Of those who witnessed the evangelistic crusades of Billy Graham at their high point, many would later ascribe his success to a combination of gospel preaching and gospel singing. Of these two elements, it seems that the latter was at least as potent—if not more so—than the former. As one observer recalls:
Mr. Graham would preach a mighty sermon, convicting thousands of souls each night, but the singing of the huge mass choir uniting in ‘Almost Persuaded,’ or another Christ-centered appeal, seemed to be the key that finally released them from their seats and the devil. We could not fail to see the marvelous regenerating power of music upon those hardened people as they stood around the platform in Madison Square Garden, tears staining their faces, as the choir sang and more souls came up the aisle and to Christ.
The notions that singing releases people from the devil and that music has the power of regeneration may seem to you to be a little… well, unbiblical. Conversion and regeneration are the work of the gospel and the Holy Spirit, aren’t they? There’s just so much language of ‘preaching’and ‘proclaiming’ when it comes to evangelism in the New Testament, and almost nothing directly linking ‘singing’or ‘music’ with evangelistic activity. Yet (and to paraphrase a well-worn dictum from my old boss), it usually pays to look for the note of truth in even the most counter-intuitive of claims. Doing so, in this case at least, has led me to believe that singing can rightly be used as a form of evangelism. Understanding the relationship between singing and evangelism could go a long way in helping us discern between good and bad evangelistic practice—and surely that’s better than playing things by ear!
Let’s begin then, with some important background information. Whatever we mean by ‘evangelism’, it cannot be less than ministry of the word and prayer.
1. Ministry of the word and prayer
I suspect that for many readers this will sound like stating the obvious, but it’s important enough to address briefly. The result of the apostles distinguishing “ministry of the word and prayer” from other ministries was that “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem…” (Acts 6:7). This ministry directly related to the increasing of disciples, and therefore it must include the verbal proclamation of the gospel. To put it simply, it can’t help but include evangelism. Paul, in instructing his protégé Timothy, commands him to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim 4:5). When Jesus gave gifts for building his church, all were ‘word-type’ ministries, including evangelism (Eph 4:11-12). This should not come as a surprise, because the same gospel that brings the church into being is the gospel that sustains it; the ministry of word and prayer builds the church from without and within (Titus 2:11-12, Col 2:6-7).
It’s not just evangelism though: in Ephesians 4 we learn that the giving of word-prayer ministries was for the goal of equipping the saints for the work of service, so that, in turn, the church could be built up (4:12). Then, the established church would also speak; it would speak the truth in love in order to continue the work of building itself (4:15-16). The ministry of the word and prayer seems to create a self-sustaining circle designed to build the church in number and maturity. What this means for the various types of word-prayer ministry is (to put it crassly) that the content needs to be the same, but the packaging needs to be different. I mention this because in due course I will argue that singing—primarily, though not exclusively—is part of the ‘packaging’ for insiders, it being concerned more with teaching than converting.
But before I get there, let me show you why I think it’s right to consider singing as a ministry of the word and prayer.
2. Singing as a ministry of the word and prayer
Look at the way Paul describes his evangelistic practice in Colossians 1:28:
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
Paul’s proclamation consists of warning and teaching, and it’s done with wisdom. It is also done with a goal in mind: bringing everyone to maturity in Christ. What Paul does (and what Epaphras did in the case at hand) resulted in the Colossian church coming into being. In order to continue growing, they are to do precisely the same thing to one another, in song! Look at what Paul writes in 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.
Notice that the same three descriptors that Paul used of gospel proclamation (teaching, warning and wisdom) are now used to describe what the Colossians are to do amongst themselves. Just as Paul proclaims Jesus in order to bring all people to Christian maturity, so too these Colossians are to let the word of Christ dwell richly amongst them, such that they continue to grow in maturity. Paul proclaimed Christ to the people in Colossae, and, for those who responded aright and became a church, he then instructed them to do the same thing to one another.
The basic difference is the medium and the recipient. In the first instance, Paul proclaims the gospel, and the recipients are unbelievers. In the second instance, believers sing in order to let the word of Christ dwell richly amongst believers. In both cases, the word of truth (which I hold to be loosely synonymous with the word of Christ in Colossians) defines the content.
