Musical Lessons in Faith, Service and Worship
Since childhood, music has played a significant part in my life, in particular, at home and in church. From young, I was nurtured to understand that music is an integral part of praising God. In addition, I was encouraged to participate actively in our church’s music ministry. By recalling my experiences in worshipping and serving through music, I hope to share how music can help us to open up our hearts to praise God, and what we should be careful about in our service to God.
Nurtured from Childhood
I fondly recall learning the jolly children hymns in Religious Education classes, especially the ones with accompanying body actions. Although I didn’t fully understand the lyrics at that time, I knew they were about praising God and sang as loudly as I could in the classroom and whenever we presented in front of the congregation.
Singing these hymns nurtured my love for music. I was also greatly influenced by my parents who constantly sang at home, at work and even while traveling to and from church in the car. If they weren’t singing, I would be listening to church hymns on the cassette tape or CD player.
In addition, my siblings and I were given the opportunity to learn to play the piano. It was my older sister who was the first amongst us to receive piano lessons from a neighbor. Secretly, I also wanted to learn as I watched my sister plunk about on the piano in the corner of our living room. After a few weeks of pleading, my parents allowed me to have my first piano lesson when I was six years old.
My interest in piano music naturally led to listening to classical music and opera; the latter started when I found to my astonishment CDs of The Three Tenors Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras amongst my father’s music collections. Later, I began listening to Christian and Gospel music due to its religious content.
Living in a media-orientated society, I was surrounded by different mainstream music genres Rhythm and Blues (R&B), popular (pop), and dance music. I constantly heard it at school, the shopping mall, even at home on the radio and television. The more I listened to these types of music, the more I became accustomed to it.
Very quickly, this habit became an addiction and affected the way I lived my life. Conversations revolved around pop stars and their songs, pocket money was spent on teen music magazines, and radio and television music channels were always switched on at home. I knew all the lyrics by heart; the catchy melodies and the rhythmic bass beat gave me an instant lift. Furthermore, gossiping about the singers and bands helped me to identify with popular culture; socially, I felt knowing about the current music trends was a way to be accepted by my school friends so they wouldn’t perceive me as a boring goody-goody Christian.
Deep down, I knew this addiction was unhealthy for my faith. It wasn’t until one Student Spiritual Convocation that I received a wake-up call. The preacher taught me to stop and think about the music I was listening to. To my shock, all the mainstream secular songs I had memorized had lyrics filled with lustful thoughts, encouragement of physical intimacy, rationalizations for committing crimes, and other unchristian principles. I was enjoying, singing and listening to music that God does not take pleasure in.
With determination and reliance on God’s strength, I went cold turkey on listening to pop, dance and R&B music. When my sisters switched on the radio or the television, I changed the channel when the music or video came on. I threw away the magazines and cassette tapes that I had bought. At school, I was worried about not fitting in with my friends but I knew I had to face my fears sooner rather than later. It turned out that my friends still accepted me for who I was, although I was not listening to “their” music anymore.
Through this experience, I found a renewed hope in knowing that, with God’s help and personal motivation, I was able to overcome my addiction to popular music. Purging this music from my life was necessary so that I could gain control of my emotions and personal habits, and focus on my faith and studies.
Every decision we make ultimately affects our faith negatively or positively. In my case, enjoyment of secular music gradually turned into an addiction that slowly interfered with my daily life. I was blind to the messages behind these songs and their lyrics. I also became spiritually insensitive and compromised my faith for fleeting moments of entertainment. It is certainly true that All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor. 6:12).
Participating In the Music Ministry
The adults in my local church looked highly on music and actively encouraged the youths to take up playing musical instruments as a hobby. They hoped that those talented in playing the piano could later fill the shoes of the self-taught adults of their generation to play during services and special events. I often heard the adults telling us to emulate the two faithful servants who invested their master’s talents to reap back twofold of its original worth (cf. Mt 25).
I grew up watching talented older youths, mainly sisters, take up the divine work in piano accompaniment, hymnal leading, and choir teaching in church. This spurred my aspirations to work for God in the music group, and to use my piano playing talent to serve Him, just as David and the musicians did in the house of the LORD (1 Chron. 6; 13). So at home, I learned how to play all the hymns of our church hymn book with the hope that one day, I could serve God by playing the piano.
