This article was originally published here / in the Winter 2023 edition of Japan Harvest magazine, the official publication of the Japan Evangelical Missionary Association (JEMA), which is published quarterly to promote primarily the cause of the evangelical church in Japan, and secondarily the ministry and activities of the association. It is republished here with permission from the author and license from the magazine editor.
As Christians, we know that we are called to tell others about our God. And Scripture frequently pairs the command to “tell” with the command to “sing” (1 Chronicles 16:9, Psalm 9:11, Psalm 96:1, Colossians 3:16).
Why is it important for us to sing to one another about our great God and all His mighty works? How does He want us to use singing as we walk through life together? And how has He worked the singing of His people into His plan of redemption for Japan?
Scripture and science both reveal that singing has a special ability to plant the word of God deeply into the hearts of both singers and hearers, and to deepen the bonds of Christian fellowship.
Remember and tell
First Chronicles records how the musically gifted King David, after he’d experienced God-given victory, began making Jerusalem into the glorious capital of Israel. He placed the ark of the covenant into one of the special tents erected for worship. The first “worship team” was tasked with three jobs: 'to invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord, the God of Israel' (1 Chronicles 16:4). Asaph and his fellow musicians played instruments, led in singing, and wrote songs of praise.
The chapter goes on to record 'David’s Song of Thanks,' (vv. 8-36). The king directed this new worship team to sing it 'to the Lord.' The song does not directly address God, but rather the 'offspring of Israel his servant, children of Jacob, his chosen ones!' (v.13). Several times, the song exhorts the listeners, to both sing their praises and tell about God’s wonderful works. It reminds the people about the covenant God made with Abraham and how He continually proved faithful to them. The temple worshippers gave thanks to the Lord by reminding each other of His might and mercy, telling stories of his greatness in song.
Several psalms contain verses that pair singing to the Lord and telling about his deeds (e.g., Psalms 9, 96, 105). These psalms contain imperative commands like 'Give thanks to the Lord... make known His deeds among the peoples,' 'Seek the Lord... seek His presence continually,' and 'remember the wondrous works that He has done' (Psalm 105:1,4,5). As the people sang these words, they exhorted one another: Remember the Lord! Remember all He has done for you. Remember to keep seeking Him.
The Old Testament records how, over and over, God’s people stopped seeking Him and forgot His law and promises. They needed to remind one another of these things, and to teach them to their children (Deuteronomy 6:7), but they failed to do so, with dire consequences. We see this same need communicated to Christians in Colossians, whom Paul exhorts, 'Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs' (Colossians 3:16). So, why is it not enough to teach and admonish? Why are we also commanded to sing?
Open and connected hearts
When God made us in His image, He gave us the gift of song. When we sing, we are imaging forth our Creator, who exults over us with loud singing (Zephaniah 3:17). Because He sings, He made us able to sing. Because He exists in eternal joyous communion as a triune being, He made us able to commune with one another in song.
In a recent article for Christianity Today, W. David O. Taylor wrote about how the study of the human brain reveals part of God’s good design for his singing people. Neuroscientists have seen that people who make music together find their physical bodies syncing to the rhythm of the music and their brains synchronizing to one another as they share common neural activity. This activity is focused in 'key emotion areas' of the brain and results in the lowering of barriers between people and a deepened sense of community and connection.
Congregational singing, then, is designed by our Creator to open up our hearts to the teaching of the Word, helping it to sink deeper than it would if we only listened to spoken teaching. It helps us to love one another and enriches our fellowship.
This good gift is one that will endure in heaven, as God revealed to John in his visions. John saw that the congregation in heaven will worship in song and in spoken word (Revelation 5) and described those who were victorious over evil as singing part of the song of Moses (Revelation 15:3-5). Leon Morris, in his commentary on this passage, encourages us to 'notice that, though it is sung by the victors, there is no word in it about themselves or the way they overcame. Those who triumph in Christ fix all their attention on Him.'
In our songs of praise we can continually point one another to Christ in every circumstance.
Singing Christ in every circumstance
Christians all over the world sing the beloved hymn 'In Christ Alone' by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. The final verse includes the line 'From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.'
My husband and I have a clear, powerful memory of breaking down in tears as we sang those beautiful words during our oldest child’s first worship service. Our daughter was born on a Tuesday night, and that Sunday we attended our local church with her in our arms. In all our new parent exhaustion and overwhelming emotions, we poured out our hearts to the Lord in song. I’m sure it didn’t sound pretty, but as we choked out the words through our tears, the rest of the congregation sang us through all our fears and into the light of eternal hope in Christ. And we felt as though their arms and the arms of Jesus were wrapped around us in song. We will fail and make mistakes, but we belong to Christ from the first cry of life (which we had just heard for the first time), until the last breath He has pre-ordained for us. Where else could we find such matchless hope?
Recently, I sang that song again - at a memorial service - with another newborn baby in my arms, sleeping peacefully through his first time at church. Through my tears I once again affirmed my belief that 'Jesus commands my destiny' and the destiny of each of His children - the one I held close and the one my church family had had to release into the arms of Jesus. In all my new parent exhaustion, grief, and sadness, I poured out my heart to the Lord in song. And the congregation, holding one another up, sang each other through all our fears and into the light of the bright-burning hope of resurrection that we hold in Christ, our risen Saviour.
Transcending barriers in Japan
The fellowship of believers in Japan has a tremendous need for this beautiful gift of singing together.
In a culture that has so many social barriers between people, singing can help facilitate deep connections and open hearts to learning about the gospel.
English speakers have an embarrassment of riches available to us in our heart language, including more sacred music than we could learn in a lifetime. The church in Japan has adopted some of these resources, and it is beautiful to hear globally loved hymns such as 'In Christ Alone' sung in Japanese. There is also great beauty and value in encouraging the writing of new songs to the Lord in the heart-language of this people. Skillful translation of English hymnody into the Japanese language is a valuable contribution to the life of the church, and it can help Japanese Christians to feel connected to Christ’s global church.
One day, all nations will gather before the throne of the Lamb and pour out their hearts in worship. Each people group will bring its own beautiful contributions of praise. Knowing this, we ought to encourage Japanese Christians to praise the Lord with new songs, created by their transformed hearts and minds. I pray that the Lord will continue to raise up Japanese-speaking Christians to write poetry and music for the Japanese church, so that we can enjoy this gift of singing together more and more. After all, we are practising for an eternity of being united in songs of praise to our Creator.
 W. David O. Taylor, 'Hymns and Neurons: How Worship Rewires Our Brains and Bonds Us Together,' Christianity Today, August 29, 2022.
 Leon Morris, The Book of Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987), 18.