Psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit:

Paul’s formula for congregational worship

Adriana Perera, Master of Music, is the director of worship and musical arts at Loma Linda University Church, Loma Linda, California, United States.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is a worldwide community driven by the mandate to “ ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ ” (Matt. 28:19, NIV). Today, more than ever, the global church has turned into a colorful tapestry composed of people from different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Indeed, the Pew Research Center identified the Seventh-day Adventist Church as the most diverse religious group in the United States.1

Diversity has a large impact on communal worship because worship is an activity that occurs at a community level and entails human relationships. Never in the history of Christianity has the practice of communal worship experienced more challenges than at present. Yet, when we approach the Bible in hopes of finding a list of right and wrong styles of worship music, we find none.

God created music, which is this wonderful language that goes beyond what words can express. However, God does not say anything concrete in the Bible about music styles. So we try to offer Him our best, but often our best is so different from our brothers’ or sisters’ that we cannot worship together. According to Faith Communities Today (FACT), around 70 percent of Christian churches in North America cannot worship together due to music stylistic preferences.2 There are even talks of “worship wars.”3

Are we, then, left with no biblical guidance? Not quite. We can find some guidance from the apostle Paul on this subject. Paul is the author of the Bible that writes the most about worship. In the Scriptures, the word worship implies to fall down, to submit ourselves to someone superior.4 Paul had to fall from his self-righteousness, his ethnic-centered religious mindset, his own understanding of everything, to find Jesus Christ.

Though Paul had written hundreds of verses centered on Jesus and the good news of salvation, he wrote only two verses concerning music in worship. But they are instructive. What were those verses, and what can we learn from them that might help in regard to the issue of music in worship?

Psalms, hymns, and songs of the Spirit

Paul writes, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Col. 3:16, NIV). Here, Paul does not give us details on musical modes, scales, or styles; but, rather, he explains in detail how we should treat one another. Paul’s focus is on how God’s people, in Christ, should live—singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are an outflow from that. Once we are clothed with love and bound together in perfect harmony (see Col. 3:14), then we sing together. Music does not produce unity within the church; only the Holy Spirit does.

Paul adds that Christians should be “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19, NKJV). Hence, in both texts, we have the same three types of music: psalms, hymns, and songs of the Spirit. Let’s look at each, for, as we analyze these three song forms, we can find an effective formula for congregational singing.

1. Psalms. The first style, or form, of music that Paul names is the psalm. The book of Psalms is the longest book in the Bible, comprising 150 songs from different composers. In a sense, it was the “hymnal” used in Jewish worship for centuries. Psalms was the compilation of songs written by patriarchs, prophets, and kings of Israel. Looking to the Psalms from a biblical perspective, we can notice the freshness and innovative spirit of these pieces of art. Psalms are, in fact, poetry.

When we think of sacred music or a pure sacred style of music, we think of the Psalms. But, when we study how pagan cultures used the same scales, same instruments, and the same forms that (according to some scholars) the psalms refer to, we realize that even the psalms in the Bible had something old, something new, and something borrowed from contemporary cultures.

Bob Deffinbaugh offers this insight: “We can see the hand of God in the preservation of the Psalms as a universal form of poetry, and in the providential ‘loss’ of the musical score. The words have been given us, but the music is ours to compose. Each generation and each culture must come to the Psalms and compose afresh the musical forms which best facilitate worship and praise.”5

Several times in his psalms, David invites us to sing a new song to God and to do it “skillfully”6 because he created fresh, high-quality compositions that were professionally performed. However, David was just one of the many composers of Psalms, which also include a collection of old songs written by Moses and other people. In their repertoire, there were also old and new, traditional and contemporary musical pieces.

2. Hymns. Paul could have said, “Jesus affirmed that salvation comes from the Jews!7 So let us keep singing Jewish musical forms!” After all, Judaism had been using psalms as their style of music for over ten centuries. Additionally, psalms are a part of the Word of God. Paul could have said to the early Christian church, “Let us keep singing psalms because it is our heritage, and it is the right style of music.”

Nevertheless, this is not what Paul declares. He adds hymns and songs from the Spirit to the list. Why? What is a hymn, and how is it different from a psalm? We said that a psalm is poetry, a song form, an expression of praise and adoration. Within the “psalm” category are different forms. The “hymn” is one of them.

The hymn is a style or song form that has always been a great educational tool. It teaches the truth. Hymns were meant to teach the new message to the new believers. Even though it is not entirely different from a psalm, a hymn—because of its educational character—is usually easier to sing, has a more solid symmetrical structure, and employs a simpler melody. It can be learned quickly.

In pagan culture, hymns were a familiar style of music. Greeks had hymns that were used in their ritual sacrifices. Scholars agree, for example, that there were hymns for Dionysus—the God of wine and drunkenness—and hymns celebrating Apollo were also common. “Christian music and musical practices were influenced by various Jewish communities and an assortment of Greek and Roman cultic practices.”8 So, when Paul invites new Christians to sing not just psalms but also hymns, he extends an invitation to embrace a musical form that is also used in non-Jewish cultures.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has acknowledged that “sacred music” does not embrace eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon music styles only. As the church grew, so did the volume and diversity of its musical offerings. Paul Hamel writes: “The importance of church music in the lives of nineteenth-century Seventh-day Adventists is clearly indicated by the fact that between 1849, when the first Adventist hymnal was published, and 1900, when Christ in Song came into use, they published 23 songbooks.” 9

Adventist pioneers had a vision for the church on music and worship that is sadly lacking in the contemporary body of Christ. They were proactive in creating and compiling new psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. They published a new hymnal almost every other year, an acknowledgment that there are positive, uplifting values in music from cultures all around the world. It is the task of professional musicians, especially Christian composers, to embrace various musical styles and create uplifting, edifying sacred music that conveys the Word of God in a way that God will be praised and people will connect to the message.

