On this page

  1. Introduction
  2. What does the New Testament say about singing songs?
    1. The letters
    2. Revelation
    3. Acts
    4. The Gospels
    5. Conclusion
  3. What is the understanding of worship in the Old Testament?
    1. Words for worship in the Old Testament
  4. What can we conclude about worship?
    1. Have we taught people that singing songs is all that worship is?
    2. Have we set up a theology that discourages worship as a lifestyle?
    3. Have we set up an expectation of entertainment?
    4. Have we missed out on some of the value of songs?
    5. Do our songs reflect a New Testament view?
    6. Does it matter?

1. Introduction

I have been a “worship” leader since around 1991.  I have hungrily read just about everything that the Vineyard has ever written on worship and loved it.  I have trained worship teams and developed a whole philosophy of worship at my university, which is still running some ten years later.  I have taught the Vineyard values of worship at national conferences, in churches in Southampton, in churches in other cities, in India and to anyone who would listen.  I am not trying to give my CV here, but rather to say that I was sold on this thing.  If you had asked me then I would have said that I would rather lead worship than anything else.

Over time, a few incidents caused me to want to examine what the New Testament teaches on worship.  Part of was been an increasing boredom in me with singing songs.  Also, looking around and seeing people who sing songs with all their heart and yet live lifestyles that are not congruent with what they sing and yet believe that they have worshipped.  As I read through the Old Testament prophets I began to see an increasing pattern of God judging them because they had limited their worship to being their gatherings, festivals and assemblies and had neglected the poor and the outcasts and addressing injustice.  I think that God’s opinion on this is very well summed up in Amos 5.

We have always taught that worship is not just about singing songs but I was beginning to question that this message is the one that is being received by the church (by which, I mean our movement and, consequently, the wider church).  Bearing in mind that I am coming from a point of view that is completely immersed in the Vineyard teaching on worship and intimacy, I began to wonder whether the emphasis we place on worship – by which we really mean singing songs – has a precedent in the New Testament.

What I have seen in the New Testament as I have sought to study this has shocked me and has been enough to change my view to be a long way from what it was.  I believe that, whatever our experience may be, we need to take seriously what the Bible says rather than build theology around this experience.  This is an attempt to explain what I have found in my study.  It is quite argumentative and I do start from the assumption that the reader is starting from the assumptions that I first started with, i.e. that “singing songs” is “worship”.  I have attempted to build an argument to show why I now believe that this is not true and why I believe that this is not a conclusion that one could ever come to by seriously looking at the Bible objectively.

2. What does the New Testament say about singing songs?

I have gone through every reference in the NT about singing songs, looked at each passage in the context that it is written and then looked at what this teaches us about the link between “worship” and singing songs.  Below is every one of these references.

2a. The Letters

What teaching is there for us about singing songs from Paul and other letter writers?

Romans 15:7-11

Paul is quoting Psalm 18 and the point being that the Gentiles are included.  The language appears to be metaphorical and is clearly poetic and I cannot imagine that anyone can argue that this is meant to be literal.  Certainly the original thrust seems to be “go and celebrate YHWH among the nations and talk about how amazing he is”.  The point being that the good news is spread to the Gentiles.  There is an assumption that singing will be part of this but this seems to be in the context of singing about how great God is for the Gentiles.

1 Corinthians 14:13-19

The emphasis here is that people should be able to understand what is going on and not be excluded by people “going off on one”.  There is undoubtedly an apparent assumption that some singing is taking place in the meeting and so we can, at least, conclude that singing was something that happened in, at least, some of the church gatherings.

Ephesians 5:15-20

This seems to be the one of the clearest encouragements to sing songs when we gather as the people of God.  Paul suggests that we sing to each other as well as to God.

Colossians 3:15-17

Again, similar exhortation to sings songs when we get together.

James 5:13-14

James is exhorting us to celebrate God by singing songs.  We are feeling happy, we should sing!

2b. Revelation

What can we see going on in the heavens regarding singing?

Revelation 5:6-12

This seems to tell us that singing is going on in heaven – the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders and the angels are singing to Jesus.  Even within the context of apocalyptic literature it seems to be reasonable to assume that this is relatively literal.

Revelation 14:1-3

Again, this is a report of singing to God in heaven.  Again assuming that this is literal, humans are singing the songs this time.

Revelation 15:1-4

Again, we can see singing going on in heaven and, assuming that this is literal, being sung to Jesus.  This time it again seems to be humans singing.

