Worship Services are Sundays at 9:00 & 11:15 am.

Bidirectional Corporate Singing

September 8, 2022 | by: Michael Sanelli | 0 comments

worship-corporate-singingNearly 10 years ago in Gaithersburg, MD, my wife and I attended a conference called WorshipGod. The Director of Sovereign Grace Music, Bob Kauflin, has hosted these conferences over the years to equip and encourage those involved in leading and serving in worship ministries. I’ve had the privilege of attending a few.

Bob is an enthusiastic musician, songwriter, and pastor. He leads songs with passion and writes songs that point to Christ. We sing several songs which he shared in composing including “Come Praise and Glorify,” “Let Your Kingdom Come,” and “Show Us Christ.”

I’ll never forget this one moment during the conference that year. Bob was sitting in the front row beside the speaker for the next session while someone else led the singing. We were just a couple rows back, if I recall. With hands raised, Bob was singing at the top of his lungs rejoicing in the salvation we all possess in Christ. He began to turn around facing the people sitting behind him as if to say Isn’t this marvelous? Isn’t Christ wonderful? You and I need this. Still singing. Still rejoicing. In that moment, Bob embodied both the vertical and horizontal aspects of the church’s corporate singing. He was singing bidirectionally: to the Lord and to the church.

“…Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart…” (Ephesians 5:18b-19)

God’s people are commanded to “be filled with the Spirit.” We are to pursue being under the influence of the Spirit rather than under the influence of a substance like alcohol. Since the command is passive we are to recognize that ultimately only God himself can accomplish it. [1] The bending of our wills to the will and work of the Spirit must be a work of God in our hearts. Paul had earlier prayed that the Father would “grant [the Ephesian Christians] to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in [their] inner being” (3:16). It is his work that we ought to pursue.

In this text, being filled with the Spirit results in four characteristics of the gathered church, as described by five participles: addressing one another, singing and making melody, giving thanks, and submitting to one another. For our purposes in this article, let’s consider the vertical and horizontal direction of corporate singing. Or, let’s answer this question: To whom do you sing?

The Vertical Direction of Corporate Singing

First, for most people in the church, the obvious recipient of our songs is the Lord. We understand that we gather in the name of Christ to offer our worship to the One who sits on the throne and to the Lamb. This is the vertical direction of our corporate singing. We sing not as a performance to garner the praise of man, but as worship offered to the living God. As those influenced by the Spirit, we are to be “singing and making melody to the Lord with [our] hearts” (5:19b). We don’t choose to sing because it makes us feel good or because the music matches our preferences in style. We choose to sing because “great is the LORD and greatly to be praised” (Psalm 145:3).

The songs that we sing ought to not only engage our voices and our lips, but also our inner being. The very center of our persons, thoughts, will, and desires ought to be engaged and directed “to the Lord.” Singing to the Lord in our worship services is fitting since we are also to be “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20). In Christ, we have much for which to be thankful.

In the parallel passage in Colossians, we find that not only are we to sing as those under the influence of the Spirit, but also as those who are richly soaking in the gospel of Christ. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16). The message about Jesus is to be so cherished in the church that we are moved to sing! The gospel is to be the fountainhead in the corporate gathering to foster a gospel culture, even in our songs, “with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God” (v.16).

So, when you come Sunday morning, come ready to sing. Prepare yourself by praying, asking the Spirit to be at work in your heart. Prepare yourself by meditating on Christ and his work for you on the cross. Consider the Lord’s greatness and his worthiness of your praise. Open your mouth in song not because you find yourself worthy this week to do so, but because you find Jesus to be worthy of your adoration and affections.

The Horizontal Direction of Corporate Singing

Second, the songs that we sing in our gatherings are on another level to be sung horizontally, sung to one another. As the Spirit is at work in us, we are to be “addressing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19). As a gathered church, we are being called to not only direct our songs as worship to the Lord, but also as communication to those standing beside us. This is what Bob vividly embodied that day at the conference. The horizontal aspect of our corporate singing is often missed in our understanding of what is to be happening during our gatherings.

