The Pastor’s Role in the Praising Church
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The Pastor’s Role in the Praising Church

From Series: The Pastor’s Study, Volume 7

Selected Scriptures  (ID: 3083)

While there are many ideas surrounding corporate singing and music in the church, the Bible is clear on God’s directive to worship Him alone in a manner that is spiritual, rational, and grounded in Scripture. Alistair Begg takes questions from the audience as he instructs pastors to model the practice of worship they hope to see reflected in their congregations.


Sermon Transcript: Print

It’s a fairly obvious point to make, but it is an important point to make, that that hymn is actually directed from our lips to ourselves first of all; that we are singing to our souls, asking our souls to do what we’ve been created to do—namely, to give praise and glory to God. And we call out to the angelic host, with whom we are united in some strange and mystical way, in order to help us in our adoration and to call out to the creation to give to God the glory that belongs to him alone. That is a vastly different way to begin a gathered time of praise than to start with the personal pronoun I. And we’ll say more about this as we go along.

But one of the reasons, I think, when we find ourselves in situations where we are being encouraged to sing, and yet we find that somehow or another we are not entering fully into the song—at least for me, it is often because I am being asked to declare things about how I myself am feeling when in actual fact, if I were to be honest about how I am feeling, I’m not feeling at all like singing anything at all. And so, my heart has to be tuned by the truth of God’s Word. And so, for example, the words of the psalmist, that God does not always chide, nor will he remember our sins forever[1]—what a wonderful thing it is when you’ve come on the Lord’s Day morning, and you’re aware of the frailty and feebleness of your own heart, and you’re the pastor, and you have been a disappointment to yourself, and you’ve been a jolly nuisance to your wife, and your children are not exactly feeling particularly predisposed towards you. The last thing in the world you want is to have to start to sing about how you’re feeling, but to remind yourself in the opening song,

Fatherlike he tends and spares us;
Well our feeble frame he knows.
In his hands he gently bears us
And rescues us from all our foes.
Now, go ahead and praise him!
Praise him widely as his mercy flows![2]

Now, what I want to do is just acknowledge certain things, and if you would like at any point to interrupt, you can do that. Or put up your hand and say, “Could you clarify that?” or “I’ve got a question,” whatever. I want it to be as free as that. All right? If what you have to say I don’t like, then that’s tough for me, but it won’t be the first time.

Obviously, when we talk about congregational praise, let’s just make sure we understand that the whole of life is worship, right? That the way that we go to work, the way in which we engage in our work, the way in which we play sport, how we eat and drink, we may do so to the glory of God. So we’re not suggesting that the rest of life is exercised in a certain way, and then we get to the matter of worship when we come into the gathering of God’s people. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like terminology like “the worship center.” I’m not sure just exactly what that means. I’m not a big fan of “the sanctuary,” either. Unless you’re a Roman Catholic, you don’t believe in sanctuary, and therefore, you shouldn’t have one, and so on—just to encourage you with those few observations. For those of you who have a big sign out of your vestibule saying either “Worship Center” or “Sanctuary,” that’s entirely up to you. I’m just telling you what I don’t like. Not that you should be concerned about it. I’m not unduly concerned about it, but there you have it.

So let me… And I think we can put these up on the screen. I hope so. Let’s just make a few observations to get ourselves started. That when we think… Why’d it put my name up on the screen? Okay. We’re all right. We’ve got the first point: that when we think in terms of praise, there is actually no more vital theme for the people of God to consider. For example, we read Psalm 103. If your Bible was open there, you would perhaps notice Psalm 102:18, which says, “Let this be written for a future generation, that [the] people not yet created may praise the Lord.”[3] “We’re gonna write this down so that the generation that comes will praise the Lord.” Why would they praise the Lord? Because they are created to praise. And we are created to praise. What happens to us, of course, is that we do praise, but we praise ourselves or we praise other things. And it takes a work of grace within our hearts to turn us to the worship of the Creator rather than to worship created things—not least of all, ourselves.

So there’s no more vital theme, and it is the constant activity of the church in heaven. It is the constant activity of the church in heaven, right? That’s what we read in Revelation 7. But it is also the chief business of the church on earth. And in saying that, we recognize that when Jesus addresses the woman at the well, he says, you know, that the Father is seeking worshippers. And he explains, “These are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.”[4]

Now, that being said, let us also acknowledge that there are three things concerning worship or praise about which God is never indifferent—about which he’s never indifferent.