2c. Acts

This is the only biblical model that we have of church life.  This is the first believers’ interpretation of what Jesus taught.  This must give us some definite clues to what Jesus’ thinking was on the whole subject.  How do we see the early church using singing?  What prominence did it have in their worship?  How did they work out the teaching that they had about it?

Acts 16:25-26

This is the only reference in the whole of Acts to anyone singing.  This does not occur in a public meeting but in prison.  They knew hymns and so must have sung them to at least some degree but interestingly, we do not seem to see any reference to it in any accounts of the gatherings of the early church!  Can this be true?  There is no reference anywhere in Acts to singing taking place in any of the meetings of the early church.  Luke was writing to Theophilus, a Gentile, who would not have had the assumption that singing went on at meetings, and yet he does not mention it.

Can we conclude that they never sang songs?  I doubt that in the light of the epistles’ teaching and the fact that they knew songs to sing in prison.  We can however seriously suggest that it was not a significant part of their meetings – certainly less significant than eating (for example), which Luke mentions regularly.

2d. The Gospels

If Jesus is the lens through which we interpret the whole of scripture then how important was singing to him in his worship of his Father?

Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26

This is the same in both gospels and follows the, so-called, Last Supper.  So, Jesus sang a hymn.  This is the only reference to him singing in all the gospels.  I raise the same points as in Acts, that the gospel writers do not make reference to singing songs apart from this one.  Luke, writing to a Gentile, does not even make this reference and John, who spent three years with Jesus, similarly, makes no reference to Jesus singing songs.  If he had thought that it had been a significant part of his time with Jesus why, then, does he not refer to it at all?


In a culture where there is no television or radio and where people were not very literate, songs would have been a significant part of life.  Families would sing together, stories would be told through song, lessons learned through song, fun would be had through song and spirits would be lifted through song.  Singing songs like this is not a normal part of our culture and so I wonder whether Paul would exhort us to sing to each other or whether there would be a more culturally relevant expression that he would suggest?

I think that it is fair to say that, to some degree, songs were clearly a part of church life and I would not suggest that they were not.  The church sang songs to each other and to God.  However, there seems to be so little emphasis on this in the New Testament that I find it hard to conclude that this could have been anything more than a small part of their life and certainly not central.  Also, from examining every single reference in the New Testament to singing, I have been somewhat surprised to find that absolutely no link is ever made between “worship” and singing songs.

The Greek word for worship used throughout the New Testament is “proskuneo”, which literally means to “prostrate oneself” or to “pay homage to”, is best summed up in the idea of a puppy at his master’s feet.  The concept was a familiar one for the way a subject would respond to royalty or to an important person.  There is a degree of adoration, love and, possibly, intimacy in the understanding of this concept.

It is also significant that the word rarely appears outside the Gospels and Revelation (Paul only uses the word once) and that almost all of these references are literal.  In other words, whenever you see that word it literally refers to someone bowing down or prostrating themselves before Jesus.  There is nothing in the word to imply that they were singing to him.  If we approach this word with the prejudice of singing being worship then we conclude this to mean intimacy and adoration.  However, if we remove this assumption and look at the example of a puppy at his master’s feet I would suggest that the meaning is actually obedience. It is not a metaphor for intimate songs; it is a description of someone falling on their face.  A dog looking up at his master waiting for the next instruction.  That is proskuneo – to sit at our master’s feet, setting aside our agenda, waiting for his command.

To make the leap from a word that means a physical act of “bowing down” or “prostrating oneself” to “worship” and then to say that this means “singing songs” seems to be a jump that Jesus, the disciples, the early church and the New Testament writers certainly never made.  To then work back and thus make singing songs the central act of the church is, at best, very dubious and seems to have very little basis in the New Testament.  We have to ask some questions about this.

3. What is the understanding of worship in the Old Testament?

One argument for the apparent lack of importance of singing in the New Testament is that it was assumed anyway because of the background understanding of the Jewish Christians.  Jesus was a good Jew and therefore would have been used to singing songs at the synagogue, as were Paul and the other apostles.

An immediate response to this is that the Gentiles were not used to it, and yet Paul does not in any way teach the Gentile churches that singing songs is worship.  Whilst he does exhort them to sing songs to each other and to God, it does not seem to be a major emphasis of his teaching – certainly not such that it would be considered as central.  If they, unlike the Jews, had no background then he would have had to teach them this, but did not.

3a. Words for worship in the Old Testament

Here are the words used for worship in the Old Testament.

