GregCooperChurches in Australia go to incredible lengths to sing together. Typically, churches do not have the resources to do music as they’d like. What’s more, views differ on the place of music in church life. Yet Sunday after Sunday, the church sings.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve had the privilege of visiting churches throughout Australia to help in music ministry training. Almost all have been struggling to motivate their congregations to sing heartily, and to develop bands that lead the congregation well. Some church music teams are thriving – praise God! Yet mostly, churches are just getting by. I know of churches where faithful music teams are few in number and exhausted. I know of churches with no musicians – they sing along to YouTube videos in their services instead. I have served on staff as Music Pastor at three evangelical churches (2 in Sydney, 1 in Melbourne), each holding slightly different views on the place of singing and seeking to lovingly engage with congregational expectations of singing’s purpose and song choices. Perhaps these are familiar scenarios. Music ministry is complex.

And yet I’ve not encountered a single church that has excluded singing from its gatherings. Singing on Sundays – some way, somehow – seems to be a non-negotiable. There is a deep sense of singing’s inherent value in helping us to hear from God, express our hearts to God, and be unified as God’s people. Church leaders recognise the significance of singing in Scripture, and want to help God’s people sing.

The Bible appears to treat singing as something of an assumed language among God’s people. Singing is not discussed at length, but instead emerges as a natural response to the work of God and the realities of life.

Do we treasure this language and its rich potential for impacting our spiritual formation? My sense is that despite valuing singing, we have perhaps not embraced the full value of the gift of song. In this article, I’d love share some thoughts, firstly, on the importance of communicating about why we sing; secondly, on how singing might be significant in God’s transformation of his children into Christlikeness; and throughout, on how we might then practically shape our approach to singing. I hope to encourage you to embrace and enjoy the language of congregational singing – for its potential formative power is immense.  

  1. Communicating often about why we sing

“Let’s stand and sing!”

As we declare these familiar words on Sundays, we, as leaders, probably have a few reasons for wanting our congregation to singing together. But I wonder if those reasons are regularly shared so that congregations know why to cherish the gift of song?

Singing together is now truly counter-cultural, except at sports events and stadium concerts. It’s no wonder that we often find it difficult to sing at church. In singing for an average of 20 minutes on Sunday (4 songs), we ask the congregation to partake in a profoundly physical act requiring effort and focus. Like when declaring a creed, we ask the church to own song lyrics, as they read, weigh, and sing them, all within a split second. And as with a creed, we want congregations to not only believe the words, but to treasure them – in this moment, and for life. We can help our churches in this by frequently communicating biblical reasons for singing. This communication is often assumed or overlooked. But how powerful for the Christian to be reminded of singing’s value, and for the guest to feel welcome through understanding its purpose.

So, we might recall Exodus 15, where the immediate response of Moses and the Israelites to God’s saving act is to sing. We might think of the early church’s songbook – the Psalms – and its commands to “sing joyfully” (Ps 33:1) and with “grateful praise” (Ps 147:7). We might look forward to the new creation, where all of creation will celebrate Jesus’ lordship in song (Revelation 5). And we will likely heed Paul’s encouragement to the Colossians to “[l]et the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Colossians 3:16 NIV) – an exhortation echoed in Ephesians 5:19.

These are just a handful of the Bible’s 400 references to singing, and 50 direct commands to sing![i] So, at one level, we sing in obedience to God. But we are also imaging God. For remarkably, God himself sings! He promises to rejoice with singing as he gathers his people (Zephaniah 3:17). And in a beautiful scene, the Lord Jesus sings a hymn with his disciples after the Last Supper (Matthew 26:30).

While leaders’ words about singing matter, so too do our actions. When congregations witness their pastor singing heartily, and thanking the musicians for serving, they are reminded that singing is a valuable part of our life together. Service leaders and song leaders may also introduce songs, anchoring them in Scripture and explaining how they help in applying the sermon to our lives. But leaving all mention of singing’s value to song leaders communicates its secondary importance, and misses an opportunity to demonstrate the biblical and pastoral significance of singing in our gathering.  So, we might consider an annual sermon on the value of singing. Indeed, sharing with the church about how songs are chosen is vital, for these are the words – like creeds – that we are asking them to own. And equipping church members with these songs for the peaks and troughs of their week (maybe through a Spotify playlist of the church song list) is an investment into a rich culture of singing. Not everyone will like singing, but through communicating its biblical importance, we build a culture that honours God’s desire for his people to sing.

  1. The formative language of song

As we live out the biblical call to sing, what is singing doing to us? What might it contribute to our transformation into the people God wants us to be? The impact of congregational singing is, I believe, much like an iceberg: a fraction is apparent above the surface, but far more resides below. We might look to congregation members’ faces or physical engagement with sung worship. But we cannot see the heart, and how God, by his Spirit, might be shaping believers Sunday by Sunday, lyric by lyric.