When I was thirteen, I mentioned my secret hope of playing for church services to a sister. The sister simply replied, “Just ask.” However, shyness prevented me from approaching the timetable organizer. Thank God, four months later, I was pleasantly surprised to see my name scheduled to play for a Sabbath service on the monthly church timetable.
Unwittingly, this became the start of my huge learning curve on how to serve God in the right manner and with a good spiritual mentality. After playing a few times for services, my confidence gradually grew, but so did my pride. Technically, I was a better-skilled piano player than my peers as I could play the hymns with improvisation and dynamics very well. Playing the piano during services became a performance rather than a way to serve God and to lead the congregation in worship.
This struggle with pride was constant, even though I knew it was wrong for me to think I was better than others. It did not help that my pride was fed by the praises from other people. So I kept reminding myself that I was there to serve God, not to puff up my ego, because He is the One who gave me this gift. Before I played the piano for service, I would quietly say a silent prayer, asking God to help me do this work to glorify His name and edify the church. The more I did so, the more I was able to subdue my pride.
Playing the piano for services evolved into teaching the church youth choir. With some singing lessons as my foundation and a strong fervor, I believed that I was an ideal candidate to take up this role. Soon after I had started this work, I realized that it was not as simple as I had initially thought. In the process, I met with tough challenges when working with the youths, as well as my personal struggle with pride.
I unconsciously adopted a strict military-like teaching method which was not well-received by the choir members. As the weeks passed, I saw how unmotivated the choir members became and that progress was slow. But instead of questioning my own limited abilities, I questioned the choir’s capabilities. My stubborn nature told me to stick to my method instead of looking at myself as the real problem and to empathize with the choir members.
Furthermore, my pride took on a different form to test my faith again. The pride that surfaced stemmed from having a position of authority and influence. Apart from being a choir teacher, I also served in the local church music committee. Although I kept reminding myself that all glory should be given to God, I mistook this pride as a kind of motivating zeal for serving God because I was leading a group of people to learn new hymns. Unfortunately, that small smudge of pride snowballed and became a stumbling block to me: I could not accept advice, which resulted in damaged friendships with my church friends and co-workers.
When I look back at this period of my life, it saddens me that although I may have had the physical capabilities, I did not have the right attitude or mentality to serve God and lead His children to serve God through choir. But thank God for His unfailing patience and mercy on me. Although I did not implement the advice received, my conscience always remembered what was said, even if the truth did hurt. After much inward assessment and remorseful repentance to God, I slowly changed my stubborn attitude and tried to mend the relationships I had unintentionally broken.
Serving God requires us, as His vessels, to use our strengths to do His work and will. Yet inadvertently, our weaknesses may obstruct the good work that we want to do. The only way to solve this problem is to work harder on our spiritual cultivation.
Solely focusing on the task at hand but ignoring our own spiritual well-being is comparable to creating a spiritual minefield for ourselves. Learning how to submit ourselves to the will of God and the instructions of the church, and to humble ourselves is something that we all need to undergo to refine our spirit of servitude and selflessness. The greater our responsibilities are in the church, the more we must humble and lessen ourselves.
Furthermore, serving God in any capacity means that we must bring those under our care to worship and find green pastures in God in a fitting manner. We are not to divide and conquer in the house of God; we are shepherds who must lead His flock to find the goodness in serving God too.
Worship through Singing
Over the following years, I taught other youth choirs during theological seminars and student convocations. Thank God, I had learned from my mistakes and my teaching skills improved and developed into a gentler approach. But one mystery that had eluded me was how to sing with my heart to God.
When I attended the Canadian National Youth Theological Seminar (CNYTS) in Toronto in 2008, the choir teacher said that we should not sing aimlessly and with an empty heart; rather, we should sing with reverence to God and in complete awe and respect for Him. Without fearing God and spiritually cultivating our hearts whilst we sing, our singing is no longer a way to worship God, but is just like singing any other song.
