A Holistic View of Song Leading
Joe Ed Furr
This writer has conducted worship leaders’ conferences for the past fifteen years. We always asked the men who attended those conferences to suggest the type of material that they would like to see presented at those events. Again and again we heard those men request more teaching in the Biblical instructions for worship leaders – especially song leaders. Those men acknowledged that they had been offered very little Biblical instruction on these subjects from their home churches. We agreed to search the scriptures and share our findings with those men.
I always heard it said that we sing praises to God because he commands us to sing. So, song leaders are men who facilitate obedience to that commandment. I began by searching the scriptures to see how this viewpoint was revealed. I found that there are only 18 verses in the New Testament on the subject of singing. I studied each closely and discovered several things that surprised me. Let me share my findings with you.
The New Testament Dimension Of The Ministry of Song Leading
Jesus taught nothing about singing. No commandments. No models. Matthew 26:30 (Mark 14:26) describes Jesus and the apostles singing a song before they left the Passover supper. Jewish history tells us that song was a traditional song that Jews always sang at the end of the Passover. That song was not required by the Law of Moses. It was a tradition addition to that meal by Jews. That custom developed between 500 BC and 100 BC. Matthew 11:17 (Luke 7:32) mentions singing, but it is in a context of a sermon Jesus preached about John the Baptist and his ministry.
The apostles preached no sermons on church music. Luke did not give us one or more models of church music in his historical record. Acts 16:25 records the fact that Paul and Silas shared songs and prayers at midnight in a jail cell. But there is nothing of substance in that verse to help us construct a major model of church music for the modern church.
Revelation 5, 14, and 15 have more to say about music than any other section of the New Testament. But all the verses in those chapters are heavenly visions, not earthly church models.
Apostolic Letters (Non-Assembly Passages)
Eight of the scriptures on singing are found in New Testament letters from Romans to James. But most of them are not applicable to the public assembly.
Romans 15:9, 11
Romans 15:8 – 12 discusses the fact that Christ’s achievements did more than merely bring blessings to Israel. He also brought grace to the nations (Gentiles). Paul quotes a string of Old Testament verses that supports this concept. He cites Psalm 18:49, Deuteronomy 32:42, Psalm 117:1, and Isaiah 11:10. Two of those passages combine the idea of God blessing the nations (Gentiles) and thereby inspiring the writer to sing God’s praises. That is how singing fits into this chapter. It has nothing to do with a music model for the Christian assembly.
Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brothers. That is the theme of this segment of Hebrews. The writer cites Psalm 22:22 to prove this point. That verse speaks of singing. The singing in that text has nothing to do with the public assembly of the church.
James 5:7-16 (verse 13)
This section of James is an admonition for God’s suffering people to patiently wait for the coming of the Lord who shall avenge us by condemning the wicked. In this context he asks individuals three questions: (1) Are you troubled? (2) Are you happy? (3) Are you sick? If you are happy, then you should sing. If you are troubled you should pray. If you are sick you should seek the prayers of the elders of the church. You can see that the singing in this context has nothing to do with the public assembly.
Apostolic Letters (Assembly Passages)
We finally come to those New Testament passages that do speak about singing and the public assembly. Let us explore each of these passages.
1 Corinthians 14:26
1 Corinthians 12 – 14 is a lengthy essay on the subject of charismatic (miraculous) gifts possessed by various members of the church in Corinth and how they were trying to use them in the public assembly. 1 Corinthians 12 introduces charismatic gifts. 1 Corinthians 13 places those gifts in a proper perspective. 1 Corinthians 14 offers instructions for how to utilize those gifts in the public assembly. Thus, 1 Corinthians 14 is a text with a focus on the assembly.
1 Corinthians 14:15 is the first time in this chapter that singing is introduced. Paul uses singing to illustrate the principle of being rational over irrational in the assembly. He speaks in a personal voice to illustrate this principle. This one verse introduces the idea that singing was a part of the public assembly.
Verse 26 describes the public assembly as the Corinthians chose to conduct it. He points out that each musically talented person had a custom of bringing a song to the assembly. The idea in that description was that the promoter of a specific song would present that song to the church. Paul does not tell us how each song was handled, but early church fathers show us that responsorial singing and antiphonal singing were common methods of congregational singing in the early church.
Verse 26 does not command singing. After Paul describes the public assembly in Corinth here is what he commands: “all of these things must be done for the strengthening of the church.” Paul makes it clear there was singing in the early church, but he says nothing about why there was singing in the church. For example, he does not teach that the church sang songs because they were commanded to do so. But he does emphasize that we are required to conduct the public assembly for the purpose of building up the church. This means that our church music must have this specific agenda!
