Words aren’t always adequate for expressing deep religious emotion. Sometimes a melody is required. Our favorite songs are often those that give voice to feelings we could not otherwise express. Singing along allows us to speak what is deep within.
Listening to music can also invite us to feel a certain way. Movies use music to evoke emotion which we would not otherwise feel. Commercials use music to manipulate us into feelings which the sponsors hope will influence our buying habits. Listening invites a response; singing is participation in the expression.
Scripture speaks of singing as a way of expressing emotion, and the Psalms give examples of songs expressing a wide range of emotions: joyful praise for rescue and rejoicing in the Lord; deep sorrow at one’s own sin or the sin of the community; fear of formidable foes and anger at injustice; even anger at God and disappointment at his response to prayer. Although there are Psalms which invite participation in worship, there don’t seem to be Biblical examples of music being used to make people feel any particular way. In Scripture music is used to express emotion, not to manipulate it. Sometimes worship leaders forget this; they may work hard to create an atmosphere—usually one of excitement, joy, and exuberance; and they may succeed in making those who don’t respond as prescribed feel isolated or even guilty. This is hardly what Scripture envisions for the assembly of the saints.
Singing can be an individual activity for one’s own benefit, a performance for others to experience, or a group activity to be enjoyed together. Christian music can be any of these: a favorite song hummed for comfort in times of difficulty or sung in joy even when alone; a performance enjoyed on the radio or at a concert; group singing as part of any church activity. In the assembly of the church however, singing should always be a group activity for the benefit of one another and of God; it should never be a performance by a few for the rest of those assembled to observe and enjoy (or critique).
Expressing religious emotion is one important reason for church music. But when worshipers listen rather than sing, they only witness rather than participate in this expression. Congregational singing is a spiritual activity that engages each worshiper physically, mentally and emotionally. The musical ability of the singers matters little. When singing together, we not only express shared emotion, but we also share and express our spiritual connection with one another. This is church music in Scripture, and still practiced in some churches.
“Our tongues are the strings of our kithara, putting forth a different sound yet a godly harmony. For indeed women and men, young and old, have different voices, but they do not differ in the words of hymnody, for the Spirit blends the voice of each and effects one melody in all…” –John Chrysostom Homily on Psalms 145.2,3 on Psalm 146:2-3