A few years back, in 2014, I remember hearing a story about a fellowship of people in California, that describes itself as a “god-free community that meets monthly...to celebrate life.” During the gatherings, the community listens to lectures, plays games, and sings songs. Although they would shy away from being described in religious terms, some have appropriately tagged it as “atheist church.” Furthermore, I found out that this was just an offshoot (church-plant) of a larger group (denomination) founded by two comedians near London who wanted to do something like church, even though they were atheists. Called “Sunday Assembly,” the group now has over 70 chapters (congregations).
When I first heard about Sunday Assembly, it did not surprise me that there was a community of do-gooders meeting together who want nothing to do with god-based religion. What was strange to me is that they always sang songs together as part of their service, but I guess this should not have been surprising either. People love to sing together. Whether it is belting out a good song on the radio with your friends, singing along at your favorite concert, or getting together with a bunch of people on a Sunday morning, the joy of song seems to be woven into the fabric of humanity, spanning cultures and generations.
Of course, God is the one who invented songs and the human voice, he is the one who made music enjoyable, and singing is not something that we should shy away from. Quite the opposite, in fact, Scripture commands singing as part of regular worship: “Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name” (Psalm 30:4). “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16).
Still, as with so many other things that God has created, there can be a tendency to use songs for purposes other than glorifying God. In the book of Exodus, this is poignantly displayed. After God brings his people through the Red Sea, Moses and the people sing a song to the Lord about his great deliverance (Exodus 15:1-21). Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the people were worshiping an idol, and it was their loud singing and dancing that gave them away as having broken God’s law. This caused Moses to smash the tablets of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 32:15-19). The prophet Amos talks a lot about singing, especially singing in church, but never in a positive light. Indeed, God was repulsed by the fact that his people had turned away from him in almost every way, except for their church services, which seem to have been as vibrant and joyous as ever. So he says to them, “Take away from me the noise of your songs...I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation” (Amos 5:23; 8:10).
Knowing this, we want to be mindful of how we sing in church. We don’t gather together to be enraptured by song and swept away by melodies, with only a passing glance at the words that come out of our mouths. We are instructed in Scripture to be both emotionally and rationally engaged in singing — to worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). So Paul says, “I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (1 Corinthians 14:15). The songs we sing in church should make our hearts leap for joy, bring us to deep contemplation, and even to humble repentance, but not because they are beautiful and mindless melodies, nor because they are crafted with brilliantly poetical verse. Instead, they should instruct our hearts with the gospel truth of Scripture, that the word of Christ might thrive in our souls (Colossians 3:16). While this doesn’t mean that in order for a song to be a “good church song” it must be boring, it does mean that everything we sing must be uncompromisingly true.
Finally, you need to realize that God doesn’t care if you sing well. The widow who gave out of her poverty gave much more than those who gave out of their abundance (Luke 21:1-4). You might have the vocal equivalent of two copper coins, but God is happier to hear you sing to him in reverence and worship of Jesus Christ, than an entire professional choir singing Handel’s Messiah with no regard to the person of Christ. Self-conscious as you may be, the psalms repeatedly instruct us to “Make a joyful noise to the Lord!” (Psalm 95:1-2; 98:4,6; 100:1). It is my hope and prayer for you that you can take these words to heart, looking forward to that day when we will all sing the song of Moses in heaven: “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!” (Revelation 15:3).