Number one, as to whether we worship. As to whether we worship. It is actually an obligation; it’s not an option. We can’t excuse ourselves by saying, “Well, we’re not really cut out for it,” because the fact of the matter is, yes, in Christ we are cut out for it, and that man qua man by his very nature, as distinct from the animals, knows that there is one to whom he owes allegiance. And so God is not indifferent as to whether we worship.

Praise is the constant activity of the church in heaven. But it is also the chief business of the church on earth.

Secondly, he is certainly not indifferent as to the object of our worship. It is God and God alone whom we worship, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. John chapter 5: “that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. [He who] does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.”[5] That is so straightforward that we need make no further comment on it.

And the third thing is that God is not indifferent as to the manner of our worship. As to the manner of our worship. It’s not a case of “Anything’ll do,” or “Any old way you want to go at it is fine,” or “Come up with your own plan,” or “Develop your own strategy.” No. The Scriptures give us very clear guidelines. And when you go back in history, you discover that in an earlier generation, in a way that we might regard now as pretty archaic, things were certainly very different from what they are today in the twenty-first century. My background in Scotland obviously is different from many. I’m glad of it. I have to constantly guard against taking things which were cultural in my background and suggesting that they were obligatory and that they remain obligatory.

But let me just read to you to get this notion of God being not indifferent to the manner of our worship. Think in your mind’s eye about the way in which the average assembly of God’s people is brought together on a routine Lord’s Day, either in your own place or when you assemble somewhere else. Think about your own preparation for it. Think about the final ten, fifteen minutes before you enter the pulpit, just as you know yourself. You don’t need to volunteer it to us. Here I’m quoting once again from the Free Church of Scotland Confession of Faith and Subordinate Standards, which I have never once in thirty-two years quoted from in the church but decided to this week. Let’s just get a flavor of this:

When the congregation is to meet for publick worship, the people (having before prepared their hearts thereunto) ought all to come and join therein; not absenting themselves from the publick ordinance[s] through negligence, or upon pretense of private meetings.

Let all enter the assembly, not irreverently, but in a grave and seemly manner, taking their seats or places without adoration…

That is a reference to Roman Catholicism: without bowing before an altar or crossing themselves. The divines were really concerned about that, and justifiably so.

… without adoration, or bowing themselves towards one place or [an]other.

The congregation being assembled, the minister, after solemn calling on them to the worshipping of the great name of God, is to begin with prayer.

Now, you think about your average opening prayer. I think about mine. How are we doing?

“In all reverence and humility acknowledging the incomprehensible greatness and majesty of the Lord, (in whose presence they do then in a special manner appear,) and their own vileness and unworthiness to approach so near him, with their utter inability of themselves to so great a work; and humbly beseeching him for pardon, assistance, and acceptance, in the whole service then to be performed; and for a blessing on that particular portion of his word then to be read: And all in the name and mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We’re not finished.

The publick worship being begun, the people are wholly to attend upon it, forbearing to read any thing, except what the minister is then reading or citing; and abstaining much more from all private whisperings, conferences, salutations, or doing reverence to any person present, or coming in.

You see, when I grew up in Scotland, I said, “Why does nobody say hello to anybody when they come in?” You’re not allowed to! You’re not allowed to. You’re not allowed to look up; we’ve started. The fact that Joe came in late, you don’t go, “Hey, Joe, nice to see you!” No. You give him the evil eye. He’s come in late! So you’re not to do that. “As also…” Not only you’re not allowed to say hello to anybody; also, you’re to cease “from all gazing, sleeping, and other indecent behaviour, which may disturb the minister or people, or hinder themselves or others in the service of God.”

Now, admittedly, this was written in the middle of the nineteenth century. And we’re not gonna baptize it into orthodoxy. I’m simply reading it to us so that we might get a sense of the frivolity, of the unbelievable superficiality, of the incredible horizontal nature of so much of what we do, even when we’re doing our best.

If any, through necessity, be hindered from being present at the beginning, they ought not, when they come into the congregation, to betake themselves to their private devotions, but reverently to compose themselves to join with the assembly in that ordinance of God which is then [at] hand.[6]

In other words if you showed up and missed the opportunity to say your prayers before you started, you don’t go in and make a fuss and sit down and engage in holy devotions that will distinguish you from the rest. They said, “No, the hymn has already begun; you sing the hymn. It’s not about you. It’s about the gathered assembly.” And God is not indifferent as to the manner of our worship. How can we seriously preach out of Isaiah 6 and say so much about it? And he “saw the Lord … high and lifted up.” And what was his response? “I am a man of unclean lips … I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”[7] He didn’t start singing some crazy song, you know. No. I’m saying this to you; I’m saying it to myself.