Shawkhaw Genesis 22: translates as “worship”, “reverence”, “bow down”.
Awbad Exodus 20: literally translates “serve”, “toil”, “labour”, in the sense of a servant for his master.  This is the word used throughout Exodus, in the Ten Commandments, here, as well as the whole episode with Pharaoh and God wanting his people to worship him in the desert.
Segeed Daniel 3: literally means to prostrate oneself and pay homage to.
Awbad Which is translated in the NIV as “worship”, seems to represent service rendered to a master whereas it seems that shawkhaw and segeed both have to do with bowing down and paying homage to someone or something and convey the idea of humbling oneself before a greater one.  This may be metaphorical or it may be literal – given the culture the latter is most likely – but does that, necessarily, translate as songs?

So, we see that the whole concept of worship in the Old Testament is actually very similar to that in the New Testament – service or paying homage to.  I suggest that this would be how anyone would expect to serve a king – to pay homage to him by bowing down to him and then by serving him.  I accept that singing songs may be an acceptable part of this but can it be argued that this would be central?

Again there seems to be no link here other than the use in the Psalms where the psalmist expresses a desire or commitment to worship God.  Even here, there is nothing to suggest that the songs themselves were understood as “worship”.  I still find that there is not any link in the Old Testament between “worship” and “singing songs” and would still argue that singing can, at best, be seen as a small part of worship even by the people of Israel – certainly to begin with!

4. What can we conclude about worship?

As we look at singing in the New Testament we see:

  • Singing is never linked with worship.
  • Singing seems to have been a part of church life.
  • Singing does not seem to have been a significant part of church life or Jesus’ life, if the gospels and Luke’s accounts of the early church are to be taken seriously.

So, putting it all together, we have a church that met together every day: ate, apparently, on occasion, sang a few songs to each other and to God and served the poor, the lost and each other.  We have to conclude that their understanding of worship never overlapped into singing at all.  We also have to conclude that singing songs was a small part of what they did.

From what we see we must conclude that they understood worship as being the way that they lived.  This, quite possibly, included singing songs to a small degree – but it was just a very minor part of their overall worship, which seems to have been far more to do with care of the poor and the lost.

We accept that worship is the highest calling that we, as believers, have.  If singing songs is “worship” then this should take the bulk of our time, energy and money.  We should employ people to write songs, to lead the music; we should invest as much as possible in training songwriters and singers and musicians and “worship” leaders; we should spread the word and encourage others to do the same.

If, however, singing songs is not worship then we need to think again.  I think that we really need to think again!  I think that there are some key questions that we need to ask.

4a. Have we taught people that singing songs is all that worship is?

Even if we teach that worship is not just singing songs but is also about lifestyle then I seriously question whether this message is really heard. I would go further and say that I actually believe that to call singing songs, “worship” is damaging.

We have to question what we communicate in our actions as I suggest that we have communicated that worship is singing songs.  One of the most popular songs to have come out of the Vineyard in recent years is “Come Now is the Time to Worship”, which is always used as an opening song.  This seems to me to communicate that the worship starts at the beginning of singing songs (whether this was ever what was intended or not).

4b. Have we set up a theology that discourages worship as a lifestyle?

The whole Vineyard theology of worship, which I have taught so many times is to start with a “call to worship” and progress through into intimacy with God.  This, by definition, assumes and makes provision for people having had a hard week and needing to be drawn out of their “unholy” mindset into a “holy” mindset and intimacy with God.  So, if we are trying to teach people to worship God 24/7 but we arrange our “worship” such that the assumption is that you need “charging up”, have we not set up a system that, not only encourages, but further exacerbates the “feed me” mentality that we have?

This seems to be so opposite to the New Testament and early church idea of people worshipping all week and coming together to encourage each other.  It seems to be a system designed to produce Christians who struggle through the week and get recharged on Sunday.

4c. Have we set up an expectation of entertainment?

We have worked so hard at producing high quality music with very stringent requirements of our musicians that produces what we have called excellence.  The New Testament ideal is that all come and bring something to the meeting.  As I look around our church I realise that the better the band is the more we discourage other people from bringing anything.  We set up and exacerbate the idea of the professionals at the front, which we have said that we do not hold.  Also, the better we get the more entertaining it is and the more we encourage dependence on the professionals to feed the people.  Perhaps we need to ask the same question about preaching, but that is another story!

If we sought to find ways of involving all or at least inviting all to participate in some way in the meetings, without doubt, the music would not be as good – but the question is, will the worship be worse?  I really think not.  I can only see it increasing people’s desire to worship all week ready to give at the meetings rather than a mentality of worship centering on the meetings themselves.

