Whether at home, in our cars, at a restaurant, or in church, we hear music. And often we sing.
Two Initial Reasons Why We Sing
Most people agree on these two reasons why God created songs and singing:
We sing for enjoyment. God invented music for pleasure. We should feel free to listen and sing for the joy for it.
We sing to praise. We sing to exalt the truth, beauty, or goodness of something or someone. Praising can be as silly as singing about a soda we love, as political as promoting a social worldview, as romantic as singing about a spouse’s beauty, or as worshipful as singing about God’s glory. Either way, we know something or someone, and we sing to praise.*
Both are the main ways most understand the purpose of singing. These are right, fitting, and good.
The Third Purpose in Singing
But there’s a third reason, usually less considered: songs teach; when we sing, we learn.
We know singing is enjoyable. We know we praise—whether a soda, a social worldview, a spouse, or a Savior—when we sing. But what about the ability of singing to teach? If you’re like me, saying it like that initially sounds strange. Songs teach? I’m taught while I sing? The answer (literally) is a resounding yes.
What’s a Worship Service?
To explain this, we’ll consider a worship service. Here’s a Bible verse—not John 3:16, but another memorable 3:16—that is a great summary of both the Christian life and what a worship service should entail:
“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” (Colossians 3:16).
We immediately notice important parts of both the Christian life and worship service: the word of Christ, teaching, singing, and thankfulness—all in Christian community (“one another”).
But if we stop there, we’re mistaken in assuming that this verse is a mere list. It's not. Rather, these different aspects are connected in a certain way. This proves insightful concerning what the verse says about “singing.”
How To Make Word Central
Technically there’s only one command in the verse: “Let the word of Christ dwell richly in you.” Simply put, be someone who is all about the message about Jesus. This is a priority, and most Christians agree here: be all about the gospel, all about the Bible.
But how do we do this? Welcome to the rest of the verse.
How do we let the word of Christ dwell in us? There’s two answers in the Colossians 3:16. First, the more obvious answer: “[by] teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” The word dwells in our personal lives as we learn more about it—and the same goes for worship services.
But there’s also a second answer to how we let the word of Christ dwell in us: “[by] singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” We sing. The word dwells in us as we sing. This immediately connects to singing’s second purpose listed above, namely, singing is a way to praise—to dwell on the Word and to respond to certain truths with singing worship.
Teach by Singing
The verse says at another thing about singing, however (each Bible verse truly is a trove of treasure!). Here’s where we learn that songs teach. The verse says we are to be all about the gospel, all about the Bible, by “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” But how do “teaching” and “singing” relate? Are they just two separate things to do or is there more to this? There's more. Even these are connected.
Looking closely at certain nuances in the original language of Colossians 3:16, Bible scholar Douglas Moo arrives at a conclusion how “teaching” and “singing” relate:
“Paul wants the community to teach and admonish each other by means of various kinds of songs, and he wants them to do this singing to God with hearts full of gratitude.” (Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, 288, emphasis added).
So—and this may surprise us—“teaching” and “singing” relate in that we teach by singing. We’re to teach one another, and we're to do it by singing. The verse, then, instructs us like this: be all about the word, by teaching one another, and do this by singing. See the connection? Be all about the word by teaching (yes, we get this); and teach by singing.
Moo later says it more straight-forward a page later:
[The verse] identifies ‘psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit’ as the way in which believers teach and admonish each other.” (289, emphasis added).
We Learn While We Sing
Now, specifically saying that singing teaches may be a new idea to us, but it’s common sense isn’t it? We don’t only enjoy singing, nor praise in singing, we also learn while we sing. And perhaps we could even argue we learn better while we sing. We know the power of song when it comes to learning. Why else would songs like the ABC’s song exist? Why else would we try to make up tunes to memorize and understand a concept? It's because we learn while we sing.
So, in the words we sing—and even in the mood of the songs we sing—we’re taught. This means singing instructs us, molds us, and reveals to us new truths (or new lies). When we sing, we don’t merely use our voices, we don’t only fill our hearts, and we don't only use our minds, we fill our minds. Some truths we praise when we sing, but some truths we learn when we sing.
A Great Joy and Responsibility
This all, then, is why we sing. Whether we’re singing in the car or singing in church worship, what we sing 1) gives us enjoyment, 2) allows us to praise what we sing about, but also 3) teaches us. While we sing, we enjoy, praise, and learn.
God created us and music in such a way for this to happen. It’s marvelous that song combined with our heart and mind work this way. It’s part of what makes singing such a privilege, such a joy.
But this also means music choice and singing is a great responsibility. The music we sing to impacts us. Music and singing teach us, and the Bible says that what we immerse our minds in will change us—it’ll either transform us to be more like Christ, or conform us in the opposite direction (Romans 12:2). So, when we choose music it’s our privilege and responsibility to be purposeful, intentional, and wise. We don’t need to listen to music we don’t like—purpose number one about enjoying music is still wonderfully true. But we can’t say that just because we aren’t condoning the lyrics that we aren’t affected. Nor can we say that as long as certain songs make us feel a certain way, the words aren’t that important. This is true for radio songs, and it’s particularly true for Christian music and worship songs. Though certain songs may make us feel a unique way in the heart, it doesn’t mean they’re helpful. Words are profoundly important. They do effect us. We are always being taught when we sing because singing teaches us.
But finally, let's be clear: the music we choose to sing to is the task of worship leaders at church and radio broadcasters, but it’s also the responsibility for each of us as Christians. Our Spotify playlists, radio choices, and Pandora stations all effect us, they teach us.
Enjoy, Exalt, Educate
So why do we sing? We enjoy singing, we exalt in praise while singing, and we’re educated by singing. Let’s choose to listen and sing with this in mind.
*Concerning singing to praise in worship, current Christians have emphasized this praise-purpose of singing to such a degree that we consider the “worship” part of our services as just the singing part. Biblically this is quite problematic. Worship and corporate singing are not coterminous: worship is much more than singing, and worship consists throughout the whole service. Nevertheless, such equating of terms does prove that we understand that we can praise when we sing.