The Purpose and Power of Christian Hymnody
Last time we observed the fact that we sing because the Bible commands us to sing.
But let’s get a little bit deeper than simply singing because we’re told. Why, exactly, has God told us to sing in worship? We can certainly recognize why he commands things like preaching and praying and reading the Scriptures. But why sing? Is singing just another way for us to teach and affirm biblical truth? I think many Christians today see music in worship as simply that: a pretty way to teach doctrine. Yet if that is the only purpose of hymns, I can understand why some people really don’t see the value of singing. Hymns certainly cannot teach as much truth as preaching does, so why do we waste our time? There is no way we can absorb all of the truth contained in a hymn text as we sing it, so why don’t we just read it together? What is the point of singing doctrine?
While hymns certainly can be aids for teaching and affirming biblical truth, the reason we sing in our worship goes deeper than just teaching. The purpose and power of hymnody is rooted in what we are doing when we worship. My pastor, Greg Stiekes, has defined worship in what I think is a very helpful way:
Christian worship is an expression of our affections that are evoked when we encounter the True and Living God.
This definition is an excellent reflection of Christ’s words to the Samaritan woman in John 4:24:
God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
Notice the two essential elements of worship: spirit and truth, that is, expression of our inner beings to what we know about God. Or, as Greg has articulated, expression of our affections as they are evoked when we encounter the True and Living God.
Now how can hymns help us worship God rightly in this way? First, hymn texts do teach us truth about God and thus present him to us as one who is worthy of our affections. Without that encounter with truth about God worship cannot take place, and along with things like preaching and Scripture reading, hymns can help us encounter God in that way.
Yet it is the second element of worship for which music finds its primary purpose—spiritual expression of our affections. We have all likely heard the statement, “Music is the language of emotion.” Music gives expression to our hearts when words are not enough. This emphasis is reflected in both Ephesians 5:19 an Colossians 3:16. Both identify the heart as the focus of our singing.
You see, Christian hymns go beyond simply teaching us truth about the True and Living God; they give us a language for the expression of our affections as they are evoked by him. Not only that, good hymns teach us what kinds of expressions are appropriate for God. Remember the important question Greg asked in the Introduction: are the affections that our knowledge of God evokes worthy of him? One tool that helps shape the way that we express our affections to God is the hymns that we choose to sing.
Now we must be precise in our understand of what, exactly, hymns do with relation to our affections. Notice that the hymns themselves do not evoke the emotion. Our affections are evoked when we encounter the True and Living God. It is truth about God that evokes our affections, not the music itself. Rather, the music gives language to the expression of our affections. It is one thing to have our affections evoked by truth about God; it is another thing to know how to express it. Hymns help us do that. There is a great difference between looking to music to evoke the emotions themselves and looking to music as material for expressing emotions that have already been evoked. In the first sense the music picks us up and does the work; in the second sense music provides us with tools to help us do the work ourselves. This may seem like I am nit-picking, but is an important distinction, especially when it comes to what music we will choose to use in our worship. We will discuss this point more thoroughly later.
So the importance of hymnody in worship goes much deeper than doctrinal accuracy or enjoyable melodies. Sacred music gives us a language for the expression of our affections to God and can actually teach us what we should be expressing when we don’t otherwise know how. Understanding the primary purpose and power of music in our worship reveals the necessity of evaluating not only the hymn texts, but also the form in which that text is presented, because it is the form in which the hymn is presented that targets our affections. This leads us to our next topic of discussion, which we’ll leave for next time.
About Scott Aniol
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.