Often, we detect something’s value through its absence. We can look back to the pandemic’s singing restrictions to remember how it feels when we can’t sing together. Serving at St Jude’s Anglican in Carlton during that time, I had countless conversations with congregation members who missed singing dearly. “Something important happens when we sing together,” they said. And when we were finally permitted to sing together again, the singing was passionate, and importantly, determined. The underlying message: we need to sing because it’s good for us. That was a beautiful moment in church life. Yet I fear we’ve now reverted to pre-pandemic ways, perhaps taking the gift of song for granted.

Why is singing good for us? Like many ways of God, singing’s shaping of us is mysterious. But we can find some clues in Scripture. The verse I return to often is Colossians 3:16, mentioned above. Two key dynamics are work at here. First, God speaking to us, and us to him – the vertical. And perhaps less commonly addressed, we are speaking to each other – the horizontal. I’ll consider some aspects of these dynamics below.

A vertical language of word and Spirit

The lyrics we sing are to be word-centred, communicating the gospel. Through song, the “message of Christ” (NIV) or “word of Christ” (ESV) is to “dwell in [us] richly” (Col 3:16). With God’s word as the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17b), we should therefore expect the Spirit to work in us as we sing. While the Spirit may work however he pleases, we are assured of his work through the word. What’s more, Paul writes that as we “contemplate” (NIV) or “behold” (ESV) the Lord’s glory, we are, by the Spirit, being “transformed into [Christ’s] likeness with ever increasing glory” (2 Cor 3:18 NIV). This is extraordinary. As we read, pray, preach, and sing God’s word, we are becoming more like Christ! Our beholding of Christ in song is not just a good thing to do – it is opening ourselves up to the Spirit’s transformative work. A Sunday service is anything but routine!

A vertical language for renewing mind and heart

We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2), but also the renewing of our hearts. Indeed, Jesus’ command to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matt 22:37) indicates that our whole being needs renewing and re-directing towards God. A Prayer Book for Australia, from which many of our worship practices emanate, incorporates the rich Book of Common Prayer liturgy seeking whole-person renewal, encouraging not merely knowledge of God, but a love of him. In the Lord’s Supper service, then, we acknowledge that our “hearts are open” to God, asking him to cleanse our heart’s thoughts (APBA, 168). Before Communion, we lift our hearts to the Lord, rightly orienting ourselves before him (APBA, 176).

How might singing help in renewing heart and mind? In Christ-Centred Worship, Bryan Chappell suggests that the Protestant tradition has been in danger of equating “right worship” with “right thought”.[ii] But worship is far bigger than that. As James K.A. Smith writes, Christian worship is “counterformative” as we unlearn worldly liturgies – not merely learning new information, but also new and right loves.[iii] God draws us into an “embodied liturgy” that “inscribes” the gospel on our hearts, “bending the needle of our loves towards Christ, our magnetic north.”[iv] Put another way, Tim Keller, in his book Preaching, suggests that change in the Christian life happens “not just by giving the mind new arguments, but also by feeding the imagination new beauties”.[v] Is there a greater beauty to feed the imagination than Jesus?

Song is a powerful artform for conveying this beauty. The synergy of artful melody and carefully-crafted poetry allows for expression and reflection in distinct ways. As Smith writes, “song seems to have a privileged channel to our imagination, to our kardia [heart]” – for “song seems to get implanted in us as a mode of bodily memory”. As he continues, “[a] song gets absorbed into our imagination in a way that mere texts rarely do.”[vi] Given the songs I can remember from childhood, with particular memories attached to them, I think he’s right. And given the church songs I often recall on a Wednesday at the doctor’s waiting room, or when I’m walking by the Yarra at dusk, I again think he’s right. This is not to diminish the significance of the sermon, but rather, to esteem singing as a unique mode of word ministry.

By ensuring our songs are richly biblical, covering a range of scriptural themes, we provide our church with deposits of gospel truth for the imagination. As N.T. Wright states, “[y]ou need imagination to live in God’s world … a world achingly beautiful and awesomely ugly.” We need to imagine the world that awaits us, filled with the glory of God – and the Bible helps us “to celebrate the role of the imagination as part of our redeemed, renewed, image-bearing humanness.[vii]

The very act of singing is a formative repetitive practice that trains us to think and love Christianly. It fits neatly within Smith’s conceptualising of worship as “the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts.”[viii] How many times have we sung ‘Be Thou My Vision’, for example? Hundreds. Each time, there is an opportunity to let the lyrics refine us, like sandpaper against the soul. As we sing this prayer to God, we can allow each line to challenge us:

“Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart” – but is he the ‘Lord of my heart’, or do I love something else more? Help me, Lord.

 “Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise” – but I do seek after riches and human praise. Lord, I repent and ask for your help to change.

Slowing down to let the lyrics work on us is essential for song’s formative potential to be harnessed. 

A vertical and horizontal language for emotion

As we enter church each week, Bob Kauflin suggests that “everybody’s struggling with one of three things: sin, suffering, self-sufficiency.”[ix] I admit to struggling with all three – and the emotions that accompany them. Song is a powerful vehicle for engaging our emotions, applying God’s word to them, and, where necessary, seeking their transformation.