So, with those things said, let me advance the ball one more time. We have to make sure, then, that there are three things that we are agreed upon concerning the manner of acceptable worship. Number one, it is biblical, being grounded in the truth of Scripture. It is biblical, being grounded in the truth of Scripture. “All [our] so-called good intentions”—I’m quoting now—“are struck by this thunderbolt, which tells us that men can do nothing but err when they are guided by their own opinion without the Word [and without] the command of God.”[8] That’s Calvin, in relationship to the praise of God’s people.

So, it is biblical. It is grounded in the truth of Scripture. So when we’re talking about, “Well, we’re gonna sing this song,” or “We’re not gonna sing this song,” we’re gonna pour it through the grid: First of all, is it a biblical song? Is it a “Lordy, Lordy” song that could be sung to Buddha or Krishna or anybody because there’s nothing that’s Trinitarian in it, there’s nothing that identifies the person or work of Jesus? “Oh, but I love the melody. It makes me feel so good!” “Forget it. We’re not singing it.” “Why not?” “Because it isn’t biblical. It’s not grounded in the Scriptures.” This is simple. You can’t let anybody press you in that, as the pastor. You are responsible. Ultimately, Jesus is the leitourgos. He is the worship leader, and under him we lead people in praise.

So it is biblical. Secondly, it is at the same time rational, in that it engages our minds. It engages our minds. It’s a dreadful thing when we think in terms of songs and music not engaging the mind. I am not remotely concerned about exuberance in praise. I frankly would like to see a little more of it, if I was really deeply honest. I’m not concerned about people raising their hands or clapping to the tune of the music. I am concerned about them applauding at the end of the things, as if we were giving a performance. But in terms of all of these things, whether you’re in the Salvation Army, or whether you’re in the Church of God, or a Pentecostal church, or a black environment, or wherever else, there are many cultural elements in that. But none of those things are to happen apart from the engagement of our minds—that it is through the mind to the stirring of the core of our being. It is a result of what’s happening in our minds.

If you monitor, as I sometimes do, the times that people raise their hands in praise, there’s a direct correlation between the rising of the melody line, almost inevitably. And you don’t really get people singing… Let’s go, “O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, … [and] free.”[9] Nobody’s here now, are they?

“No, no. No, it wouldn’t be appropriate.”

“Why not? We’re singing about the deep, deep love of Jesus.”

“Oh no, that’s not one where you put your hands up.”

“Oh, it isn’t? Sorry, I didn’t know that. I just thought I’d put them up then. They said, ‘the deep, deep love of Jesus.’ It really moved me there.”

“Yeah, but it’s melody, it’s not very tuneful. I don’t like it. It’s…”

“Okay, all right. So what would you like?”

“Well, I like the one, ‘When I feel the brush of angel’s wings, I see glory on each face. Surely the presence of the Lord…’”[10]

“Oh, it is? I’m sorry. I missed that. I didn’t get that. I didn’t…”

Why are you doing that? Is it because the truth of the Bible has stirred your mind and loosed your lips in praise?

So the third thing is that it’s not only biblical, it’s also rational, and it is clearly spiritual, in that it involves the very core of our being. It’s a spiritual response. And that’s why it’s not good for any of us to use our own external responses, whatever they might be, as the touchstone of whether someone’s praise is meaningful or significant or orthodox or right or whatever else it is. I mean, I can take you to psalm-singing congregations in the Western Isles of Scotland, and if you put your hands up there, you’d get arrested, probably. I mean, somebody would take you out. You’d have to go home. And if some of those poor souls were to come to some of my friends’ churches down in the charismatic churches in England, they would think the people were completely gone. But they’re both sincerely committed to biblical, rational, spiritual praise.

So that demands what I said earlier this afternoon: that if that is going to be the case, first of all, the person needs to be spiritually alive, because as I said this afternoon—some of you overheard—dead men don’t sing. In fact, I was saying to our worship team, as an illustration of this: there was a man who used to come around Parkside… He still comes to Parkside. But in the early days, he used to send me notes. He still sends me notes, but the early notes were like, “Would you quit that horrible singing that you do? And get yourself some decent songs, and get yourself” whatever else it is. We’ll leave him on one side at the moment. I had another man, he came, and then he came to my home for tea and spent the entire time explaining to me that because we didn’t have a proper organ or a proper this or a proper that, we were a complete dog’s breakfast and should be taken out and dispatched to a remote desert island and never heard from again.