That being said, the difference in medium (proclaiming vs. singing) is of little consequence as far as the primary goal is concerned. In fact, in a parallel passage Paul replaces singing with speaking:
…addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs… (Eph 5:19)
Singing and speaking are not identical, but the overlap here indicates that the effect of these two activities is the same. Singing gospel truth to one another is equivalent to speaking the gospel truth to one another. Just as the evangelist speaks the word of truth by proclamation, so the evangelized speak the word of Christ by singing (amongst other means). The medium must therefore be secondary to the message. So as we sing together, which the New Testament simply assumes that we will do, we’re to do so in such a way as to let the word of Christ dwell among us richly—probably the reason we’re to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, rather than the Greco-Roman Top 40.
So why then employ ‘singing speech’ rather than ‘non-singing speech’? Often the way we account for the difference in these mediums (singing and speaking) is by assuming that the self-evident capacity for music to stir emotion is what allows the word of Christ to dwell among us richly. But as I remember some of the best sermons I’ve heard, I’m forced to acknowledge that speaking (rather than singing) can also be just as emotionally stirring. Perhaps the ‘richness’ aspect of the word dwelling among us has more to do with memorization? After all, it’s true that we mostly remember what we sing much more than what we say. But then again, after reciting the Apostle’s Creed without looking at the screen, I’m forced to concede that speaking can be just as helpful an aid to memorization as singing. I therefore think the difference is that singing often, though not exclusively, accomplishes both purposes (emotion-stirring and memorization) with greater ease and potency than speaking. Paul doesn’t give an explanation as to whether the richness achieved by singing is about emotiveness or memorization. But given that an argument drawing upon Old Testament songs could be made for either, it’s probably safe to assume that both are important.
Given the strong emphasis on the ‘horizontal’ (“one another”) dimension, both in our key texts (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19) and in what we’ve seen of the character and goal of word-prayer ministry, it’s not surprising that Paul saw fit to remind his readers that singing is also directed towards God. Whilst we speak to one another in song, we’re to make melody in our hearts to the Lord (Eph 5:19). Whilst we teach and admonish one another in song, we’re to do so with thankfulness in our hearts to God. Having read the Psalms, this should seem almost self-evident: God is often the one to whom songs are sung. But having understood singing as a word-prayer ministry designed for building the church, this might not be so immediately obvious. God has no need that he should be taught or admonished (it would be rather blasphemous to presume to teach him!), so God ‘receives’ singing differently to the way we do: God is praised and/or petitioned, whilst we are taught and/or warned.
I find it interesting that in my experience it has become increasingly apparent that we seem to gravitate to the emphasis of the ‘vertical’ (that is, the praise of God) almost at the expense of the ‘horizontal’ (teaching and warning one another). I remember thinking it was odd that the quietest period within a Sunday Morning Prayer service was usually during communion. Even though we call it ‘communion’, and remember a shared meal around a table, it seems to be the time when most people have the least amount of interaction with those around them, and, presumably, the most concentrated interaction with God—like what I’d expect during private prayer. In just the same way, I can’t help but wonder if the person with closed eyes and lifted hands during the singing hasn’t understood that part of what’s happening is teaching and warning one another, and whether the right desire to praise God has somehow ended up happening at the expense of serving others. If ever there should be a false dichotomy, separating the two most important commands would be it! And I’m not alone: Carl Trueman recently made a rather cutting statement about the culture of evangelical singing—one that presupposes the importance of viewing congregational singing as a teaching ministry, as is evidenced by his reference to Calvinism. He writes:
As I survey the contemporary church landscape, I am struck at how even the great gospel of sovereign grace is now so often focused on the youth market and consequently packaged with the aesthetics of worldly power, of celebrity, of the kind of superficial approaches to life which mark the childish and the immature. Things that were once (and sadly no more) the exclusive preserve of the proponents of the prosperity gospel now feature in mainstream evangelical circles without comment or criticism. The world has truly been turned upside down when Calvinism has in some quarters become known for its pyrotechnics and its cocksure swagger.
I mention this because I think there’s wisdom in reflecting soberly on the practices and culture of singing within the church before considering how we’d like singing to be received by those outside it. Nonetheless, it’s now time for the key-change you’ve all (hopefully) been anticipating: singing as evangelism.
