What comes to mind when you think about worship?
Or more specifically, what do you think of when it comes to singing in church?
For me, it used to involve emotional music, closed eyes, and of course, raised hands. Every Sunday, I’d look forward to the half an hour or so before the sermon where the lights in my church’s auditorium would be dimmed and the musicians would come on stage. The drummer would tap his sticks together three times and all together, the band would play.
Most of the time, the set involved two fast songs and two slow songs—except the times when the mood was “extra spiritual”—then maybe it would be one fast song, and three slow songs.
And while the fast praise songs were loads of fun, I have to say the highlight for me was always the slow worship songs. This was when things quietened down a bit, and the worship leader encouraged the congregation to shut everyone around us out as we focused on God.
I can remember many a Sunday spent singing my heart out, eyes tightly shut. At first, I’d feel very self-conscious about the people to my left and right. “Is it weird that I’m so into this?” was a question often at the back of my mind. But I’d trudge ahead, trying my best to forget that I was in a corporate setting and imagine the moment as one shared intimately between just God and myself.
Slowly but surely, as I repeated the lines of the song’s chorus, emotions would start to well up within me, bubbling up like a pot of water approaching boiling point. And before I knew it, they’d release in the form of tears streaming down my face.
This moment—when singing culminated in some sort of emotional release—always seemed to be my desired result of corporate worship. If I experienced those feelings, then I could call it a job well done. I’d done my part as a worshipper.
Over the years I’ve heard many explanations for this phenomenon: a touch from God, His presence falling on me, entering His presence, an encounter with God—these were just some of the phrases that pastors and worship leaders have used to describe the experience.
The problem was, for every time I can remember experiencing this, there were many more times when I didn’t. As much as I would try, I wouldn’t feel anything. No matter how tightly I clamped my eyelids shut, no matter how many times I passionately repeated the lines of a familiar chorus, the stirring of feelings within me just wasn’t sufficient to count as “a touch from God”.
In those times, my worship felt like a failure.
This was more or less my general attitude towards corporate singing until one day, I attended a meeting at my university’s Christian campus ministry. I had been joining in their small group Bible studies, but this was the first time that I’d gone for one of their weekly corporate meetings.
It had been a tough week of classes and I was feeling particularly worn out. An encounter with God and His presence was just what I needed.
But I found myself sorely disappointed.
First of all, the lights weren’t dimmed. In fact, all of the lights were turned on. This meant that it was easy to see that almost no one had their eyes closed while they were singing. On the contrary, their eyes were mostly trained on the lyrics projected onto the screen. I suppose this was a necessity because the set that night didn’t include the usual popular catchy songs that were played at my church. Instead of memorized lyrics, we were singing hymns with melodies that were as dated as their verbose verses. To make matters worse, not one hand was raised.
Needless to say, not a single tear ran down my cheek that night, and I didn’t experience any encounter.
My shock at the state of their corporate singing was only compounded by the fact that these people seemed to really love Jesus, and in all other aspects seemed very devoted to following Him. Why then, was it not reflected in the way they worshipped?
This question was at the top of my mind a few weeks later when I had the chance to sit down with the campus pastor.
When I brought it up, he duly pointed me to a passage in the Bible which has since changed the way that I approach corporate singing:
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:18-20)
Here, we see that singing in church isn’t about ourselves—it’s about God.
That probably wasn’t news to you. But what was surprising to me is that singing in church is not just about God, it’s also about the other people in the church. Paul tells us to speak to one another with “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:19). That means that we’re not just singing to God, but we’re also meant to sing to each other.
As I processed this, I thought about how by singing truth to each other, we’re encouraging each other. Depending on the song, we’re reminding the people next to us—who might have had a terrible week or could be facing incredible pressures—about the gospel, about how great God is, or about the amazing grace that He has shown us. I know I’ve personally had moments where witnessing others worshipping has encouraged me to continue living a gospel-centred life.
I remember feeling so rebuked by Paul’s words in Ephesians as I realized I had made worship and singing all about myself and what I had felt during the songs when instead I should have been thinking more about encouraging the fellow believers beside me as we sing about the goodness of God.
To top it off, verse 18 suggests that singing to one another is a sign of being filled with the Spirit. In other words, it’s what truly spiritual singing in church should look like. For me, that was a huge break from what I had traditionally seen as a spiritual experience during the worship music portion of a service—which had previously been all about feeling some sort of emotional release.
That’s why today, ticking off the box of a spiritual encounter is no longer my agenda when worshipping. When I sing in church, I still sing as passionately as I possibly can. But instead of chasing a feeling, or an experience, I approach singing with a sense that I’m actively participating with my God-given family, following the Holy Spirit-inspired instructions of Paul the Apostle!