty. Plantinga wants preachers to read widely—that is, outside the fields of Bible and theology—for a number of reasons: to find illustrations, yes, but also to tune their ears to the power of well-chosen words, and to meet wisdom in street clothes (chs. 2-6). Yet his recommended yoke is light: one novel, one biography, and a fifth of a book of poetry each year, with a weekly visit to the Arts & Letters Daily website thrown in (42).
In Chapter 3, “Tuning the Preacher’s Ear,” Plantinga covers “clarity and her best children” and four aspects of diction: rhetorical pitch, narrative movement, economy, and evocativeness. In his analysis of one model sermon’s rhetorical pitch, Plantinga commends a register that “is neither tuxedo formal nor tank top casual. We might call it ‘upscale colloquial’ or ‘business casual,’ and add that it will engage a great many listeners.” This pitch “makes the sermon formal enough to be serious and casual enough to be comfortable to wear” (49).
This is sound advice elegantly stated—which I could say of just about the whole book. But my point in drawing attention to rhetorical pitch is that this is an issue more preachers could afford to critically consider. The same goes for the other stylistic tools Plantinga probes. Words are the preacher’s raw material, and most preachers could use help learning how to mine their potential.
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Brian and Cara Croft co-wrote The Pastor’s Family: Shepherding Your Family through the Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. Brian has been the senior pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky since 2003. He is also the founder of Practical Shepherding, a website dedicated to being “a Gospel-driven resource center for pastors and church leaders to equip them in the practical matters of pastoral ministry,” and the author of numerous books in the “Ministering the Master’s Way” series. Brian and Cara have four children. Cara serves alongside Brian by teaching and discipling the women of Auburndale.
The book is divided into three parts that encourage pastors and church leaders to faithfully serve the church while faithfully serving their families. Brian and Cara’s twenty years of ministry qualify them to address balancing the “demands of the ministry with the demands of being a father and husband” and wife and mother (13).
In part one, Brian analyzes problems and offers practical solutions for the pressures of pastoral ministry that might lead to family neglect. Church and home are a constant swirl of expectations and scheduling demands. Some of these expectations and demands expose fears (and weaknesses) that tempt a pastor to neglect to shepherd at home.
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How interested would you be if archaeologists unearthed a hymnbook embossed with the name, “Jesus of Nazareth?” Overlooking the anachronism for a moment, wouldn’t “Jesus’ hymnbook” be immediately republished and rocket to the best-seller lists? Wouldn’t those songs find instantaneous popularity in worship services across the globe?
We have that hymnbook. We do know what songs Jesus sang: he sang the psalms.
So a question arises: if you’d be excited about singing the hymns from our fictional archaeological find, then why aren’t you more excited about singing the psalms? Two events in my life significantly nudged me into answering that question.
The first event was a dumbfounded stare in the seminary bookstore when I was a first year M.Div. student. I stood looking at the required reading for New Testament Greek and saw the Trinity Psalter as a required purchase. Why was I being asked to purchase an Old Testament book in English for a New Testament Greek course? It turns out my professor had a habit of beginning each class by requiring his students to sing a psalm together. So I become a psalm singer by requisite.
The second event happened in the Peruvian mountains. I led a group of students on a short-term mission trip. Our task was to dig a ditch around a church under construction. Our Peruvian host was a minister in the Peruvian Presbyterian Church and they mainly sang psalms.
We had a long conversation about why this was their practice, but one reason stood out to me. He was fighting heresy in the churches he pastored. False teaching slipped into his churches through folk songs adjusted for worship. Psalm singing was his attempt to guard his people from heresy sung to a familiar tune. Psalms served that growing community of churches as a biblical bulwark against encroaching syncretism. Reflecting on that conversation, I realized that I had become a psalm singer through missions.
You don’t have to be a seminary student or a missionary to Peru to step into the world of psalm singing. You only need to do two things. First, consider the benefits that God attaches to worship in psalm. Second, decide practically how you will begin singing the psalms.
SIX BENEFITS OF PSALM SINGING
Here then are six benefits of congregational psalm singing.