Now, in both cases, Sunday morning, the first guy was up here singing like a lintie—singing like a nightingale he was, you know, these horrible songs that he’d been writing about. And that other guy was here Sunday night who was so concerned about the organ. He’s a horrible singer; you never want to sit next to him. But he was giving it loudly as well. Okay? Now, what has happened to those guys? Well, in the first instance, this guy got converted. He used to be a change jingler. He used to, when you sang, he just jingled change in his pocket. That was his contribution to the praise. Nothing came out of his mouth. But now he’s up there singing like a crazy person. Now he’s spiritually alive. And my brother over here is spiritually assisted. And both of them are spiritually active. That they have said, “I will.” That they haven’t come to attend a performance provided from the front, but they have come to be the members of a choir that together is giving praise to Almighty God.

Maybe I just say a word about the practicalities of things, just for a moment as it comes to mind, because both Justin and Ruth gave me just some pointers that were uppermost in their mind. The way in which our system works is that these folks who lead us in our praise have to be particularly flexible, and they have to have a good attitude of heart, because I’m not easy to deal with—as our brother knows here, you know, who thought that he was joining our worship team, and now he’s planning not coming back to the church. But… So, the way the thing works, we haven’t had a traditional up-front leader of praise for—fifteen years? Twenty years. So, for twenty years we have been operating on a kinda quasi-British model, where, in Britain, if you’ve gone to worship—it’s changed a lot in the last while, and it’s much more Americanized in many places—but by and large, the pastor would be the one who led the congregation in praise and who, in establishing the framework of things, would be the one.

People say to me, “Well, why do you stand up there?” And I say, “To prevent somebody else from standing up here.” In other words, it’s a ministry of prevention, in that… I don’t mean to prevent Justin or any of these folks standing up here, but I just realized that constitutionally, for myself, it wasn’t a happy thing for me to end up being a visitor in my own congregation, to have a slot given to me in the context of the worship and the praise. And so, you either have a clash of two strategies, or one strategy is gonna have to win out. And so there’s no value in clashing, and therefore, if there’s going to be a strategy win out, then you’re gonna have to develop it in a way that is true to oneself and one’s congregation and also to the people.

And so, the way in which we arrive at things is a result of a sort of complementarian approach, so that Ruth will know where we are in terms of the passage of Scripture, we will talk about it, she will come back with some suggested songs, I will say, “I don’t like that song,” or “Could we do that song?” or she will say, “Can we learn a new song?” And the choosing of those songs begins with the text of Scripture.

When it comes to the singing of those songs, then we’re dependent on the musicians to select keys that it is possible for the congregation to sing the songs. And not every song, you will have noticed—especially in traditional hymnbooks—seems to be set in a key that is singable, at least for the average male. And I think it’s one of the reasons that men start to step back from the praise, because frankly, it’s a jolly difficult thing for them to find a pitch at which they can do this. And so it’s imperative, then, that those who lead us in the praise don’t simply pitch things to fit their own vocal capacities but do that in order to make it possible for the vast majority of people to participate. And it is on the basis of that that, then, certain songs would find their way in and certain songs would actually find their way out. We’re not concerned with whether the song was new or old, but whether it has a melody line that is actually singable and whether it has a lyrical content to it that is actually theologically helpful, so that we recognize that we are singing truth to one another, even as we give worship and praise to God.

Ultimately, the creative order is sufficient for us to be accountable to God, but it is not sufficient for us to be saved by God. The only way we can be saved is as a result of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

And I was fascinated—I’m sure you were too—by the way in which Tim this afternoon moved from those three great expressions of the cultural narrative immediately to Frozen. I’ve never had a conversation with him about it, but when I mentioned to my daughters, I said, “You know, I think that is a dreadful song.” And they said, “Oh no, it’s a lovely song.” I said, “No, it’s a lovely melody, but did you ever listen to the words?” And then, as he pointed out, those first three cultural narratives are all addressed in the way in which that song is sung. And everywhere I go, little children know all the words to that song. They know them everywhere. And so, that speaks to the power of music in reinforcing things in the hearts of children. And so, when we think about it in those terms vis-à-vis our own children in the congregation, we want also to recognize that we’re just kind of overgrown children.

Does anybody want to just say anything at this point? Someone does here. Yeah. We have a microphone, so we can pass it to you. What do you want to say? Good night, or…? There, right there. Right there.

