Anyone seeking to understand the Bible’s teaching about worship dare not focus so intently on matters of liturgical function and form that he fails to remember that worship is, above all, a spiritual response. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). For this reason the Apostle Paul—having identified the purpose, content, and audience of congregational singing in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18–19—turns his attention to the singers themselves, who are, he says, to sing “with their hearts” (en tais kardiais humōn). By this, he means we are to sing with all that we are and not just with our mouths (see Isaiah 29:13).

The Heart

The phrase can easily be misunderstood today, when we have diluted the ancient figure of the “heart” into a symbol for just one part of our inner lives: namely, our emotions, especially as considered in contrast to, or thought to be in conflict with, the mind or “head.” Hence what is intended when we speak of “matters of the heart,” or when someone is said to wear his heart on his sleeve. These popular connotations will mislead, however, if we import them to our reading of the Bible. Some may erroneously conclude that Paul in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 has singled out feelings as the most critical element in congregational singing. This misunderstanding would reinforce the widespread notion (discussed in section 1) that the purpose of church music is to stir emotions (rather than to communicate). We detect evidence of this misunderstanding in statements made by some advocates of contemporary music-driven worship. For example, when music is described as somebody’s “heart language,” this implies that the heart can be singled out from other organs of consciousness as being more adept than they in the language of music; whereas, according to the Bible, the heart is not one spiritual organ among many but rather the totality of one’s being.

The Bible uses “heart” more often than it does any other term for human nature (such as spirit, soul, mind, flesh, etc.). With remarkable consistency it uses the word to refer to the innermost life of a person, the confluence of all his spiritual faculties. Thus the Bible regards man as a whole and seems only rarely inclined to dissect him into parts, as modern Freudians are apt to. When Paul directs us to sing with our hearts, he intends that everyone should employ both his mind and his will—including, yes, his emotions, but also his intellect, imagination, memory, resolve, and moral sensitivity—to communicate the Word of Christ as clearly as he can. Even more than this, however, Paul’s point is that the communication must be sincere and not just lip worship. We are to mean what we say. While it is altogether possible for insincere speech to be spoken with emotion and altogether possible for it to be reasoned, it is by definition impossible for insincere speech to proceed from the whole person. In this sense, “singing with your hearts” might be paraphrased as “singing wholeheartedly” or “with all your heart” to convey some of Paul’s sense to modern readers.

Now, to be fair, it is clear that almost all evangelical leaders across the worship spectrum understand the true sense of, and appreciate the importance of, Paul’s directive to sing with the heart. They long to see churches full of devoted worshippers. They grieve to see, instead, a large number of people disillusioned with keeping up appearances, empty from years of just going through the motions of worship, and perhaps now completely uninterested in it. They grieve to see an even larger number of unchurched people who find worship to be just plain weird. It is apparent that these people, both churched and unchurched, are, however, interested in something. They are profoundly moved by the mass commercial culture—and especially by the music—which fills their lives outside church. It seems logical that a new church music, one that speaks in today’s fresh forms, could engage today’s worshippers and prompt renewal in the church. Most shepherds who lead their flocks with what they call contemporary worship music do so with a desire to nurture wholehearted worship. They believe it has more potential to move contemporary worshippers than does traditional worship music, and they may even draw a parallel here to the great Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century, who insisted on worship in the vernacular. It seems self-evident that the church in every generation should assert its cultural relevance and encourage sincerity in worship by singing praise in the popular style of the day. “Oh sing to the Lord a new song.” (Ps. 96:1)

Form and Function

But this view of the matter loses sight of the purpose of church music, which, being different from the purposes of other musics, requires different forms. In fact the problem turns out to be not a dichotomy between the old and the new at all, but between the congregational (whether old or new) and the popular (whether old or new). Healthy movements of congregational singing have always been distinct from other musics. And it is a mistake to think that the hymns in great hymnbooks mimic the popular styles of previous generations the way contemporary worship music mimics the popular styles of today. Contrary to legend, Luther never derived his congregational hymn tunes from secular sources, although he did frequently borrow from preexisting church chants and vernacular religious songs.[1] Calvin maintained that “there is a great difference between the music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their homes, and the psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and His angels.”[2] The latter is “tempered to that gravity which is fitting in the sight of God and the angels,” thus lending “dignity and grace to sacred actions.”[3] Protestant churches gradually developed a musical style ideally suited to congregational singing, which happened to be quite different from the folk songs, folk dances, and urban popular music that congregants enjoyed in other contexts. This is how Calvin understood the Bible’s call to “sing a new song”: the new life we have in Christ brings with it new purposes, which require forms unlike those we have in common with the world.

