Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto God (Colossians 3:16).
Singing provides a powerful and wonderful way to build up and strengthen one another in the assembly. Communicating the Gospel through song can convict the heart in ways no preaching or teaching might perhaps reach; songs are often more easily remembered and sink deeply into our hearts and souls for the rest of our lives. Little wonder, then, that Paul and Silas were singing hymns to God in the midst of their distress and gained an audience (Acts 16:25)!
In both the old and new covenants, people praise God as individuals through singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, as seen in the Psalms as well as in James 5:13. Paul speaks of Christians singing while gathered together in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. In both passages he focuses on the function and purpose of the singing–speaking, teaching, and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs–and in so doing singing with grace and making melody in the heart to God. While the Greek terms behind “psalms, hymns, and songs” (psalmos, humnos, and ode) are all found in the headings of the various Psalms in the Old Testament, we have no evidence upon which to make firm distinctions among the three or to limit our singing to only the Psalms (for the latter, cf. Revelation 15:3-4).
Singing, therefore, represents the one opportunity in the assembly in which all gathered Christians bring their actual voices together to praise God for who He is and all He has done while exhorting each other toward greater faithfulness to Him, reminding each other of what God has done, and comforting each other with the hope of the fulfillment of the promises God has made regarding the future. These are all found in the messages of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” either through the singing of passages of Scripture set to a tune or through songs written by later believers to encourage faith in God.
The substance of what is sung is therefore of the greatest importance; the performance should not get in the way of the message, distracting either by sounding overly poor or by sounding overly great. In the New Testament, congregational singing was not accompanied by mechanical instruments: mechanical instruments run against God’s intentions for singing since they place emphasis on the performance to the distraction and hurt of the message. Furthermore, congregational singing in the New Testament involves all members singing to one another: choirs and praise teams also run against God’s intentions for singing, since they involve only a few singing before the whole or again place greater emphasis on performance rather than the substance of what is sung.
Many congregations feature a song leader to lead the congregational singing during the assembly, a man who chooses the songs to be sung and provides direction through maintaining the melody, pitch, and tempo of each song. Song leaders are not strictly necessary but often beneficial. Song leaders should give thought to the substance of the songs to be sung, making sure that their messages are consistent with the faith revealed in the New Testament and giving consideration as to whether they will edify and encourage (1 Corinthians 14:26).
Congregational singing demonstrates how the assembly is not a spectator event but involves the joint participation of all of its members. The sound of many voices singing together in song powerfully demonstrates our joint participation in Christ: each individual voice is crucial yet ultimately blends with the whole. Singing together in the assembly provides Christians with a wonderful foretaste of eternity, joining their voices together to praise God and encourage each other toward faithfulness in Him, looking forward to the day when all of God’s people will praise God with one voice before His throne (cf. Revelation 4:1-5:14, 7:9-17)!