4d. Have we missed out on some of the value of songs?

It is fair to think that a major part of the value of songs is to teach.  Graham Cray has said that one can tell what a church or movement believes by their songbook.  Because we have equated proskuneo with songs our songbooks, however, are almost entirely focused on intimacy with God: my adoration of Him; His love for me; my desire to love Him; my identity in Him; my desire to worship Him.  We do not see many songs about the humanity of Christ, the sovereignty of God, His creation, the poor, His heart for the lost; His plan for the world.

Graham Cray commented about the Soul Survivor (and, therefore, by definition, our) songbook; there are gaping holes.  We are communicating a very small part of what we believe through our songs.  As John Wimber said, people will forget sermons but will always remember songs.  I suggest that the reason that this is so narrow is because we have said singing songs is “worship” and therefore cannot be about God and must be intimate and reflect proskuneo.

4e. Do our songs reflect a New Testament view?

Stuart Murray Williams has also questioned the emphasis on “I”/”me” songs in the church today. As I looked through the Psalms I found that approximately half of them use this language.  Upon further examination, I have concluded that, conservatively, about half of these are personal songs as opposed to congregational songs.  So we have a split roughly into thirds of “I” songs, “we” songs and songs that just talk about who God is.  If anything, the latter is larger than a third.

More challenging is the New Testament.  If we look at all the songs and prayers in the New Testament we find that almost all of them are communal or just about God.  There are very few that are individual. (Mary’s song would be an exception, although this is completely a personal song about something that God had done for her specifically).  Jesus tells us to go off on our own and pray the Lord’s prayer and yet we are still told to pray “our” father.  If we look at the songs that we are singing we find that we have almost the opposite proportion to the New Testament – mainly songs that are personal prayers with a few exceptions.  There is another worrying fact that many of the songs about God’s character focus very quickly back onto “me” or “I” and this can easily communicate that God is all these things for my benefit alone.

The problem is that we live in a very individualistic society and I think that our songs have been more driven by that than by the Bible.  The subject of many of our songs is me, my faith, my intentions or my desires.  The whole emphasis of the NT is on us being a community and so all the prayers and songs are “we” (if they are about us at all!).  We are not a group of individuals singing but we are the body of Christ joining together and singing as one.

Looking through many of the songs that we use, I have come to ask a lot of questions about the theology in them.  There is a prevalence of songs that talk about things being fine when we are “in God’s presence”.  The New Testament teaches us that we are always in God’s presence.  A lot of popular songs ask the Holy Spirit to come, but the New Testament teaches that he is in us.  These two examples immediately spring to mind.  The response may be that this is the language of the psalms to which I would pose the question, but is that the language of the NT?

The thing is that, like it or not, as I stated above, we teach far more through our songs than perhaps anything else.  Whether we mean to or not, we will communicate something and so it is vital that what we communicate is what the bible communicates.  I would say that this is that we are one body sharing our lives in common and seeking to serve our saviour out of this community. My fear is that we are actually communicating a very small part of the gospel, some erroneous theology, and the individualism that our society communicates, namely that we are individuals each seeking to further our own personal relationship with him.

4f. Does it matter?

What scares me most, as I said at the start, is reading the OT prophets and seeing a frightening parallel between the Israel of then to the church of today – “but Lord, have we not sung our songs to you…?”  (See Isaiah 58 and Amos 5, to name a couple).  If we call “songs”, “worship”, then people come on a Sunday and sing and think that they have “worshipped” but this is not what the bible refers to as worship. God was fairly clear through Amos, what he thought about that – “I hate it, take your horrible songs away!”   The worrying thing was that because the Israelites were meeting up and singing their songs and having their feasts and festivals they thought that they were worshipping God.

Have we propagated the idea of songs being central to church life.  What ever we say we believe about worship, our cheque-books and our platforms show that we value professional musicians, worship leaders, songwriters and music above anything else.  No matter how often we may say that worship is not just about songs, our actions tell a very different story.  I fear that we may be guilty of drawing people away from true worship into focus on singing and I fear that we are in danger of ending up in exactly the same place as the people of Israel that are referred to in Amos.

I think that it does matter.  I don’t think that I am arguing semantics or word definitions but how we respond to the highest calling that we have.  Do we sing songs, or do we seek to become radical disciples building radical churches who are impacting communities with the way they worship God day in day out and the way that they serve the poor and each other?