Open a well-edited hymnbook and you will find tunes that, though they come to us from nine centuries and from composers of many cultures and all backgrounds, display a surprising unity of style. The differences between, say, EIN’ FESTE BURG (16th century, German) and BLAENWERN (20th century, Welsh) or between MARTYRDOM (19th century, Scottish) and VENI EMMANUEL (15th century, French chant) are beautiful differences, which enrich the treasury of the church’s song: different approaches to rhythm, melodic structure, and formal strategy. But more striking are the similarities. They are all vocally conceived, with generally one note for every syllable, singable intervals, and lines around six seconds in duration—rarely shorter than four seconds and rarely longer than eight. The songs are melodically very interesting, with distinctive gestures that follow one another in hierarchical patterns-within-patterns to generate a sense that the stanza unfolds musically as a miniature adventure. Expectations are aroused, fulfilled, thwarted, or redirected toward new expectations. Goals are reached. The rhythm is very simple and predictable. Syncopation is rare, and, where it occurs, it serves a structural and not merely ornamental function. Harmony may be either overt, as when congregations sing in parts, or implied, as when they sing in unison, but, either way, the rate of harmonic change is generally faster than in other kinds of folk or popular music. The harmony energizes the melody, justifies the length of its lines, and compensates for the rhythmic regularity. Above all, these songs are tunes and only tunes. The musical meaning of the song is entirely melodic. Other musical elements—counterpoint, accompaniment, dance, timbre, ornamentation—do not matter. If a congregation sings in unison without accompaniment (assuming it can do so without losing pitch or rhythmic energy) its hymn will be no poorer according to the aesthetic values of traditional congregational singing than any more elaborate performance.

Such has been the music sung by Protestant congregations for centuries. It has always sounded different from other kinds of music contemporary to it because it has a different purpose: to enable congregants of all musical abilities to carry the song together, in praise to God and in exhortation of one another. When twentieth-century church leaders adopted the sing-along model (see section 3) and secular styles, they had yet another purpose. Recognizing how imperative it was that congregants mean what they sing, they tried to use the song itself to generate “authenticity”—to kindle love, sincerity, and a more immediate experience of God—and thus a therapeutic function displaced the function prescribed by Scripture.[4] They came to care more about what music can do to a congregation than what the congregation can do with music. If the Spirit and Word of God won’t change people’s hearts, maybe music can.

It is a tragic case of diverting an enterprise from its stated purpose in order to pursue something else which, while certainly necessary for achieving the stated purpose, is necessary specifically as a prior condition. The purpose of a ball team is to win ball games. To win, the players must be strong and agile. But if their manager directs them to play the game in ways designed to improve their physical fitness rather than in ways designed to score and to stop opponents, they will lose. He has changed their purpose.

We can all sympathize with the pastor who has to work with a bunch of people disinclined to sing congregationally the Word of Christ. But woe to him if he tries to solve the problem by introducing music that they are inclined to sing, for it’s likely to be neither congregational nor the Word of Christ. Doubtless, if the song were empty enough, even the worldliest of Christians—even unbelievers—could assent; but it’s no good trying to figure out what compromise of biblical standards will seem authentic to one’s congregation. The proper remedy is for the pastor to preach biblical principles of worship, to let the Spirit and the Word do their work, and, then, to select biblically rich songs in a truly congregational idiom. Will the results be perfect? Of course not. But Christ is. And we worship in him. Though “hosannas languish on our tongues,” we can be assured that,

the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him, not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections. (WCF 16.6)

Only in this assurance will we find the courage to sing as Scripture instructs us to.

Encouraging the Flock to Sing Sincerely

Thus, although this webpage has argued that pastors err if they choose music on the basis of its purported power to generate sincerity, this is not to say that there’s nothing pastors can do. There are legitimate ways they can encourage and equip congregants to sing with their hearts. The most indispensible of these, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, is the preaching of biblical principles of worship: what God says its purposes are, and its nature as a means of grace and not a meritorious work. When the Scriptures are opened to show the place of Christ in our worship, the hearts of the faithful will burn within them. They will then have plenty to sing about!

