One Voice

In any local church, the people collectively have one voice that can be expressed through praise and worship. Part of our skill as worship leaders is to recognize the sound of this voice and ensure that it can be spoken. The apostle Paul addresses this by exhorting the church to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

The Shelving of the Hymn Book

Some years back, we witnessed the praise and worship movement in the church. We discovered that we can enter into His presence with praise, and into the holy of holies to worship Him. Some people got excited because they could express their praise corporately and experience the presence of God.

Churches that embraced this teaching tended to adopt the newer songs at the time – commonly called “choruses”. Some were shelving the “classic hymns” such as “Amazing Grace” and “The Solid Rock” (or at least not singing them as much). Some people objected to this and said that “we should maintain a balance”. Their argument was “The Bible tells us to sing hymns so we can’t exclude them altogether.”

This raises a good question: If the “classic hymns” are “hymns” scripturally, then what are the “choruses”? Are they psalms? Or spiritual songs? And what are the newer songs such as those written by Hillsongs or Chris Tomlin?

A Good Reason to Sing

We know that the apostle Paul instructs us to sing hymns in Ephesians 5:18-19:

And do not be drunk with wine, in which is excess, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.

So why do we do this? Psalm 100 commands us to “come before [Jehovah’s] presence with singing” and to “Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise” (Psalm 100:2, 4). In 2 Chronicles 5:12-14 we see the priests and Levitical singers doing that and how the glory cloud filled that place. Hebrews 10:19 tells the church to likewise “enter into the Holy of Holies by the blood of Jesus.” 1 Peter 2:9 declares that we, the Church, are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood … so that you might speak of the praises of Him...”

Every believer in the local church is part of the royal priesthood. The worship leader/team’s role is to facilitate them to enter into God’s presence with praise and song. However the congregation’s musical/singing ability will range from “Don’t quit your day-job” to “Have you recorded a CD?” How can those at different musical levels sing with one voice?

Hymns for Today

In the Strong’s Concordance Dictionary, he distinguishes a hymn as a “religious metrical composition” (Strong’s Dictionary G5214 and G5603). This suggests that the hymn has a defined structure which makes it easier for everyone to sing. The New Testament describes two occurrences of hymn singing: Mark 14:26 says Jesus and His disciples “had sung a hymn” after the last supper. Also Acts 16:25 tells us “Paul and Silas prayed and praised God in a hymn.” Both examples describe people singing unto God in the same manner that a congregation would do.

When you mention “hymn”, one may imagine a hardcover book that contains songs from antiquity and that is sitting on the shelf gathering dust. While many of the “classic hymns” are hymns also, scripturally a hymn is any song of praise that is metered/structured and sing-able. For example, popular songs like “Shout to the Lord,” “Days of Elijah” and “Ancient of Days” are hymns. The older “choruses” can be considered hymns also.

A good hymn has the inspiration, melody and structure such that believers are able to sing it together, praise God and to enter in to His presence with one voice.

Psalms

So what is a psalm then? Strong’s distinguishes a psalm as “a Hebrew catillation” which means “chanting or reciting with musical tones” (Strong’s Dictionary, G5568 and G5603; Oxford Dictionary). This suggests a freer musical structure than a hymn would have. This would also include “ministering” songs – that is songs sung by a skilled singer or singers that minister to those listening.

We see this in 1 Corinthians 14:26 where Paul says “Then how is it, brothers? When you come together, each one of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue…” In this context of Paul’s teaching, only certain people will have a psalm will others will have other ministering gifts such as tongues and interpretation, prophecy, healing, etc – all of these things being done to edify, or minister to, the local church (1 Corinthians 12:29-30).

Many headings in the Book of Psalms indicate the need for skilled musicians to sing them. You often see headings like “To the Chief Musician, for eight-stringed instruments.” Other translations say “To the choir director” (Psalm 6, NASB). A psalm might be sung entirely by a skilled singer or it might be responsive. In Psalm 136, the leader/choir sings different lines and the congregation responds with “For His mercy endures forever.” A psalm may also be sung by an individual as they minister to themselves (Psalm 42:5).

Some Psalms address different issues that people experience. For example the psalmist David is in distress and complains to the Lord but in the end he exhorts himself to praise God. Other psalms declare the character and works of God and exhort us to praise and worship Him. A skilful singer can minister such words in anointed songs. After hearing these, the congregation will be inspired to sing and praise God. This is when the worship leader can lead them with singable songs (hymns).

Typically in church meetings, the ministering songs are sung by a soloist or group after the praise and worship. Perhaps we also need to have psalms sung before the corporate praise to help stir up the people and get the praise off the ground. This may be the reason Paul says it in this order: “psalms, hymns” then “spiritual songs.”

Spiritual Songs

Strong’s defines the word “song” as a chant or an ode – a general word for any type of song sung (Strong’s G5603). The word “spiritual” has a root meaning “a current of air, that is, breath” (Strong’s G4152 & G4151). As people enter in, the Holy Spirit will inspire (or give breath to) new songs. They may be spontaneous praises by the congregation as people make melody in their hearts (Ephesians 5:19). They may also be ministering songs of prophesy or tongues and interpretation. Or they may also be new, spontaneous hymns. All of these things flow easily when the congregation enters in with one voice.

Song Check

Part of my skill as a worship leader is to observe and know whether the songs I am offering are suitable for congregational singing. When I ask people to stand and sing praise with me, are they are able to sing what I’m singing? Am I hearing one voice sing and enter in freely or are the people labouring to follow a challenging melody? If I’m not sure, I can also ask others. (Mind you I haven’t always done this. On several occasions, my pastor took the initiative and pulled out the rod to straighten me out.)

Even if I sing simple congregational songs, how do I deliver them? Am I singing them in an appropriate key and in a manner that people can follow? A good vocalist can sing a simple song and embellish the melody beautifully or harmonize it in a higher register. But if he/she is leading, this can throw the congregation off because they are trying to follow the leader. I have a friend who is gifted with a wonderful voice and knows how to minister. When he leads praise and worship, he tends to sing in a straight-forward manner as if he’s saying, “Imitate me as I praise the Lord.” But when he lets loose, everyone will stop singing and listen because now it’s as if he is saying “Listen, I’m going to tell you something.” Plus at that point, you could hardly follow him even if you tried. There’s a place for both types of songs – it’s a matter of having the right timing and presentation of each.

Corporate praise can be hindered also because not everyone understands it. Perhaps people need to be taught about why we come together to worship and how we must rejoice throughout the week. Even leaders in the church sometimes loose sight of the purpose of entering in to God’s presence. It’s necessary to have agreement about this among the leadership.

All Inclusive

The people of the church, the royal priesthood, have a voice that we can facilitate to be sung. There’s a time for ministering in song and a time for all to sing praise with one voice. As we understand and flow in this, we will continue to see the glory of God manifest in greater measure.

Chris Mowle