Q: No, I wanted to say something about the worship with the mind. It seems like we’re depending on our minds when it comes to the lyric. But what about Kallen worshipping through her instrument? A running joke that a friend of mine and I have is, “If Yo-Yo Ma showed up at our church because his car broke down on a Sunday, would we let him play his cello in our service?” Not because he as a Buddhist would worship the living God, but because he as a creation of God has exquisite skill, which… I don’t enter into it with my mind, rationally, when I listen to Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suite; I enter into it with my soul and my heart, because it’s just splendid. I wondered if you could comment on that, on the role of nonlyrical music in worship.

Alistair: Well, the role of music like that… Irrespective of its source, all good music, if you like, is a gift of God’s common grace. So that, if we take it a step beyond that to secular music, where there is truth and beauty expressed, then we rejoice in that, irrespective of the-person-who-produces-it’s understanding of its source, we realize, yes, that it comes from God, that beauty and musicality are gifts of God’s grace to us.

As to the specific question about whether we would have Yo-Yo Ma play his cello because he’s a very good cello player: I’m not sure. I don’t know. I’d have to think about it. Because I know what would happen: it would be a major diversion, it would be a huge distraction, and people would be speaking about how amazing it was that this great player was there. And that’s the danger and the difficulty with musicians, if I might say so. Because musicians are created to perform. Every time you give a child a violin, it’s like, “Oh, we all gotta sit down and listen to this dreadful screeching.” And so, they are… The average school orchestra, it’s like dragging your fingers over a blackboard. And so, the whole notion is, “I’m there to perform.” That’s why it’s a wonderful thing when a girl like this, who is a classical musician and trained, or when our folks from the Cleveland Orchestra—and she’s from the Cleveland Institute of Music—or others are here, all of that is contributing to it. Yeah.

But it is set within the overall framework of who God is, what God has done, why God is to be worshipped, how he has revealed himself. So we’re not gonna accept that the natural created order gives us everything we need, or that well-played music gives us everything we need, because ultimately, the creative order is sufficient for us to be accountable to God, but it is not sufficient for us to be saved by God. The only way we can be saved is a result of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. And so, music in itself, if it does not ultimately point there, then it leaves us short.

But I say that as something of a philistine, brother, and I stand to be corrected, okay? But that’s the best I can do with it for the moment. I hope I’m not saying there is not a place for that or it does not send us in that way. But I would argue that there is actually a rationale to that, because musicians tend to be good mathematicians, and there is a mathematical progression in Mahler’s symphonies—albeit dark—and is true in the others. And our minds rationally identify… That’s why Shostakovich and banging on garbage can lids and everything jars with the average person. Because intellectually it goes, “This doesn’t sound right.” You gotta be peculiar. You gotta have fallen off your horse to really get there, you know. So.

Yep?

Q: At Christmas, wanting to serve the community and share the gospel with the community at an event that they’ll still come, we don’t have the in-house assets, musically, to do all the things that we could do if we invite some folks who are not regenerate but who are great musicians to be with us. Now, we do, in that event, have the opportunity to share the gospel with them as we host these outreach events. But what would you say about the Spirit of God at work in worship and in that? What’s your take on that and your coaching to us in that matter?

Alistair: Well, we would do the exact same thing, Eric. So, we would combine those who know and love the Lord with those who don’t. I mean, I don’t have a problem with that. It’s a wonderful outreach opportunity that starts right within the orchestration, you know, before ever your other guests have come. And it’s a peculiar opportunity, too, for our Christian musicians to be in that context and to share, so we do that—in the same way that I’d be very happy to have, you know, a non-Christian person reading the Scriptures. Because the Scriptures are the Scriptures. I’m not gonna have a non-Christian person give a talk, but I’d be happy to let them read the Bible. Because God’s Word will be set forth.

I’ll take one more question up here, and then we’ll go once again.

Q: What about the role of emotions? You used the word rational.

Alistair: Right.

Q: I agree with all those things. But is it wrong as a pastor to hope you also elicit a certain emotional response, as long as it’s wrapped in Scripture and, you know, all that?

Alistair: No, sorry. If I gave that impression, I didn’t mean to. When I talk about from the mind to the heart… When the Bible talks about the heart, it’s talking about the epicenter of our existence, right? It involves both the mind and the emotions and the spirit. So, no, there should be some kind of visceral reaction, if you like. I mean, how can we… You know, if we can sing, “And when I think that God, his Son not sparing,”[11] you know… Like, something’s not good here, right?

