t is often said that worship leaders shape the faith of the people in their congregations by the songs that they sing. The logic is simple: the more you are exposed to an idea, the more it becomes a part of your worldview. The more you sing certain truths about God, the more those truths become a part of your understanding of God.
This is by no means a new idea—early Church leaders used music to shape their people because they knew the potential that it held. And what’s more, there are biblical examples of songs that teach, and so we do well to heed this ancient truth and carefully choose our songs to shape our people’s faith.
The fourth century was an exceedingly rich time for theological reflection. Relative peace and newfound legitimacy gave opportunity for some of the ‘biggest names’ in Christian history to develop. These people worked to clearly explain some major theological realities – who Jesus was (human and divine), how the Trinity worked (Three equal Persons in One unity) – and they did it in a context where people advanced other (heretical) alternatives. Even with the pressure of defending orthodox faith, they often turned to music as a tool for teaching good doctrine.
Listen to Basil the Great (c. 330-379):
What did the Holy Spirit do when he saw the human race was not led easily to virtue…? He mixed sweetness of melody with doctrine so that inadvertently we would absorb the benefit of the words through gentleness and ease of hearing, just as clever physicians frequently smear the cup with honey when giving the [fussy] some rather bitter medicine to drink. Thus he contrived for us these harmonious psalm tunes, so that those who … appearing only to sing would in reality be training their souls. For not one of these many indifferent people ever leaves church easily retaining in memory some [truth] of either the Apostles or the Prophets, but they do sing the texts of the Psalms at home and circulate them in the marketplace (Homilia in psalmum I; PG XXIX, 212, in McKinnon, 65).
John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) makes a similar point:
When God saw that the majority of men were slothful and that they approached spiritual reading with reluctance and submitted to the effort involved without pleasure – wishing to make the task more agreeable … – he mixed melody with prophesy, so that enticed by the rhythm and melody, all might raise sacred hymns to Him with great eagerness. For nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wing, sets it free from the earth, releases it from the prison of the body, teaches it to love wisdom, and to condemn all the things of this life, as concordant melody and sacred song composed in rhythm (In psalmum xli, I PG LV, 156 in McKinnon, pg. 80).
Ambrose (339-397), famous in his own right for his contribution to the Church’s liturgy, responded to criticisms about his hymns by pointing out that they were playing a significant disciple-making role in the lives of his new converts (among them, St. Augustine!):
They also say that the people are led astray by the charms of my hymns … Certainly; I do not deny it. This is a mighty charm … more powerful than any other… All vie eagerly among themselves to profess the faith; they know how to praise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in verse… All then are rendered masters, who had scarcely managed to be disciples (Sermo contra Auxentium de basilicis tradendis XXXIV; PL XVI, 1017-18 in McKinnon, 132).
The Bible itself bears witness to the use of music for discipleship and teaching. Here are two examples.
Near the end of his life, Moses received this command: “Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel” and we are told that Moses did as he was told (Deu 31:19, 22 ESV). Deuteronomy 32 records the song and while it seems pretty bleak, it’s actually a great celebration of God’s grace: even though He knew they would be unfaithful, God led His people into the good land as He had promised, and He called them nonetheless to walk in His ways. The song was written to prompt the generations that followed to recognize God’s goodness and to turn away from their forefathers’ idolatry and to love God.
The New Testament too echoes this idea that songs are useful for teaching people about who God is. When Paul writes in Colossians 3:16: “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), teaching, admonishing and singing are all participles which describe the ongoing activity of the word of Christ dwelling within His people. That is, the Word is to take up its residence within us as we hear it through teaching, through others’ words to us and through song. Worship songs, in their many forms, are to be a means by which God’s Word is implanted in our hearts.
With these ancient sources commending to us the use of songs to shape faith, it makes sense that we would choose our songs carefully and intentionally. Our congregations will benefit from songs that reflect ‘the whole counsel of God’ – the whole broad spectrum of reality reflected in God’s Word. Obviously we need to make sure that all that we sing about God is true about God, but we also need to be sure to balance our songs. We need music (probably different songs) that explores God’s love and His justice, His graciousness and His jealousy for faithfulness, our individual response to God and our corporate responsibility, and so on. This is especially true given the alternate worldviews presented by our media – we’re not just combatting deviations from orthodoxy, we are in fact helping our congregations to celebrate God in the midst of a culture that denies His very existence. Let’s not just choose songs that make us feel good; let’s use songs that mature us in the faith, to the measure of the fullness of the stature of Christ.
Quotations in this article are from James McKinnon’s Music in Ancient Christian Literature, Cambridge UP, 1993.
Graham Gladstone is a worship leader and consultant currently serving Lincoln Road Chapel in Waterloo, Ontario. An M.Div. graduate, he is passionate about corporate worship shaped by careful biblical reflection and heartfelt Spirit-led prayer. Connect with Graham at jbdomusic.com or @gwgladstone.