The Psalms stretch the full range of human emotions, from uncontainable praise to despondent lament – and are brutally honest in doing so. In these songs, emotions are not repressed, but carry meaning in the psalmist’s experience of God. Praise is significant in the Psalms, and our songs are generally good at reflecting this. But what about lament? Laments comprise approximately 40 percent of the Psalms.[x] So, Lindsay Wilson writes, corporate lament is thoroughly biblical as a “legitimate stage” in seeking to trust God amidst troubles.[xi] As Robert S. Smith argues, song was significant for Israel, granting perspective on present troubles and offering future hope.[xii] Sung lament in the Psalms did not remove the cause of distress, but “renewed [the psalmist’s] trust in the Lord in the midst of continuing trial”.[xiii] Each Sunday, carefully selected songs of lament can help us grieve sin and suffering, resting in the love of God – a form of corporate pastoral care.

As we seek to know God more, song can be a companion to us, ministering to our emotions. Zac Hicks writes that emotions and intellect “complement and complete one another” for “[o]ur emotions help us know and experience truth more fully and deeply.”[xiv] For Hicks, song’s capacity to “describe, mimic, and as a result engender feelings makes it uniquely suited as a vehicle to traverse the terrain toward emotional maturity”.[xv] This maturity – “the right ordering of the emotions… rightly expressed in light of the truth”[xvi] – is key in pursuing maturity in Christ together as the church (Eph 4:13). What a blessing that the simple act of singing together can help us on this journey.

A horizontal language for becoming the people of God

Returning to Colossians 3:16, we are instructed to “teach and admonish one another” as we sing. Really? Teaching is not just to occur through sermons and Bible studies, but also through song. Admonishing (correcting or warning) is also happening as we sing. This is hard to remember in our physical church configurations, where we typically face the front and sing to the back of someone’s head! But I once had the privilege of playing in the band at a conference that was in the round. The band was in the middle, with seats in concentric circles around us. When the singing began, the band became wonderfully invisible as God’s people looked one another in the eye, expressing praise and lament to God, but also to each other. What a wonderful picture of the image on view in Colossians.

Singing with and to one another helps us to transform each other. And it helps us to become who we are – “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Peter 2:9 NIV) pursuing unity (Eph 4:13). As we learn to inhabit our new identity as God’s people, we need new words – words that rise above our own, words that are ours. This is a key reason why song selection is not to be based on personal preferences, and why a good number of our songs should be in the first person plural (‘we’, ‘our’). As Jeffrey P. Greenman puts it, “right worship reminds us of our true identity as God’s people…we belong to one another.”[xvii] As we look left and right to one another, we continue to look up to God. Our gatherings, Rhys Bezzant observes, ultimately “celebrate our union with God” – church is about “us with God”.[xviii] Song helps us enjoy these vertical and horizontal dynamics in one.

So, we keep singing

Our need for the gospel is never-ending. In Australia, we are gifted with many ways to immerse ourselves in God’s word: faithful preaching, freedom to meet at mid-week Bible studies – and singing together. When singing each Sunday, we may not realise just how much good we are doing – for our own spiritual health, but also the health of the church as we learn to embrace our new identity as God’s people. Singing together gives the church a language that is both biblical and unique in its contribution to forming us as disciples of Christ and as his body. May we keep singing until the endless song of the new creation begins.

Greg Cooper is a musician, songwriter, and music ministry trainer. He loves serving on the music team at City on a Hill (Melbourne), and is currently completing study at Ridley College.  gregcoopermusic.com




[i] Bob Kauflin, ‘What Happens When We Sing?’, https://churchleaders.com/worship/worship-articles/138985-words-of-wonder-what-happens-when-we-sing.html

[ii] Bryan Chappell, Christ-Centred Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 67.

[iii] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016),78.

[iv] Smith, You Are What You Love, 84.

[v] Tim Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in a Sceptical Age (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015), 160.

[vi] James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 71.

[vii] N.T. Wright, The Bible and Christian Imagination, https://spu.edu/depts/uc/response/summer2k5/features/imagination.asp

[viii] James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016), 77.

[ix] Bob Kauflin, ‘Singing in a Pandemic’, ‘Sound Doctrine’ podcast transcript, https://sovereigngracemusic.org/training/resources/singing-in-a-pandemic/

[x] Lindsay Wilson, ‘Lament as a Prayer of Faith’ in A Time for Sorrow: Recovering the Practice of Lament in the Life of The Church, ed. Scott Harrower and Sean M. McDonough (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2019), 7.

[xi] Wilson, ‘Lament as a Prayer of Faith’, 21.

[xii] Robert S. Smith, ‘Singing Lament’ in Finding Lost Words: The Church’s Right to Lament, ed. G. Geoffrey Harper and Kit Barker (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 210.

[xiii] Smith, ‘Singing Lament’, 212.

[xiv] Hicks, The Worship Pastor, 145.

[xv] Hicks, The Worship Pastor, 149.

[xvi] Hicks, The Worship Pastor, 146.

[xvii] Jeffrey P. Greenman, The Pedagogy of Praise: How Congregational Worship Shapes Christian Character (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2016), 24.

[xviii] Rhys Bezzant, ‘Theology and the Future of Worship: Outlining Two Ways to Worship’, CASE 28 (2011), 30; emphasis in original.