It has been claimed by many people that this is the passage that commands churches to sing. This claim is untrue. In order to understand this passage we need to diagram this complex sentence so we can clearly see Paul’s message.
This means that song leaders have two tasks: (1) leading the church in the process of being filled with the Spirit, and then (2) coordinating the group’s expression of their singing. Most song leaders want to limit their ministry to the second task and deny any responsibility for the first task. Most students of song leading want to master the skills needed in the execution of the second task. They confess total ignorance of and a lack of interest in the first task.
Paul does not explain in Ephesians 5 how to be filled with the Spirit, but he does make several statements in Ephesians that can help lay the foundation for understanding this task. Eph. 1:13 speaks of the gift of the Holy Spirit that we receive when we are baptized. This is different from being filled with the Spirit. One can possess the gift of the Spirit and not be filled with the Spirit.
We are filled with the Spirit when we submit ourselves to God in prayer and ask Him to fill us. See Ephesians 3:16 and 6:18. Luke 11:13 tells us that God gives the Spirit to those who ask for it. We are passive in the process of being filled with the Spirit just as we are passive in the process of being baptized. In both cases we choose to submit to the process.
In Luke and Acts there are ten verses that describe people being filled with the Spirit. One common denominator among those stories is the observation that people who were filled with the Spirit were inspired to communicate with others. When we are filled with the Spirit we speak to one another (in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs), and we sing to one another. When people are filled with the Spirit they behave in ways that shows the Spirit’s presence – they give thanks to God for all blessings, and they are willing to submit to one another out of respect for Christ.
We have presented enough material in the previous paragraphs to help song leaders become facilitators for the task of leading the church to obey the command of our Lord.
Colossians 3:16 is a parallel to Ephesians 5:18-19. The only difference between the two passages is that the commandment in Colossians is to let the words of Christ “dwell in us richly” while the command in Ephesians is to “be filled with the Spirit.”
People who are filled with the Spirit are the same people who allow the Word of Christ to dwell richly within them. The word of Christ is not a substitute for the Holy Spirit. The two concepts are synonymous.
In all of the passages that we examined we failed to find a single Divine command demanding congregational singing. We found an imperative statement to conduct the public assembly with a view to building up the church. We found another imperative statement to be filled with the Spirit and to allow the Spirit to guide us into speaking to one another in psalms. Hymns, and spiritual songs. These are the guidelines that should direct the ministry of song leading.
The Technical Dimension Of The Ministry Of Song Leading
When you open your hymnal and look at a song you quickly see that church music has a technical dimension. There are musical scales, harmonic chords, music notation, music theory, and technical notations. It is not easy to be a competent song leader when you do not understand music theory and harmony.
The very task of standing before a church and directing singing is also a technical skill. A song leader must understand the dynamics involved when standing before a church and communicating with the congregation. The use of one’s voice, the process of determining the pitch of the opening tone, and the ability to communicate the tempo and rhythm of a song are examples of the technical issues involved in the performance side of song leading.
The process of planning a service contains technical issues. If it is our task to build up the church through encouragement and to help people be filled with the Spirit and express that filling, then we need to explore ways to design a song service so we can facilitate those goals. A leader cannot just select his favorite songs or a random list of songs and achieve those goals. The art of worship planning has its technical issues.
Song leading is a group phenomenon. It involves the ability to work with people, communicate effectively to them, and to lead them in group behavior. Successful leaders develop knowledge and wisdom in the art of group dynamics and leadership. This challenge can be aided with a working knowledge of the technical issues of leadership, the process of group dynamics, and the attributes of congregational culture. The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom in this area is also a technical issue.
Leaders who feel deficient in any (or, all) of these technical areas should seek out opportunities to receive training. For most people a one week summer singing school, such as the Singing School at Abilene Christian University affords leaders an opportunity to develop skills in an intensive training program that only requires a single week of instruction.
The Dimension Of Emotional Intelligence
The ministry of song leading has a third major dimension – emotional intelligence. There are many songs in your hymnal that are prayers. Examples of these songs include: Nearer, Still Nearer, Dear Lord and Father Of Mankind, I Need Thee Every Hour, and Lord, Be There For Me When I Call. Have you ever wondered what the difference was between singing a prayer and speaking a prayer? The difference is found in a power quality of music—music has the power to touch our emotions. This is why movies are full of music. Movie music sets the emotional tone of the film. Songs set the emotional tone of an assembly. Emotions are powerful in good singing.