3. Singing as evangelism
We’ve seen that the spoken message that brought the Colossian church into being is also to be ‘spoken’ within it. The difference is packaging. In the first instance, the word-prayer ministry that brings the church into being must be nothing less than evangelism—the verbal proclamation of the gospel. In the second instance, the word-prayer ministry that builds the church (speaking the truth in love)—is one in which gospel truth needs to dwell richly among Christians. Singing is a prescribed medium for meeting this goal, and is therefore primarily for the church. But its content, along with its form, makes it applicable to outsiders as well. Congregational singing, therefore, provided it’s being done faithfully to the message, can’t help but be evangelistic from the perspective of an outsider. Singing might well be primarily for the church, but I can’t see that the New Testament gives us sufficient reason to claim it can’t also be used for gospel proclamation to outsiders. Just as I would proclaim the gospel to a non-Christian, so I could speak the gospel to him/her in song. Doing so to an individual might seem a little, well, awkward (unless your life is a musical). But as a choir at a Billy Graham crusade, the medium could be quite fitting, and the message quite faithful. In this sense, we might rightly say that the gospel (which happened to be sung) did indeed release people from the devil.
How might this relate to our evangelistic practice? Well for me, the most obvious place to start would be a Christmas carols night. At least part of what happens should be aimed at being evangelistic, and this should extend to the content and manner of what is sung. So many carols make perfect sense to Christians, but it takes a bit of effort to look for songs with words that are comprehensible to outsiders. But singing can be evangelistic, so it’s worth investing time and effort to this word-prayer ministry (especially the prayer bit when it comes to evangelism!). If your music team is going to perform an ‘item’, which is to be better rehearsed and presented than all the other songs, why not make it simply and transparently evangelistic? Find a song that calls people to repent, and present it in such a way that it’s clear that people are invited to respond! Consider doing it immediately after a sermon, and make sure both have a similar theme. Consider doing it a capella to emphasize that you want the words heard even more clearly than all the others. As novel as all this might sound, be assured you’re in good company. Not only was Billy Graham doing it, but there are many songwriters who have written overtly evangelistic yet congregational songs.
Consider the following verses from John Newton’s hymn ‘Day Of Judgment! Day Of Wonders!’:
At his call the dead awaken,
Rise to life from earth and sea.
All the pow’rs of nature shaken
By his looks prepare to flee:
Careless sinner, what will then become of thee?
Horrors, past imagination,
Will surprise your trembling heart,
When you hear your condemnation,
“Hence, accursed wretch, depart!
Thou, with Satan and his angels, have thy part!”
My initial instinct is to wince when thinking of how an outsider might hear such words! However, I can’t help but side with Newton here—it is imperative that people be warned of the consequence of rejecting Jesus as Lord and Saviour; ‘warning’ is a necessary part of evangelism.
Again, consider Rob Smith’s ‘Taste And See’:
Taste and see that the Lord is good
That his mercy is everlasting
Come behold the King of love
Bear our sins upon the tree
He redeemed us by his blood
So that we might find forgiveness full and free
Oh taste and see.
What a brilliant call to consider the gospel message!
In terms of music, it makes sense to arrange things in such a way that the chords and dynamics reflect the anticipated emotional responses of the words. Therefore it’s a great idea to make sure your musicians and song leaders have read and thought about the words. It sounds simple, but in my experience it’s rare to find people have done this.
Finally, remember the power of God is in the content of what is being spoken (either in song or speech), rather than the medium by which it’s spoken. It was not, in fact, the music that had ‘marvellous regenerating power’ at Billy Graham’s Madison Square rally. It was the proclamation of the gospel (in this case, accompanied by music) and the work of God the Holy Spirit that allowed people to regenerate. Music is a wonderful thing, but like all things, we need to avoid the temptation to worship created things rather than the Creator. Use music as a great servant, but don’t let it become a tyrannical master.
 L Purday, ‘Singing Evangelism’, Ministry, October 1966, pp. 38-40. Available online: https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1966/10/singing-evangelism
 That’s the general principle. In the case at hand, Epaphras was the proclaimer, and the Colossians were the recipients.
 Compare, for instance, Deuteronomy 31:21, 31:30, 32:1-47 with Psalm 100.
 C Trueman, ‘Reflections on “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?”’ 9 Marks Journal. Available online: http://www.9marks.org/journal/reflections-what-can-miserable-christians-sing
 R Smith, ‘Taste and See’, Come Hear the Angels Sing, Emu Music, 2008.