Singing to the Lord in the congregation can be one of the most exciting and meaningful activities of the local church. No other activity equally engages the mind, will, and emotions like music. No other activity requires unity around the truth of God’s Word in the same way. It is a wonderful experience when God’s people are fully engaged and unified in worship.
What makes a biblical song? How can we choose the kind of music that encourages such unity and engagement? Unfortunately, it is not enough to simply appeal to music from the distant past. How can we evaluate our songs, both new and old, for their biblical and practical use in the congregation?
1. The Song Is God-Centered
By strict definition, biblical worship is any obedient response to the truth of God. For worship to take place, biblical truth must be accurate and clearly presented, and the congregation must respond appropriately and obediently to that truth.
The truth about Who God is and what He has done should elicit our highest praise and most joyful singing. But how can such a response be possible when the text of the song does not present clear truth about God? What good is our singing when it isn’t clear to whom and about whom we are singing?
First, our songs should be directly and objectively about God. While personal testimonies and subjective experiences can be helpful and meaningful, we must be sure we sing truths that relate to the general experience of all Christians present.
Not only should our songs be directly about God, they should also be directed to God. Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 both end with a clear command that our singing is to be “to the Lord.”
2. The Text Presents Biblical Truths
The truth presented in our songs should be clear. The congregation should understand what they are saying. Singing a text that is vague or archaic will ultimately make congregational singing a mere ritual—a vain repetition for the sake of tradition instead of a heartfelt response to truth.
The truths presented in our songs should also be complete. That is, they should allow the church to sing all of the great doctrines of the Bible throughout the course of a season or year. Theologians of the past have long considered the songs of a church to be a systematic theology for the church.
3. The Music Encourages a Response
If all that mattered in congregational worship was the presentation of truth, there would be no need for singing. However, worship requires an appropriate response. Every ritual of worship is an opportunity for the Christian to demonstrate clear affections for God and His truth.
We must consider the music we use in worship. It will either support and encourage the right response, or it will distract and discourage the congregation from singing. The key to encouraging involvement and an affectionate response in singing is to use great music.
How do we define “great music” without being too subjective? Much could be said about beauty and aesthetics, but here are some practical ideas.
First, be sure the melody is discernable and singable in its range, contour, and tempo. There are songs with great lyrics but that utilize a melody that is simply unfit for congregational singing.
Second, let the music support but not overpower the congregation’s singing. Don’t turn up the volume to the point you can’t hear whether or not the congregation is singing.
Third, when using familiar songs, use alternation methods to keep the congregation engaged. Alternate between congregation and choir. The options are endless.
4. The Song Includes the Entire Congregation
The most important musical group in the church is the congregation. Talk about passionate singing from the pulpit. Give them great songs to sing. Facilitate opportunities for musical development. Structure your service in such a way that emphasizes their singing more than that of the platformed musicians.
Be mindful also to choose songs that are accessible to your congregation as well. Is the song in a singable range and style? Is the congregation familiar enough with the song to sing it as a congregation?