Does Worship Music Teach Us?


singing-churchA while back I wrote a little article on songs that ask the Holy Spirit to fall on us. That gave rise to a few other questions regarding worship music, and I’m going to begin addressing these in a few more articles, starting with this one.

When discussing the choice of music for worship services, we often mention the “teaching function” of music—that is, songs teach us much like a teacher or preacher does, therefore we must choose songs with deep theological lyrics. While firmly agreeing that our worship music must have solid biblical content, I’d like to offer an adjustment to this understanding of the teaching role of worship music.

The idea that worship songs teach us usually comes from Colossians 3:16. The suggested connection between singing and teaching is evident in the way the NASB works out the grammar of the sentence:

Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (NASB)

But the ESV offers a slightly different understanding of the sentence:

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. (ESV)

According to the NASB, we are to teach and admonish one another by means of songs that we sing together. But the ESV understands the singing to be parallel to teaching (and admonishing), and both of these are means by which the Word richly indwells us. Commentators are divided on the best way to understand this ambiguity in the Greek (see Peter O’Brien’s volume in the Word Biblical Commentary series for a discussion of both sides). I think it’s best to go with the ESV’s rendering for reasons I won’t explain in detail here, other than to note that the Greek is by no means decisive on this point. Contextually, I just think it’s rather odd that Paul would exhort the church to let the Word of Christ indwell us, and then only refer to singing as the means by which that happens. It makes more sense to me that “teaching/admonishing” and “singing” are the two means he has in mind. And this also fits the grammar of the sentence.

Other than this verse, we don’t have abundant scriptural evidence that music is supposed to teach us. The idea that corporate singing is a “one anothering” ministry in the church is evident in Ephesians 5:19 (“addressing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs…”). And there is certainly some kind of connection between corporate singing and teaching/admonition/edification—that much is clear in Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:18-19, and 1 Corinthians 14:26.

You could suggest other examples in Scripture, like Psalm 78, which is a poetic recounting of Israel’s history explaining why they are in exile. But this psalm seems intended not to inform them about their history so much as to remind them of it. To give them a memorable and artful vehicle for rehearsing it so they won’t forget. In fact, in verse 3 the psalmist specifically says that the following poem contains “things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us.” So they’ve already learned it, and now they’re rehearsing it for some purpose.

So there is scant biblical evidence to support the claim that music teaches us like a teacher does. Nevertheless, I recently heard a scholarly presentation in which a New Testament researcher referred to corporate singing as an activity which sometimes “imparts new knowledge.” Here is the specific claim that I believe needs adjusting. I think it’s generally a mistake to think of the teaching function of music as parallel to the kind of teaching a teacher/preacher does. Not that there can’t be exceptions, but worship music generally does not teach new concepts or expand our propositional knowledge. In 15 years of teaching graduate, undergraduate, or local church students, I’ve never sung a lecture or invited them to turn to a page in their hymnal for an explanation of a particular doctrine or idea. That’s not how we (normally) impart new knowledge to someone, nor is that how learners tend to apprehend new knowledge.

But that’s not to say music doesn’t teach. It does, but there’s more to teaching (and learning) than imparting propositions or formulas. Worship songs teach us in that they help to drive deeper into our souls what we have already begun to learn. I can suggest at least three ways worship music does this.

A Memorization Aid

Music helps us remember. When profound truth is rendered in poetic form, it sometimes become easier to recall later. Hence we have acrostic psalms, where each verse starts with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet—not terribly helpful to us now, but of great benefit to ancient Israelites (and anyone who is fluent in biblical Hebrew now). The Psalms contain other poetic devices to aid memory, and there is evidence in the New Testament that hymns served the earliest churches as effective tools for encapsulating core truths (for example, Philippians 2:6-11). Likewise, worship music can help us memorize Scripture and doctrinal summaries—an especially fruitful teaching technique for children. But still, these songs aren’t imparting knowledge so much as they are reinforcing it.

A Meditation Aid

Worship music helps us meditate on what we’ve learned. As I was preparing for the first Sunday of Advent last week, I came across an Advent prayer that grabbed my attention:

Unexpected God, your advent alarms us. Wake us from drowsy worship, from the sleep that neglects love, and the sedative of misdirected frenzy. Awaken us now to your coming, and bend our angers into your peace. Amen.

A simple, beautifully crafted prayer. I was arrested by the use of “alarms” and by the phrase “drowsy worship.” They made me slow down and ponder. But the phrase “sedative of misdirected frenzy” lingered in my mind for several days. It stuck in my mind and heart like a tiny splinter you can’t quite pull out of your fingertip. I was drawn to ponder the secularized holiday season and how I am inevitably sucked into it’s frenetic pace to some degree every year.

That’s what worship music can do. Well-written lyrics put to memorable music can cause us to slow down and ponder great truths in new words. And as we meditate we are taking a fresh look at a familiar diamond, and perhaps appreciating its sparkle a bit more or discovering facets we’ve never noticed before. Which leads to the third function on my list.

A Mobilization Aid

As it drives truth deeper into our hearts, the music we sing together becomes an instrument of transformation. It helps us see how the truth we’ve learned is intended by God to change us. It becomes a catalyst for conviction, repentance, encouragement, and other types of transformation. It helps us “connect the dots” from proposition to performance.

Imagine you wanted to make an apple pie, and my amazing, pie-expert wife was nowhere around to teach you how. You find a recipe, and you understand the instructions (that is, they make sense to you), but this is very new information! So before diving into step 1, you find a YouTube video that demonstrates how to mix and roll out a pie crust, slice the apples, prepare the sauce, and put it all together. Good worship music is like the video: it connects the dots, puts things memorably, and helps you translate words into action.

Once you’ve freed yourself of the overly-narrow notion that music is supposed to teach us in the sense of imparting new knowledge, you can employ a wider range of good songs in corporate worship, and use them more effectively, as long as they help to reinforce or drive deeper the knowledge you’ve already begun to gain from Scripture. In this sense, music helps us complete the teaching and learning process by taking us from appropriation (“head knowledge”) to application (“heart knowledge”).