Music has always played a central role in the church's devotional life. In fact, musical worship is commanded in the New Testament. According to Ephesians 5:19, believers are to speak "to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit." This same verse also tells us to sing and make music in your heart "to the Lord." Worship, when expressed in musical form, moves in two directions. On the one hand, the music of worship is a mode of prayer. When we sing, we are speaking to God. We see this worshipful conversation with God in the book of Psalms. The Psalms are prayers which express the author's deepest thoughts and emotions. In the midst of these prayers, the Psalmist sometimes talks to himself (Ps. 42:5, 11; 43:5).
On the other hand, when the church sings together, worship is a kind of congregational self-talk. We are speaking to ourselves about God, giving testimony to our common experience. But the church’s musical conversation with itself is more than a pep talk. Singing is a mode of instruction. Colossians 3:16 echoes Ephesians 5:19 when it tells the church: “Let 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.” When we worship with psalms, hymns, and songs, we are singing to God, but we are also instructing ourselves with truth that speaks to both our minds and our hearts.
Musician and theologian Jeremy Begbie observes that the church’s hymns and songs do more than merely stir emotion. They have the power to shape them: “They not only help us sing what we already experience emotionally; to some extent they also educate and reform our emotional experience.” Musical worship helps us integrate what we know and believe with how we feel. Psalms, hymns, and songs equip the church with an emotionally powerful vocabulary which communicates the rich content of our faith and the nature of our experience in Christ.
So worship is about God, but it is also about us. When we sing, we focus our attention upon God, but as we worship, we also admonish one another. God alone deserves our worship, but we receive the benefit!
To learn more about music and worship, read Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music by Jeremy Begbie (Baker).