If emotionalism is a powerful dimension of music, then song leadership requires a special gift that is referred to as “emotional intelligence”. The term “intelligence” describes the ability to be aware of something and learn quickly how to utilize the object of our awareness. A person with a high level of emotional intelligence is extremely aware of the emotional dimension of church music and is able to utilize that attribute effectively.
The following is a brief discussion of the three dimensions of emotional intelligence.
Self-Awareness And Self-Control
Do you know how you are feeling right now? Some people are more aware of their own feelings than others. Do you know how you should feel if you are going to lead a group of people? Can you control your emotions and project them in appropriate ways?
Social Awareness and Wisdom
When you walk into a church auditorium can you sense the collective emotional mood of the group? If the sky has been overcast with clouds for two weeks can you sense the emotional tone of a slight degree of emotional depression?
If it is our job to lead the church in the ministry of mutual encouragement, then what kind of emotional atmosphere should we build in the assembly? If you want people to be filled with the Spirit, then how should we guide their emotions?
Interpersonal Emotional Communications
If the church feels slightly emotionally depressed or if our people feel discouraged, can we communicate with them in a manner that will actually impact their emotions in a positive way? Can we project the “sparkle” in our personality? Can we inspire people?
Emotional Intelligence Applied
Many song leaders develop technical competence in their craft but they do not develop emotional intelligence. These men can correctly pitch a song, they can use hand motions to beat 4/4 time, they can project their voice, and they can maintain proper tempo and rhythm. But all of this fails to make a song leader successful if the church cannot see the sparkle in his eye, the joy in his heart, and if we cannot connect with the church in other appropriate emotional ways. Technical competence without emotional intelligence produces a song leader that is more like a robot than a dynamic leader.
Every social group of human beings will naturally develop a culture if the group becomes cohesive and durable. Culture is nothing more than the sum of all a group’s habits, customs, and traditions. Every congregation has a culture. The following is a partial list of some of the variables that define a church’s culture:
- Personality biases of the group’s leaders (left-brain / right-brain).
- The group’s view of space (buildings, auditorium, ancillary rooms, offices, and parking lots).
- The group’s view of time (length of services, frequency of services, and importance of punctuality).
- Degree of collectivism / individualism.
- Taste: the likes and dislikes of its members.
- The culture of the larger community can impact a church – rural or urban life and ethnic values.
Culture and the Other Dimensions of Song Leading
The Theological Dimension of Song Leading
Some congregational cultures are very loyal to traditional opinions about the public assembly and church music. If a group of people believes that the Bible commands singing, they may refuse to examine the scriptures as we have done in this treatise and come to a different conclusion. They may feel threatened by the possibility that the Bible does not command singing, and they may feel threatened at the possibility that we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit (“That sounds too Pentecostal”). So, this culture will not allow its people to study the Bible with an open mind. Culture can bias the thinking of its people in matters of theology.
The Technical Dimension of Song Leading
Diverse blends of lyrics, melodies, and harmonies produce different styles of songs. There is major music and minor music. There are classic hymns, gospel songs, southern gospel, and praise songs. Culture tends to dictate the styles of songs that are acceptable. Most of us have a bias for major music and against minor music. Some people are strongly biased against praise songs while others are strongly biased against southern gospel songs. So, culture does have a strong influence on our technical views of church music.
The Dimension of Emotional Intelligence
Some church cultures are left-brain dominant cultures. One attribute of this type of culture is a strong bias against emotionality in the assembly. This culture is opposed to lifting up holy hands, clapping, and tolerating spontaneous “Amens” from the congregation. Consequently, these churches look with suspicion on song leaders who seem to be the master of seeking to encourage people through the emotional dimensions of the public assembly. Many left-brain dominant people are emotionally dulled and they are proud of it.
The Maturing of the Church
Immature churches are blind to the cultural dimension of the church. They treat everything as a “doctrinal issue”. They feel that it is unscriptural for a church to sing the kinds of songs that they dislike. They feel that emotionality in the assembly is unscriptural.
As churches move toward maturity they awaken to the differences among truth, tradition, and taste. They slowly learn to stop making an issue out of their customs and their tastes. In time they become more tolerant of diverse tastes and customs while still being loyal to the truth. This tolerance gradually opens the door for the possibility of developing a wider horizon of tastes. In time these maturing people can not only tolerate a praise song, but can really benefit by singing them. They cannot only tolerate emotional intelligence in the assembly but can also reap the great harvest of mutual encouragement that comes from the wise management of emotionality in the public assembly.
Song leaders need to be a positive influence to encourage churches to mature.