The other steps a pastor can take are less exalted, perhaps, but quite practical. He can bear in mind the role which memory plays in the hearts of worshippers, and can seek to ensure that they know the songs they sing, preferably by heart, for it is nearly impossible for most people to mean what they say if they are learning the words even as they speak them. Calvin said that it is impossible to sing from both the intellect and the affections “unless we have the hymn imprinted on our memory.”[5] For most hymn-singing churches this would require more singing than they are used to. If Christians have grown up in a culture where music no longer functions as a means of ordinary, interpersonal communication, their churches will not be able to develop a counterculture of singing in just seven minutes per week. We suggest at least three complete hymns every Sunday morning, and ideally four or five. Sunday evening or Wednesday evening services, too, are vitally important. Sunday School classes can sing hymns together too, as much for mnemonic as for didactic purposes. Families should be equipped with hymnbooks and urged to sing hymns in their family worship. It would not take long, with these measures in place, for a congregation to learn a reasonable number of hymns by heart. But which hymns should they learn?

By design, hymnals include many more hymns than the editors expect any one congregation to use. Their size is meant to include as many congregations (by way of their favorite hymns) as possible, not to prescribe an untenably large congregational repertoire. We recommend to all pastors and sessions who desire to improve their congregation’s singing that they compile and publish an official list of hymns for their church. This involves going through the hymnbook from cover to cover (which may take a few days) and selecting a theologically balanced selection of the best hymns, including seasonal topics. The size of the list should be determined by how much the congregation sings in an average week—a rule of thumb might be 40 hymns for every five minutes. The purpose of the list is to encourage congregants to learn the repertoire. It need not declare other hymns to be inferior or ban their use in other contexts; it simply lets everyone know what will be sung on Sunday mornings. Heads of households can use it when picking hymns for family worship, and all will thereby come to Lord’s Day services better prepared. The list can also simplify the pastor’s weekly task of picking hymns by reducing the total number he has to consider, while visiting pastors and newly installed pastors will readily ascertain which hymns the congregation knows.

To secure hymns in the memory and ultimately the hearts of their congregation, pastors would do well to ensure that every hymn on the list is sung to a tune all its own, for the mnemonic potential of music depends on there being a fixed association between words and tune. Sometimes churches are tempted to employ a well-known tune to ease the difficulty of learning a new text, but such a practice spoils that tune’s power to recall to mind its original text. Unduplicated tunes have been a characteristic of all the most seminal hymn collections, including the 1551 edition of the Geneva Psalter, the United Presbyterian Church’s Psalter of 1912, and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 1933 edition of The English Hymnal.

Using an unfamiliar hymn in a service of worship is like embarking on a courtship. You would not do it unless you hoped your efforts would lead to a permanent wedding—in this case, a wedding of a hymn to the congregation’s heart. And like courtship, one should not go in unaware of the work involved. The congregation will benefit from learning a great new hymn, but only as long as everyone is realistic about how many Sundays it will take to settle into their hearts. They must not be scared off by the awkwardness of the first attempt. The singing of a “hymn of the month” is one tried-and-true strategy for expanding the repertoire—or for strengthening the congregation’s grasp of an old favorite.

Adequate education is crucial in all this. One or two sentences spoken by the pastor prior to a hymn—explaining why the congregation will be singing this particular hymn or elucidating the meaning of some part of its text—can make all the difference between worshippers who are prepared to mean what they sing and worshippers who aren’t. Pastors themselves can benefit, during their academic preparation for ministry, from rigorous coursework in congregational song. That may not be possible, given curricular exigencies; but we should nevertheless face the fact that, with students coming to seminary with little prior exposure to healthy congregational singing, a month-long unit as part of a single course on worship is not likely to prepare them to lead their flocks to mean what they sing. And, finally, churches can make it a priority from time to time to provide congregants with rudimentary lessons in singing and music reading. This can easily be done in Sunday School or at weekday gatherings. It lies within the church’s mission to teach Christians the skills of worship, so that technical difficulty does not present an obstacle to wholehearted worship.

Continue to section 5, “Questions.”


[1] Herl, Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism, 21–22.

[2] Epistle to the Reader, appended by Calvin to his order of worship for Geneva (1542, rev. 1543) and translated by Garside in The Origins of Calvin’s Theology of Music, 32.

[3] Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.20.32.

[4] See, for instance, John M. Frame, Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997), 20; or Joe Horness, “Contemporary Music-Driven Worship,” in Exploring the Worship Spectrum, ed. Paul A Basden (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 102.

[5] Epistle to the Reader, trans. Garside, 33.