This message left a deep impact on me and still resonates in my mind whenever I teach choir and sing hymns during services. I finally understood the meaning of being touched by the lyrics of a hymn and the reason why tears are shed during a meaningful hymn in Holy Communion. Singing with our hearts points to our mentality when we sing a hymn; we should not only see the lyrics on a page, but should go beyond the physical and enter into a spiritual mindset to feel God’s love that is vividly painted by the meaningful lyrics and to blend our voices with the emotions expressed through the words. The Holy Spirit helps us to enter into this true spiritual worship by pouring the love of God into our hearts (Rom 5:5), so that we become spiritually sensitive to the message of the hymn.
Since then, I encourage the choir members to delve into a spiritual mindset so that they can worship God through singing by thought-sharing and word-painting. The atmosphere completely changes when the choir hears and connects to someone’s personal experience and then to the message of the hymn. Everyone is spiritually admonished and sings with grace in their hearts to Jesus, just as Paul encouraged us to do: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16).
Hymns also have a healing and relaxing effect on our souls; I often hear how brethren who are in ill health or in emotional troubles gain peace when they listen to church hymns. Somehow, God can reach us through that one word, phrase, verse or chorus, whether we were seeking for His comfort or peace, or during an unexpected moment. Again, this is done by the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth and comfort.
Worshipping God through singing goes beyond the physical projection and volume of our voice; it extends inward to a reverent place that the Holy Spirit leads us into as we sing the words before our eyes or from our hearts. It’s a spiritual vulnerability that is shielded and gently molded by God’s love and comfort, which allows us to understand the heart of God.
Experiencing the African Singing
Having a musical background and having heard wonderful testimonies about the members in Africa, I had always hoped to go on a church missionary trip to assist in the divine work, and to see and hear the joyful singing that the African people were renowned for. Thank God, I was able to witness firsthand how the members in Kenya worship God through singing in 2010.
The Kenyan members sing local Christian hymns in Swahili and in the ethnic language of Luo during services. The lyrics consist of simple messages and words that are repeated several times within the same song. From past experience, I knew that Africans remember important messages through constant repetition. In this way, they are able to remember the lyrics and the melody; more importantly, it allows them to learn about God and appreciate the messages in the hymns.
During hymnal sessions, a medley of local hymns flows seamlessly from one song to the next, with each hymn having a singing leader or the church choir to guide the rest of the congregation. Occasionally, I was able to sing along with them when I recognized a hymn from the True Jesus Church’s hymn book.
In addition to their enthusiastic singing, they joyfully clapped and swayed their bodies whilst singing hymns in harmony during worship. This reminds me of the many psalms and songs in the Bible where the lyricists encourage God’s people to praise His name with songs and dance:
Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, And His praise in the assembly of saints. Let Israel rejoice in their Maker; Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King. Let them praise His name with the dance; Let them sing praises to Him with the timbrel and harp. For the LORD takes pleasure in His people; He will beautify the humble with salvation. (Ps. 149:1-4)
What I’ve learned from our African brethren is that singing praises to God can be an enjoyable form of worship involving body, soul and spirit, where inner joy is expressed physically. For this reason, it is important to prepare our hearts and spirits to praise God before we come for services and during the silent prayer before the hymnal session.
From biblical examples such as Moses, Deborah, David, Paul and Silas, we can see that music is an expressive and creative form of worship. Like them, we too can utilize music to express our gratitude and praises to God. Hymns may be pleasant to the ears, but what is sweeter is the spiritual taste of God’s grace that we receive through them. Singing for God is not about singing the loudest or melodiously; it’s about opening your heart to praise and revere God by letting the Holy Spirit work in you.
In terms of serving God with music, I have learned from past mistakes to be careful not to boast of my skills and talents whilst I do church work; rather, I must humbly do my utmost to use music to guide other brethren and listeners to seek and draw closer to God. I cannot let my weaknesses in particular pride control my actions and mind, and cloud God’s will. To tackle this, I couple my church work with constant spiritual cultivation through praying, Bible reading and regularly attending church services. It allows me to take a further step towards being “a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:21).
Let us hope that we can sing with the angels in heaven and praise God before His throne when the day of judgment comes. May all glory and praise be to Jesus Christ, our Savior.
This article ‘Musical Lessons in Faith, Service and Worship’ by Meorni Feev was excerpted from: Manna Magazine. Fall 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes ‘Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.’