Why, what and how we sing matters

By Mark Clifton

One of the primary and foundational steps in replanting a dying church is to get the hearts of the remaining members to warm once again to the gospel. As we often say rather than seeing the remaining members as an obstacle to your ministry, know that the remaining members are your first ministry in replanting. Why must you seek to warm their hearts once again to the gospel and have them fall deeply in love with Jesus? Often, older remaining members have been deceived by Satan to trade a deep and abiding love for Jesus for a dependence on tradition, predictability, control, familiarity, a cherished church building and a nostalgia for better days in the past. They don’t realize they have made such a transaction, but they have. We know they have because they have no joy. They try to cling to those things’ they protect them; they fight over changing them. This is evidence that they are clinging to a false idol. An idol, by definition, is something you run to for comfort and security and meaning. A false idol is easily identified by fear, the fear of losing it. An important first task for a replanter is to gently and persistently guide these older members to lay down their false idols and embrace Jesus alone as their ultimate source of comfort, meaning, purpose and joy.

The way in which you encourage these older members to embrace Jesus once again is to focus on the way we engage them in worship. The scripture is quite clear on the elements that are required in gathered worship. Gathered worship in New Testament includes at least five components. These are prayer (1 Timothy 2:1–28); celebrating the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 28:19); The public reading and the preaching Scripture (1 Timothy 4:14); and scripture also instructs the church to sing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual song (Ephesians 5:18–19Colossians 3:16).

Preach Christ-centered gospel soaked sermons. Don’t pogo stick through the scripture. Preach expository sermons that elevate Christ throughout Scripture. Take seriously the role of public prayer in the corporate worship service. Take time to unpack the beauty of the church ordinances baptism and Lord’s supper, these are not simply routine activities. This brings us to singing. Clearly the New Testament indicates that gathered worship includes singing. With our goal of warming their hearts once again to the gospel, having them fall deeply in love with Jesus and relinquishing their grip on the false idols all around them, it matters greatly what we say in gathered worship.

There are four priorities for singing in gathered worship as we seek to warm people’s hearts to the gospel.

1. Gospel-drenched lyrics

that immerse us in the beauty of Christ, make us fully aware of our sin and bring us joy for our redemption. To be clear, If a Hindu or universalist could sing the lyrics we should consider whether it is an appropriate song for gathered worship. Likewise if it’s not a song that could be song in heaven, I’m not sure we should be singing it in corporate worship either. It is true people often remember the lyrics of a song before the remember a portion of a sermon. If we select four or five songs to sing each week for gathered worship, we must be intentional about selecting songs that plant the gospel deeply in the hearts of those who are singing.

2. Singability

The songs we select for gathered worship must be easy to sing if we are to get the congregation’s hearts to warm to the gospel. The most glorious instrument and worship is the human voice. The songs we select should be songs that the congregants in our particular church are able to sing and sing with confidence. It may be a beautiful song and in some churches it might be sung well but in a struggling replant situation with a handful of older members it may not be appropriate. It simply may not be that this congregation can sing a particular song well. We must be very careful to select songs that are easy to sing. One mistake to guard against is simply importing a great praise band and perhaps some singers to go along with it and believing that will automatically go well; it may not. It might be a good performance. It might fit your preferences and the community contextually, but it doesn’t mean the congregants will be singing with all their heart along with you. In fact, they may feel inferior to the music on stage and not confident to sing passionately. Gathered worship is not a performance; gathered worship is about leading those in worship singing praise to God. There’s no scriptural mandate for a performance of music; there is a scriptural mandate for the singing in gathered worship.

In a replant situation, more is often less when it comes to music. Simplicity is often a blessing. Focus on making it simple and easy for people to sing. If you’re concerned about what visitors or the unconverted might think of the music service, know that they will be far more struck by people singing with passion in the congregation then by a good performance of a band. People see great performances of live music all around them. What people often don’t see is a gathering of ordinary folks singing with a passion, joy and commitment to Christ. The Holy Spirit can use singing to convict the hearts of the unconverted. In the initial stages of a replant, I try to refrain from any special music of any kind. The church may be used to special music, people singing solos or groups singing duets, etc. Unfortunately, most of these expressions have more to do with performance then with getting the congregation to sing. There may be a place for such special music. But my experience has been in trying to get to church to focus on singing corporately it’s important to have them realize that is the reason we gather to sing. Not to hear other people singing to us.

3. A willingness to be led

The congregation needs to be gently led to understand that one of the benefits of gathered worship is that they get to be led and not to lead. Gathered worship requires a subordination of our own agenda to that of a greater agenda of the entire congregation. To put it another way, as important as private worship is, it tends to focus on ourselves, and understandably so. In our private worship, we focus a great deal of time on our needs and what’s going on in our life and how we are communicating to God about those needs and about our life. Corporate worship is the place where the focus shifts from us as individuals, to making much of our Savior, our God, our Creator as we join our voices with others.

In private worship, the individual can do the leading. The individual can pick the songs and scripture. But in gathered worship, the individual is led in worship. Pastors/elders/leaders select the songs, the scripture and lead the prayer. It is the role of the worshiper to follow and join in worship that’s being led by others. This has a positive effect of helping us remove ourselves from the equation. We don’t come together to worship so that we can sing songs we like. We come together in worship so that we may make much of God and the gospel together with others. It is not about us. When we make much of the gospel, and we make much of God, we do benefit tremendously. Helping people enjoy being led by others is one of the great challenges of replanting. Helping them understand that relinquishing control and simply following the leadership of pastors/elders/leaders in worship allows them to move beyond their own preferences to see the glory and the beauty of Christ.

4. Variety and selection

The catalog of potential songs to sing on Sunday morning seems endless. New songs are created each week. Just because the song is ancient doesn’t make it great And just because it was written last week doesn’t make it bad. Do the lyrics remind us of the gospel? Are they easy to sing? Will they find a place in our heart to be treasured and remembered? As we seek to get hearts to warm back to the gospel, one of the best ways we could do that is to gently lead them to embrace new songs and arrangements along with the old and familiar. A congregation then learns what it means to sing corporately for God’s glory and for their joy. And that may include laying down some of their preferences for the greater joy of God’s glory.

Published September 21, 2017

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Mark Clifton

Mark Clifton is the senior director of replanting at the North American Mission Board. Mark has served as a pastor, church planter, church revitalizer, mission strategist, coach and mentor to young leaders. He has planted and replanted numerous churches and has also served as a national and regional leader for church planting and missions. His experience includes serving as the lead mission strategist for the Kansas/Nebraska Southern Baptist Convention, leading church planting efforts in the regions of north metro Atlanta, Georgia, serving as a church planter in Montreal, Quebec, as a Southern Baptist National Church Planting Missionary for eastern Canada, and has lead Southern Baptist church planting projects west of the Mississippi. Mark has been planting, replanting and providing strategic mission leadership since 1978. Mark and his wife, Jill, live in Kansas City, Missouri and have two sons, two daughters-in-law and three grandsons.