It’s interesting that in this text Paul begins with the horizontal direction of our corporate singing rather than the vertical. The Spirit’s work in a believer in the gathering is to find full expression both in worship to the Lord in our hearts and in ministry to those around us. The church is called to use our spiritual gifts (1 Peter 4:10) and to bear the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) with similar bidirectional purpose. We see it more easily in how we are called to use our gifts than in our corporate singing, I think.

Horizontal: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace…” (1 Peter 4:10)

Vertical: “…in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (v. 11b)

Years ago, Ben Nissen and I were training a group of volunteer sound technicians here at GBC. We invited a professional who was a sound engineer in a much larger church from out of state. He suggested that we bring up the volume of the band loud enough so that people can have a “me and Jesus time” in worship. That is, he was suggesting you hear the band and nothing else. No voices around you and probably not even your own voice should be heard.

Immediately following our time with the trainer, we pulled the team aside and were sure to express our disagreement with these statements. The church and her worship is an “us and Jesus time.” The people around you singing on Sunday are not a distraction from your singing to the Lord. They are singing with you, they are singing to you, and you ought to be singing to them.

Most every week I have the distinct opportunity to be facing those who come to gather on Sunday morning. I imagine that I find the horizontal aspect of our singing to come a bit more naturally than for most. Not simply because I am physically directing my voice toward the congregation, but more evocatively because I can see each of your faces. I am simultaneously encouraged and admonished all at once when someone whom I know is currently battling cancer sings:

Great is Thy faithfulness
Great is Thy faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me

I am given an increase in joy and a greater appreciation for the grace of God when I see someone who has finally been rid of the deep shame of past sins sing with great vigor:

Complete atonement You have made
And by Your death have fully paid
The debt Your people owed
No wrath remains for us to face
We're sheltered by Your saving grace
And sprinkled with Your blood

Jesus, all my trust is in Your blood
Jesus, You've rescued us
Through Your great love

I am moved to tears when I witness someone who has just gone through a miscarriage sob their way through singing:

Oh the goodness, the goodness of Jesus
Satisfied. He is all that I need
May it be, come what may, that I rest all my days
In the goodness of Jesus

Likewise, when there is someone in the congregation that is struggling to sing these things, who is struggling to accept God’s faithfulness in his suffering, who is struggling to remember her forgiveness at the cross, who need reminding of what is important and primary in life, they need to hear the truth of the gospel and the word from the rest of the church in her songs. It can bring encouragement and hope where there is none. It can bring admonishment to the prideful and comfort to the mourning. The Spirit designs to use the congregation’s voices to minister.

A myriad of opportunities to serve one another and be served by one another are present every Sunday morning as we sing to one another. Do we see it? Do we take advantage of this means of grace? First of all, this means we need to know each other and know what is going on in each other’s lives. Second, we need to have eyes to see and consider what it means for these people around you to be singing these lyrics in particular. Third, we need to sing not timidly afraid that people may hear us but boldly knowing that the church needs to hear us.

Michael_edited-1So, when you come this Sunday morning, come ready to sing bidirectionally. Pray that the Spirit would be at work in you, not only that you would sing in worship to the Lord but also to minister to your brothers and sisters in Christ with your voice. Take time to think about people you have been praying for and reflect on what they need to hear today. Pray that the Lord would give you insight into what the body needs and for what you may need from the body. Be ready to listen to the voices around you and be encouraged or admonished by them. Be ready to look around the room and commission your voice to the Spirit’s work.

God has designed the Christian life not to be lived in solitude. The church is the gathering of God’s people. Your voice is required. Or as one brother has put it: “When you join a church, you join the choir. You become a steward for the spiritual vitality of the body, a stewardship you fulfill in part by opening your mouth in song.” [2]

Michael Sanelli is the Worship & Young Adult Minister at Grace Bible Church.

[1] Consider Hoehner: “It must be noted that the present imperative passive verb πληροῦσθε, “be filled,” probably indicates an iterative force, a repeated action of filling by the Spirit. The imperative mood places the responsibility on the believers. The passive voice suggests that believers cannot fill themselves. Rather, believers are to be filled by the Spirit.” [Hoehner, Harold. Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker Academic, 2002), 704.]

[2] Merker, Matt. Corporate Worship: How the Church Gathers As God’s People. (Crossway, 2021), 136.