Now, the very routine of praise, though, can deaden us to things. The repetition of songs, we can become so accustomed to things. And if we use even our own sense of being stirred as the determining factor about whether we’ve really engaged or not, then we will often really disappoint ourselves, because sometimes we’re not in the same place as on another occasion. I led four services on Sunday, and so I did the same thing in every service. But in one service—I can’t remember which one it was—as I sang a particular song, as I came to a particular verse, and as I looked out on the congregation, knowing many of the people in the congregation, what they’d gone through, I just was overwhelmed by the sense of God’s amazing grace and grandeur. Now, I had sung it once before; I was gonna sing it once again. So, we take that as what it is.

You know, I remember I had a black friend at LBC who went to the Church of God in Dollis Hill. He was a black Pentecostal. He became the general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance. Joel Edwards. And I told him… I was working for an accountancy firm, delivering mail in the summer. And I was walking down the Tottenham Court Road, and as I walked down the Tottenham Court Road, in the midst of hundreds and hundreds of people, just in an ordinary day in London, I just was overwhelmed by a sense of God’s grace and kindness. And I couldn’t explain it. It came out of nowhere. And so, I’m not gonna tell just anybody about that. I gotta find a Pentecostal to tell it to, ’cause… I’m not gonna tell it to someone in the Free Church. He’ll send me to a psychiatrist. But I told Joel, and he said, “Cherish that.” He said, “It probably won’t happen that often.” You know. So, my granddaughter is no less loved if I simply walk beside her than if I pick her up and hug her. But she loves that, doesn’t she? And sometimes, in that embrace, there is a communion that wouldn’t be otherwise.

Can I just take a couple of minutes and give you the observations of a worship leader as to five ways to improve congregational singing? This is not coming from me. This is coming from our friend.[12] And I’m not gonna expound on it. I’ll just tell you what he says is absolutely important.

Number one, if you’re gonna strengthen congregational singing, then you need to “begin with the pastor.” You need to begin with the pastor. Any congregation that’s engaged in worship through singing, there’s a direct correlation, he suggests, with the pastor’s engagement in it or the pastor’s disengagement from it. “Every pastor,” he says, “must be intimately involved in the language [that is] being placed in the congregation’s mouth, for [the] singing ultimately affects how they think, how they feel,” brother, “how they pray, and how they live. … Pastors … have a duty [not only] to be involved in preparing for the time of congregational singing; [but] they … have a responsibility … personally [to] model and demonstrate the importance of it.” Our people take a great cue from us; we can’t get away from this. They know whether we ourselves are just exhorting them or whether we are participating as well. And we give a lead, and it’s a vulnerable position to be in, but nevertheless, it is part of our duty.

So number one, begin with the pastor. Number two, “sing great songs.” Sing great songs. “Well,” you say, “well, my idea of a great song and your idea of a great song is not necessarily the case—especially you being an old fogy and me being a young person,” or whatever it might be. But, you know, great songs are songs, I think, that have stood the test of time or that we immediately understand, “This is gonna stand the test of time.” I mean, “In Christ Alone” is a new song, but it’ll be around, right? “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” is an old song, but it’s still around, and so on. And what is it that makes it great? Well, you’ve got a deeply meaningful lyric, and you’ve got a really singable melody. And the reason you know that it’s good is ’cause you can’t wait to sing it again, or you love it when you sing it—as opposed to “Oh no, I can’t believe we’re singing this one again!” Great songs. And obviously, there are some people who don’t like this and don’t like that, but just in terms of the family of God, you can tell those that have just coalesced with them.

And he goes on to say that to create those songs, it’s not simply “laying scriptural truth alongside any melody.” And certainly it’s not laying down scriptural truth with a dreadful melody. You know when you go to one of these parties where they have cheese and crackers? And so you take the cheese, you take the crackers. Have you ever managed to get the right number of crackers and the right number of cheese, and just took it, and then you ate it? No. Most of the time, you got a bit of cheese left, or you got a cracker and no cheese. So you gotta go and either leave it or whatever else it is. Have you noticed in some of the lazy songwriting of the last twenty years, it’s a kind of cheese-and-cracker thing, in that they either run out of melody or they run out of words. But they don’t care. Right? So, let’s say you’ve got these words, and you’ve still got two words left, but you’ve no melody left. Then you just go like, “Mm-mm,” and you get through, get on to the next one. Or if you have run out of words, then you just, you know, you just fill in. Yeah! That’s good. And you’re going like, “What is that about?”