1. When you sing psalms you literally sing the Bible.
Good hymns are theologically deep, artistically sound, and biblical in content, but they are not the actual words of Scripture. However, when we sing the psalms we are actually singing the Bible. The poetic structure, themes, and content of the psalms are the inspired Word of God for his church in every age.
2. When you sing the psalms you interact with a wealth of theology.
Martin Luther said of the Psalter, “It might well be entitled a Little Bible, wherein everything contained in the entire Bible is beautifully and briefly comprehended.” The 150 psalms cover the waterfront of theology. Psalm singing is theological study.
3. When you sing the psalms you are memorizing Scripture.
An important part of Christian maturity is the ability to recall passages of Scripture at need. Educational circles have long recognized how music aids memorization. This is no accident; it reflects the providential hand of our Creator God. He wants you to memorize his Word and has provided a mnemonic for easy memory—the Psalter as Scripture that was, and should be, set to music.
4. When you sing the psalms you guard against heresy.
Andrew Fletcher said, “Let me write a country’s songs, and I care not who writes its laws.” He was onto something. Songs drive information deep into our hearts. However, this power can be used for ill means. As long as the church has existed, songs have been used to inculcate heresy. Psalms are counter-heresy measures.
5. When you sing the psalms you sing with the full range of human emotion.
Godly anger, heart-wrenching sorrow, dark depression, effulgent joy, honest questioning, and exuberant praise are just a sampling of the emotional range covered by the psalms. Most churches sense the burden of teaching their people how to think. Very few consider their responsibility to teach their people how to feel. The psalms serve as the tutors of our affections.
6. When you sing the psalms you praise the person and work of Jesus Christ.
One of the most misinformed statements a Christian can make against psalm singing is, “I don't sing psalms because they aren't about Jesus.” When the earliest Christians wanted to sing about Jesus’ atoning death and glorious resurrection they turned to the psalms. A little stroll through the cross-references in the New Testament should be enough to convince even the staunchest critic that to sing the psalms is to sing of the person and work of Christ.
FOUR STEPS TO BEGIN SINGING PSALMS
If these benefits have piqued your interest, then these four steps should help you begin singing the psalms.
1. Find a Psalter you can sing.
Notice I didn’t simply say, “Find a Psalter.” The best Psalter is the one you actually sing. Different Psalters are suited to different musical abilities. Some set each psalm to a particular tune while others simply provide the suggested meter, allowing you to choose the tune.
Here are a few options:
- The Trinity Psalter (Crown and Covenant) provides a single suggested tune for each psalm and breaks long psalms up into suggested portions.
- The Book of Psalms for Singing or The Book of Psalms for Worship (Crown and Covenant) also suggests tunes for each psalm but provides multiple settings and smaller portions for each psalm taken from different historic Psalters.
- The psalter I use most is The Psalms of David in Metre (Trinitarian Bible Society) developed from the 1650 Scottish Psalter. It provides each psalm in the common meter. While lacking in musical sophistication, this version is immediately singable if you know a handful of common meter tunes like “Crimond” or “Amazing Grace.”
2. Know your Bible.
Devote special study to the background of the psalms. Devote some public teaching and preaching to the psalms. Purchase a Bible with cross-references and note where psalms are quoted in the New Testament.
Let me also add the suggestion that you read a good book on redemptive history, like Vaughn Roberts’ God’s Big Picture or T.D. Alexander’s From Eden to the New Jerusalem. A good foundation in the Bible’s overarching plan of redemption and how it culminates in Jesus Christ is essential to singing the psalms well.
3. To sing the psalms well you must understand how the psalms direct us to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Many psalms are directly fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus. The authors of the New Testament regularly draw on the psalms to describe what was accomplished on the cross. The beauty of the psalms is magnified as they are placed in the setting of God's redemptive work in Jesus Christ.
4. The fourth thing you and your congregation will need is the willingness to try something new.
Psalm singing can be difficult for someone who has never been exposed to it. Psalm singing can be downright alien for someone who has only known modern praise songs. But the potential benefits are immense. It is not easy work but it is good work. It is not quick work but it provides long-term, lasting joys. And the question really is, “Why wouldn’t you want to sing the psalms?”
Joe Holland is the pastor of Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church in Culpeper, Virginia.