top of page
  • Writer's pictureKim Arnold

A Theology of Congregational Singing

Have you ever wondered why we sing together as believers or why it’s important? Was this a tradition that developed over the years or was it a command in the Bible? And what is the purpose of singing in church?

I always enjoy singing with other believers when we meet for worship, but sometimes I look around the sanctuary and think people are missing out on why we sing. It saddens me when I see people chatting with their friends, scrolling on their phones, or sipping their coffee during congregational singing. God has given us such a beautiful way to offer our worship to him. Our focus should be on him and what he has instituted, not on our feelings or emotions. 

Here’s what the Bible says about singing in worship.

Congregational Singing in the Bible

When I think of worship in the Old Testament, I immediately recall worship in the tabernacle and worship in the temple. Although we do not live under the Law as the Israelites did, we can still see the importance God placed on gathering his people for worship. This is something we can continue to do today. The Old Testament shows us that psalms were central in singing in the temple, and because of that, they continued to be used in churches throughout church history. John Calvin even declared that there should be no other songs sung in church than the Psalms!

When worship shifted from the temple to the synagogue in the New Testament, singing continued as an integral part of their worship practices. Paul exhorted the believers in Colossae and Ephesus to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs when they gathered, which aided them as they grew in spiritual maturity (Colossians 3:15-17; Ephesians 5:15-20). In a letter written to the Roman Emperor, Pliny the Younger explained that Christians gathered “to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ.” In the early church, people gathered and sang hymns, showing us today the importance and sacredness of this form of worship.

Congregational Singing in Church History

As church history progressed, congregational singing was alternately emphasized and de-emphasized as church practices ebbed and flowed. To provide a quick overview, Ambrose of Milan wrote many doctrinal hymns in the fourth century, then the Catholic Church came into power for many centuries, ultimately leading to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. A large component of the Reformation included a desire to increase the congregation's participation in Catholic Mass. Luther advocated for Mass to be in the language of the people (and later encouraged German hymnody), and Calvin took the reform further into abolishing Mass completely and only singing biblical texts in worship.

We owe a lot to the Protestant Reformers in fighting for our ability to sing in worship. Although they held differing theologies and philosophies of worship, they all viewed congregational singing as vitally important in the life of the believer. With congregational singing more firmly established in Protestant churches, congregational singing found itself rightfully used in church practices once again.

The centuries following the Reformation were fraught with divisions and schisms, yet congregational singing in churches continued to develop. As early American settlers established their communities, they utilized psalters, and later hymnbooks, in their congregational singing. These settlers carried their psalters and hymnbooks with their Bibles from home to church, and back again, allowing the texts to aid in both their personal devotions and congregational worship.

Before I close this section on congregational singing in church history, I would be remiss if I did not mention Revelation 4. This picture of what heavenly worship is like reveals the truth that when we gather every week, God invites us into the worship that is continually occurring around his throne! When we sing, we lift our voices with the heavenly beings and ascribe ultimate dominion and authority to our Creator. Let us not lose sight of what happens when we gather!

Congregational Singing Today

This very brief peek into church history provides us with the foundation we need to understand that congregational singing has impacted the church for centuries and will continue impacting the church for centuries to come. Congregational singing is formative in the life of the believer and needs to be seen as something more than recreational. In every act of worship, God initiates, and we respond. God invites us to gather as believers, and we respond through singing, praying, and reading God’s Word.

What is your response to congregational worship today? Do you anticipate the time of gathered worship as a space for you to respond to God’s invitation, or do you have a lesser view of congregational singing? It can be easy to slip into the sanctuary each week with a scattered mind and not fully engage in corporate worship. Let me offer three suggestions if you find yourself struggling to participate in singing your worship.

1. Remember that God initiates worship. If worship is about my tastes and desires, I miss the point of gathered worship. Worship is about like-minded believers gathering to ascribe ultimate worth to our trinitarian God. When I remember that worship is about God and not me, I can participate more freely because my only desire is to offer acceptable worship.

2. Utilize a hymnal in your personal devotions. I know most churches today no longer use hymnals but utilizing a hymnal in your daily devotions allows you to pray and sing beautiful truths to God as an act of private worship. As you do this on your own, you will be more and more encouraged to do so publicly. If you do not own a hymnal, look for one that contains more hymns describing God’s character than songs that emphasize human feelings about God, because we get a steady diet of the latter in general today.

3. Let your love for God shine above your love for yourself. When we offer public worship to God, we are not only allowing the truths to form our hearts toward Him, but we are edifying other believers who may be watching. Think of how encouraged you have been when you witnessed a struggling fellow believer worship the Lord. As Paul encouraged the believers in Colossae and Ephesus, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to the glory of God and the edification of the believer.

I hope this post has encouraged you to think deeply about congregational singing and see where gathered worship began both in the Bible and in church history. We have the blessing of standing on the shoulders of centuries of theologians and believers lifting their voices in worship to God. May we never take for granted the privilege we have of singing our faith.

Kim has been married to her college sweetheart, Jason, for 24 years and they have one son who is a high school senior. Most recently, Kim completed her Ph.D in Church Music and Worship from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She has presented at Evangelical Theological Society and The Society of Christian Scholarship in Music, and her works have appeared in The Hymn, Artistic Theologian, and Baptist History and Heritage Journal.


bottom of page