Well, I’ll tell you what it’s about. You know, if you’re a carpenter, and you’re coming along the end of the thing, or you’re a plumber, you join the pipes up. I mean, you have to join them up. You just can’t go, “Oh, well, that will do. It doesn’t matter. It’ll leak a wee bit. You know, it’s okay. You know, nobody’s going to drown. Who cares?” They say, “Get the plumber out of the house! We don’t want somebody like that in here.” So, if you’re a poet, do your poetry. If you’re a lyricist, don’t come and tell me you’re finished until you’re finished. Don’t give us a half-baked lyric and a half-fulfilled melody line and expect us to sing it. We want to sing it. But do the hard work. Sing great songs.

Thirdly, “cultivate a congregation-centered priority in those who lead.” A congregation-centered priority in those who lead. I’ll just quote from it: from the individual who leads music to the praise team standing up front to those of us who follow as members of the congregation, it is absolutely vital to build a culture where everyone realizes “our corporate responsibility before God and to each other is to sing together.” It is an actual command of God. Time and time and time again in the Bible, we’re told, “Sing! Sing to the Lord. Sing! Now, come on, sing!”

Now, I can tell you again, I was here Sunday, and there were people up there in the balcony. And one fellow, I don’t know if he’d fallen asleep standing up or what had happened to him—and God forgive me if he had been struck dumb since I hadn’t seen him the previous Monday—but if he was in full capacity with his faculties, I don’t know what was wrong with him. Because he never sang a word. I’m not gonna tell you who he is or what service he was in; it doesn’t matter. But I was absolutely mystified. I almost wanted to go, “Hey, let’s just stop this for a minute. Hey, how you doing up there, man, eh? We’re singing. Did you get that? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, we’re all singing. That includes you. You see?” This guy said, “No.” He said, “Nah. Go ahead.”

And as I’ve traveled for the last three months, I’ve noticed that in congregations where I go, unless they’ve grasped this, the further back you go in the congregation, the more the singing diminishes, all the way back. And part of it has to do with the fact that the worship team, the praise team, has not cultivated in the congregation the priority of congregational-centered praise. So in fairness to the people who are further back, many of them have decided, “I’m not even supposed to sing. Because the volume that is coming to me from the front is so vast that it’s irrelevant, because nobody can even hear my voice if I sang out.” And so, if this team does not understand that together we are offering our praise to God, then the possibility is that they just go ahead and do what they do. And that’s what happens—that you’ve been up since half past six in the morning preparing, and you just can’t wait to sing, but the people that have come in have not been preparing since half past six. And you think we’re gonna jump-start them in five minutes with a couple of songs? Unless you have come out of a context of preparation for praise.

Fourthly, penultimately, “serve the congregation through musical excellence.” This comes, I think, in part to what our brother is saying here. And maybe there’s a good quote in here. “The music need not be complex or style-specific,” but we need to take it seriously. It should be fresh and interesting and with arrangements and sounds.

And incidentally, this also introduces the question of liturgy and the structure of worship that gives ebb and flow to the way in which we engage these things. And for ourselves at Parkside—and I know David Robertson wouldn’t like this—but we’re not unhappy with dipping in fairly consistently to the Book of Common Prayer and to the framework of liturgy there, whether it is in the General Confession, or whether it is in the reciting of the Apostles’ Creed, or whatever it might be—not as a constant element, but nevertheless as an important element.

And then, fifthly and finally, “manage the congregation’s repertoire intentionally.” Manage the congregation’s repertoire intentionally. In other words, we have to “be intentional about what is [being] sung.” We’re not gonna treat this “like … ‘shuffle’ on your iPod.” We’re going to remind ourselves continually that our “praise begins with God and his glory, [and] not man and his need.” I think we have to be honest and ask ourselves, “Why are we singing at a given point in the service? And is what we’re singing appropriate for this point in the service?” And we also ought to probably spend time on a Monday morning, beginning on a Monday morning by asking at least, “How did the congregation sing, and how can we help them to do it better?” And then asking God to help us in that regard.

Well, I can’t remember when we started, but I think we’ve gone on long enough, don’t you? Does anyone else have any comment they want to make? We’ll sing a song or two. Yeah, everybody. All right this is not a… Yep, go ahead, brother.

Q: You’re mentioning about the importance of using the rational to access the spiritual, and I think you also talked about going through the mind to the heart…

Alistair: Right.

Q: Can you speak a bit about how that correlates not just for the lyrics but for the musical side as well, since some of that is much more instantly accessible emotionally; some needs more rational.

Alistair: That’s very good. That’s good. And Ruth actually made comment of that somewhere in her material here. She talked about the importance of the melody line supporting the lyric rather than dominating the lyric in such a way that it may actually diminish the value of it. Does that at all hit the kind of question you’re asking? In other words, I’m not a fan of singing about the atoning work of Christ in a way that is a sort of jig, you know. It’s a lot of fun to do it, but it just seems so amazingly incongruous. You know, we’re about as far away from St. Matthew’s Passion when we start that as anything that there might possibly be.

