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Everyone who walks into a church service on a Sunday is battling one of three things, and maybe all three of them: sin, suffering, and self-sufficiency (It's nice that they all begin with S!) People come in and they're burdened by condemnation. And then they sing happy songs and are totally unaffected, and still condemned at the end. People come in battling against sin and its power over their lives. They sing some songs, and they don't see how it connects to their battle against these sins. People come in and they are battling suffering, they're enduring trials that they cannot get through, maybe long-term illness, maybe the death of a loved one, maybe they can't support their family. They're suffering and they sing a few songs and they think that doesn't help me at all. Or some people are battling self-sufficiency. They come into the meeting and think, “I don't even need this. Why am I here?” And they don't realise how much they need the gospel, the Word of God, and the Spirit.
We can help every one of those people by wisely choosing and leading the songs we sing. Now, we're going to care for people best by helping them understand how the gospel relates to what they're going through. That's what it means when Paul says in Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” What is the word of Christ? Is that the words that Jesus said? No, that is the word about Christ, it is the gospel, it is the good news that God has sent Jesus His Son to redeem a people for His glory by dying in their place, taking their punishment, enduring the wrath of God, and rising from the dead. That's the good news that is to dwell in us richly.
But how does that help people? Well, the gospel frees us from condemnation. “There is no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). So what song would help us there? Well, I don't know if you sing this song, but there's a song called ‘Before the Throne of God above,’ which says:
“When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within.”
It's really important what comes after those lines. Because what we could sing is, “I look inside myself again, and I feel so condemned.” But that’s not what the song says. Instead it says,
“Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless saviour died,
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.”
That is good news that we can point people to and say, “You have walked in here this morning feeling condemned, but the Bible has good news for you. The sinless saviour died, and now your sinful soul is counted free. Let's sing that verse again!” That can be so helpful for people. The gospel tells us we're reconciled to God. We are no longer separated from God. We have been brought near through the blood of Christ, as the hymn ‘And Can it Be?’ by Charles Welsey says, “Bold I approach the eternal throne and claim the crown through Christ my own.” We've been adopted into God's family, and we sing the song ‘Come Praise and Glorify’ which says, “And now we've been adopted through his blood eternally.”
All these ways were teaching people through the words we sing, what the gospel means for our lives. We're secure in God's love. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. “No power of Hell, no scheme of man can ever pluck me from his hand.” What we are doing is seeing the Word of God, and telling people that the gospel makes a difference in their life. And it means we have to be singing songs that actually talk about the gospel. What we need to do over and over and over is to keep talking about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It is the greatest news in the world. It is what our people need. It is how we can care for their souls.
If you look at songs which are about the cross, you will find that often don't say very much about the cross. They mention it, and might say, “Jesus loved me, so he died for me.” But that really doesn't tell us what Jesus did and why he did it and what he accomplished. So we want to look for songs that do that, ‘In Christ alone,’ which says “On the cross as Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied.” That's the gospel, the sin of man and wrath of God has been laid on Jesus. So we have to have songs that talk about who God is and what Jesus has done. And then we draw attention to it. And we help people see how our songs connect with their lives.
But how about helping people who are suffering? We have to realise that being moved emotionally is not the same as being changed morally. There are good feelings that come from singing together. In fact, scientists have shown that the body produces endorphins, which give us a good feeling whenever we sing together with people. It doesn't matter if you're singing Christian songs or other songs. Why do non-Christians sing together? Because it feels good when we do it. But that's not why we sing. We sing so that the word of Christ might dwell in us richly, and when we sing we want to do two things to help people in their suffering.
First, we want to make sure we're singing songs that talk about the hardships of living in this world, that we battle the world, our flesh, and the devil. In the song ‘Oh! Lord, my rock and my Redeemer,’ verse two says:
My song, when enemies surround me
My hope, when tides of sorrow rise
My joy, when trials are abounding
Your faithfulness, my refuge in the night
It's saying to people, “Even as Christian tides of sorrow are going to arise. Enemies are going to be all around you. You're going to find that life isn't always turning out like you think it is. And it's okay. That's the Christian life. God didn't promise us no trials, he said he would deliver us through them, he would deliver us in them, he would be our hope and refuge and rock in the midst of those trials.”
So, we want to identify with people, but then we also want to point him to the hope we have in Christ. God is a strong refuge in the midst of suffering. And all our suffering has to be seen in light of the saviour who came to suffer for us so that he might redeem us. Christians are the only ones who can say unequivocally that God has a purpose for our suffering. God is committed to conforming us to the image of Christ. We don't have to wonder, “What's happening with my life? Why am I going through all this?” That's what some of our people are saying, maybe some of you are saying. Because God wants to conform each of us to the image of His son. He wants to make us like Jesus. He wants us to have the trust of Jesus. He wants us to have the love of Jesus. He wants us to have the patience of Jesus. He wants us to walk in the truth as Jesus did. How does he do that? Well, we like to hope that he does it through success and through blessings. But usually, he does it through suffering and trials.
My wife has cancer right now. She had cancer four years ago, and it came back. What do you do with that? Does that mean God is not good anymore? Does that mean he has failed? No. He is still good. And we've reminded ourselves of this many times, and we're actually doing wonderfully. Yeah, our love is doing great and our trusting God is doing great. Why? Because of these things that are true. It's true, she has cancer, but there's a greater truth and that is that God is using this cancer for his glory. And we are having opportunities to share Christ with people, we are having opportunities to demonstrate faith in Christ, we are having opportunities to demonstrate that the joy we find in Christ is greater than the sorrow we have in my wife having cancer. So that's what we're helping people do as we lead them in singing by caring for their souls. We're not just planning songs, we're preparing people to live and to die.
And for those who are self-sufficient, our songs remind them of their need. Our songs can remind them of their sin or songs can remind them of their inadequacy and their insufficiency. Because the world is not telling them most things. The world is telling them to “Believe in yourself! Follow your dreams! You can do it! You can get out of this horrible situation! Just by using what’s in you!” That's ridiculous! That's bogus! That's self-worship! Christianity says, “You are helpless and hopeless because of your rebellion against God. But God Himself took it upon himself to rescue you, by becoming one of us.” It is such great news. And now we know the love of God, our Father because of what Jesus Christ has done and who he is. That's what we're reminding people of every time we sing. We're caring for their souls.
One of the ways to prepare yourself for that is simply to pray for people. As you're preparing songs, pray for the people in your congregation. Now, you're not choosing songs based on what people in your congregation are going through. You're choosing songs based on the Word that's being preached. In our church we use the sermon from the previous week to form the basis of the songs we're going to sing in the next week. But most of all, we're rehearsing the gospel and we've found that it's best to remind people every week that God is great, that we have rebelled against Him, that God has provided a way for us to be forgiven, and that we have the joy of responding to him in various ways through thanksgiving, through obedience, through evangelism, through sacrifice, and through just being in awe of him. That's just walking through the gospel every week. That's how we're training people, that's how we're feeding them, that's how we're leading them, and that's how we're caring for them. We're not just singing songs, we're preparing people to live and to die.
This article is an excerpt of a transcript of a talk by Bob Kauflin called “Pastoring Through Song,” which he gave in June 2022. You can watch the whole talk here.