3. Songs from the Spirit. The spiritual song is even more a song of the moment than a psalm. The spiritual song, or “song from the Spirit,” consists of spontaneous melodies and words inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Bible has many examples of a person making music after being filled by the Holy Spirit.

In the first chapter of Luke, we find Mary and Zechariah being filled by the Holy Spirit and praising God through songs. We can call this expression a song from the Spirit, or a spiritual song. It is interesting that in Arabic and African cultures, this is still a predominant musical form. Sacred music often has an impromptu and improvisational character.10 In the context of the Negro spiritual tradition, songs are expressions improvisational in character but deeply rooted in faith. Negro spirituals are great examples of songs of the Spirit.11

Some segments of the church emphasize worshiping in Spirit. Worship is, then, spontaneous and Spirit-led. Other segments of the church emphasize communicating truth. So, worship is more orderly and structured. How do we achieve a balance?

John states, “ ‘But the time is coming—indeed, it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth’ ” (John 4:23, NLT). If our congregation is attracting people who feel the gospel but do not allow the Spirit to lead us into the whole truth, we are not keeping that balance. On the other hand, if the worship service in our congregation attracts only intellectual people but there is no room for the Spirit to work through the dry and formal rigidity of agendas, it is time to rethink our worship.12

We sing because . . .

According to Colossians 3, we sing because the Word of God, the message of Christ, dwells among us richly (v. 16). We sing because we no longer live, but Christ lives within us (v. 3). We sing because we are His body, and His love binds us all together in perfect unity (v. 14). We sing because the Word of God does not just pass through us—does not only visit us sometimes—but dwells among us richly. That is why we sing—what we have to express is not about us anymore: it is all about Jesus.

In the Bible, the act of worship is a response to God’s love and character. Congregational singing—whether through psalms, hymns, songs of the Spirit—is just the expression of our spiritual journey, our experience with God as His family. That implies that when we sing, we also care about our brothers and sisters who are engaging in the experience.

Do they understand the song? Do they relate and connect to it? Is it edifying for the congregation? Is our song more focused on reaffirming our cultural background rather than our testimony? Is the congregation ready to integrate this new instrument? If not, why? Can we talk about it? Can we pray about this together as a community of God’s chosen people, as a community of love, compassion, humility, kindness, and patience? (see Col. 3:12, 13).

Something for everyone

In his letters, Paul addresses a diverse community of Jewish, Asian, Greek, and Roman people who were looking for a new identity when it came to liturgy. Similarly, most of our churches today are multicultural, and our challenge is to engage the whole congregation. They need new psalms, hymns, and songs of the Spirit! They need music ministries training our young people as contemporary Levites. They need biblical principles of music and worship and instruction on applying them in their local congregations.

It is during collective worship that we need to find effective formulas that will be convenient and edifying for the diverse congregation we worship within. It is then that we need to focus on how to be God’s chosen people, His community of love, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, and we should use music as a tool, as a means to bring people not to our way of doing church but to the person of God, in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit.

It is time to reflect on the fact that when we worship as a church body, we can engage people in our own traditions and cultural preferences rather than in an experience of God. So, we need to evaluate our traditions of worship practices in light of Scripture rather than Scripture in light of our traditions and biases.

When pastors and musicians come together to find effective formulas for communal worship, specifically congregational singing, we need to remember to look at the issue from a biblical perspective. Though finding a repertoire to sing together as a congregation may be challenging, the real challenge is in being a loving, compassionate community bound by God’s love.

To facilitate the Word of God dwelling among us in song, we have to be able to experience, understand, and properly convey the Word of God—who is Jesus. The biggest challenge that faces congregational singing today is keeping Jesus at the center, not just of our music but of our lives. But we can. Psalms, hymns, songs of the Spirit—enough is there for everyone to be able to sing together in praise of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  1. Michael Lipka, “The Most and Least Racially Diverse U.S. Religious Groups,” Pew Research Center, July 27, 2015, pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/27/the-most-and-least-racially-diverse-u-s-religious-groups/.
  2. David A. Roozen, “A Decade of Change in American Congregations 2000–2010,” Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey series, 2011, faithcommunitiestoday.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Decade-of-Change-in-American-Congregations.pdf.
  3. Shawn Brace, “Worship Wars? We Grow, We Change. Only God Never Changes,” Adventist Review, March 4, 2019, https://www.adventistreview.org/1903-28.
  4. See the appendix, “Nine Words Translated ‘Worship’—Three Hebrew and Six Greek,” in Cheryl Wilson-Bridges, Levite Praise (Lake Mary, FL: Creation House, 2009), 161.
  5. Bob Deffinbaugh, “What Is a Psalm,” Bible.org, May 27, 2004, https://bible.org/seriespage/what-psalm.
  6. “Sing a new song of praise to him; play skillfully on the harp, and sing with joy” (Ps. 33:3, NLT).
  7. John 4:21–24: “Jesus replied, ‘Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem. You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship, while we Jews know all about him, for salvation comes through the Jews. But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth’ ” (NLT).
  8. Stephen G. Wilson, “Early Christian Music,” in Common Life in the Early Church, ed. Julian Hills (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998), 398.
  9. Paul Hamel, Ellen White and Music: Background and Principles (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1976), 76.
  10. “Arabic Musical Forms,” Maqam World, accessed November 26, 2020, http://maqamworld.com/en/forms.php.
  11. Dena J. Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1977)..
  12. Lilianne Doukhan, In Tune With God (Hagerstown, MD: Autumn House, 2010), 150.

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Adriana Perera, Master of Music, is the director of worship and musical arts at Loma Linda University Church, Loma Linda, California, United States.

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