Now, some other people don’t feel that conflict, but I do. And I think that some of the… Like, I’ll give you an illustration. There’s a hymn that is sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.” I don’t know if you ever sing it. But “Auld Lang Syne” was written by Robert Burns; it’s sung around the world: “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?”[13] So, okay. Well, I can’t have that. I can’t sing, you know, something, “And Jesus he was…” [hums], ’cause I’m already on “Auld lang syne… Happy New Year! Whoa-oh!” So, it’s impossible. I cannot sing to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.” There’s only one song can be sung to that tune, and that’s that song, you know? And we do that with certain things, and it completely overwhelms it.

Is that fair, Justin? Okay. Sorry. We’re at the behest of the microphone men.

Yes sir? Okay, last one. This gentleman here, how’s that?

Q: Alistair?

Alistair: Oh, sorry, that gentleman there.

Q: Your first of the five points was talking about the pastor leading in the singing. To borrow off of something that Tim Keller had mentioned today and how we know the ending… I realize that he was talking about the Old Testament and New Testament. There are times where the pastor knows exactly what is going to be coming, and say you’re preaching through Isaiah, and you’re coming to Isaiah 53, and perhaps you don’t feel like singing. How do you still lead your church in worship when you know the weight of what you’re about to preach?

Alistair: Well, I think that, again, is where the choice of hymnody becomes so important. Because there are songs that are not necessarily easy to sing, but they’re set melodically and tonally in such a way as to be able to either prepare for a context like that or to come out of a framework like that. You know, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities.”[14] I can’t just think at the moment—maybe you can—of a particular melody that helps in that. Well. Yep? Yeah, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” would be one. “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” Yeah. Yeah. But I think your point is well made: that we don’t want to create discord in the flow and the development of what we’re doing by singing songs that may be good and fine in their own right, but to sing them at the wrong time and in the wrong way actually robs them of their beauty and of their benefit to us.

Thank you. And I hope somewhere in the middle of all of this, there’s just one or two things that are helpful. I trust that all whom I have interacted with will receive my gestures in the spirit of genuine Christian affection. And anything that I’ve got wrong, I’ve got wrong. We’re not a finished product on this at the church, and that’s not why we’re doing this. We’re reaching forward, and I’m even getting emails now from folks who are sitting out there saying, “Hey, what about this, what about that?”—including, “Did you mention the fact that preaching is part of the worship?” Which, of course, I never did. Because it is, you know—that we worship God in the preaching too.

Well, we pray, shall we?

Lord, thank you for a terrific day. Thank you for David and for Tim and for their ministry to us. We pray for them as they rest tonight, that they may do so secure in your love. We thank you for the many people who today have been serving, again, so faithfully and working so hard in order to make it possible for us to eat and to have the cleanliness of these facilities and the access and the regress and all besides. We praise you for this.

And we pray that tonight, that you will watch over and between us. Be with our loved ones where they are. And help us, Lord, to constantly look away from ourselves to you, our Savior and our King. Thank you that we’ve been born again to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an imperishable—that is unfading, reserved in heaven for us.[15] And in the light of this, we go to our rest and look to a new day. And hear our prayers, and let our cry come unto you. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.


[1] See Psalm 25:7; 103:9.

[2] Henry F. Lyte, “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” (1834). Lyrics lightly altered.

[3] Psalm 102:18 (NIV).

[4] John 4:23 (paraphrased).

[5] John 5:23 (ESV).

[6] “Of the Assembling of the Congregation, and Their Behaviour in the Public Worship of God,” Directory for Public Worship.

[7] Isaiah 6:1, 5 (ESV).

[8] John Calvin, The Gospel According to St. John, 1–10, trans. T. H. L. Parker, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 98.

[9] S. Trevor Francis, “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” (1875).

[10] Lanny Wolfe, “Surely the Presence of the Lord” (1977). Lyrics lightly altered.

[11] Stuart K. Hine, “How Great Thou Art” (1949).

[12] The following section contains repeated references to and quotations from Keith Getty, “Five Ways to Improve Congregational Singing,” Evangelical Magazine, May/June 2015, https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/five-ways-to-improve-congregational-singing/.

[13] Robert Burns, “Auld Lang Syne” (1788).

[14] Isaiah 53:5 (KJV).

[15] See 1 Peter 1:3–4.

Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.