I spent of lot of Sundays in 2019 preaching from Colossians 3:16:
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”(ESV)
Christiane and I were visiting churches with the Global Church workshop that we developed and building a support team as we prepared to leave Canada with SIM.
Our aim is to see that word of Christ dwells richly among all of us, so that the good news of Jesus will go about beyond us, where Christ is least known. Colossians 3:16 has played a big part in shaping that focus. We talked with a lot of people during our visits but one conversation in particular stands out because of how someone was moved by something that I did not say.
The Word Among You
In a long conversation after the service this lady was emotional as she spoke about how freeing the message had been. The english translation of this verse can hide the fact that it is a group command. The “you” in “dwell in you richly” is plural, so my sermon focused on how the word of Christ dwells among a group of people.
Our new friend said she realized that she had been burdening herself with the task of hearing the voice of God by his Word. With her own challenges and mental health issues, she had found it difficult to consistently do this and so was afflicted with guilt. But she saw that it was not all up to her. She is part of a community that is meant to do this together.
We do not stand single file waiting for a turn at the rich well of God’s Word. The rope which draws the bucket is meant to be raised as a group and the water shared communally. It was so great to see how freeing this was for her and it was a special joy because it was not something I had directly said (or even thought of)! She realized that by placing us before the gospel as a community, Colossians 3:16 frees us from a burden of unachievable self-sufficiency.
The word of Christ must be before us so that we can see it and live in response to it. As long as it does not become a license to dodge responsibility or shift blame, we should take comfort in the fact that positioning ourselves before the gospel is a group project. As this frees us, it also calls us to take an active part. We are all meant to be beneficiaries and contributors to the process of the word of Christ dwelling richly among us. It is a remarkable privilege that we get to do this for another.
Songs and Hymns
What I especially want to point out is that part of how we draw each other to the gospel is by singing to God. Colossians 3:16 envisions us teaching and admonishing one another by “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
I got a good picture of how this works at a church the kids and I attended for a few months after I resigned as an Assistant Pastor. This church had a long section of worship and prayer as the first half of their service. Participation was lively as a rule but there was one man I will never forget. I never did look around to figure out who it was, but about two-thirds of the way through the singing this man would begin, for lack of a better term, to bellow. Melody was not abandoned but it was no longer a primary aim. The goal was to project the words with a power and passion that equaled their significance and he sang like his chest was straining to keep his heart tethered to his body. It was like standing on a sea-cliff with an onshore wind testing your balance.
This was a powerful moment for me whenever it happened. Here my family and I were undeniably in the presence of people who knew that all which we sang was true. There was no question that this man believed the words of the gospel which we sang together. What it accomplished was an increase of the richness with which the word of Christ dwelt among us.
Sing to God, for One Another
When we sing in church we first and foremost sing with thankfulness in our hearts to God. But we are also singing for each other. There will always be people among us who are struggling to see and believe the good news of Jesus Christ. Every time the church gathers there are people like my friend who need sturdy reminders that they are amongst people who know these things are true. The way to approach public worship is to sing as though the person three seats up from you desperately needs a reminder that the words you are singing are true. Because the reality is, they do.
Let me point to a few directions that this pushes us. First, if we realize what is at stake during our corporate worship it should help us to engage as we ought to. Second, those who guide the church in song should ask: what do people need to hear sung today?
Covid and Congregational Song
Those two items are a good start but the faith building role of singing together is especially important to note as the covid-19 saga drags on. The next time you can sing as a church, gather to sing as a community that consciously stands before the gospel together. Listen well to your brothers’ and sisters’ voices and let these bellows feed the furnace of your own faith. Remember that you do not see the struggles that may weigh upon your church family. Consider that someone near you may be in dire need of hearing what the next line of the song says. Take to heart that your voice in song is part of how they must hear the voice of God in the gospel.
We must also recognize that a long lack of corporate singing has a cost. Lockdown has most likely taken a toll on our faith. During this time we should be particularly wary of the ways we can be drawn from the gospel by both pride and despair.
What can we do during lockdowns and limited social spaces to help one another consistently see Jesus in his gospel? How can we fill in some of the gap which online services cannot fill? There are people in your circle struggling to see Jesus in the gospel, how you can strengthen their faith by helping them hear the word of Christ?