We Are What We Sing

Posted by James Tealy on 2 March 2016

3 Ways Worship Songs Affect Spiritual Formation

In 1999, Notre Dame professor Dr. Mark Noll suggested that "nothing so profoundly defined the faith of evangelicalism as its hymnody: what evangelicals have been is what we have sung" (Christianity Today, July 1999).  

There is much you can know about a church from the songs that she sings. As worship leaders selecting songs each week, we shape the spiritual identity of God's people. 

And yet, that choice is not simple. With each song we select, a battle rages between divine and profane motivations. I confess I have chosen songs for the emotional response they elicit from our people. I have chosen songs because of how great we as a band sound leading them. I have even chosen songs simply for their key signature: "what else do we have in F?"

If Dr. Noll was right in suggesting that we are what we sing, then I believe the songs we select as worship leaders have at least three important roles to play in the spiritual formation of God's people. 


The rhyme and rhythm of song structure help us to remember the lyrics of the songs that we sing. They burn the truth (or falsehood) of the words into our hearts. In fact, researchers have suggested that the human brain inherently finds phrases that rhyme MORE TRUE than phrases that do not rhyme (Psychology Today, September 1998). 

The church will continue to sing the songs from your worship gathering in the car as they drive away this Sunday. The truths in our lyrics will resurface in their hearts during the week as they work, pray and play. So what are you giving your people to memorize this week?  

Will they remember a healthy picture of the nature and character of God? Will they continue to rehearse the truth of the gospel all week? Will they be reminded that none of us are defined by our fears, our failures or our past?

I fear that far too often our people are forced to memorize an unbalanced picture of God. We are feeding them trite repeated cliches that lack the rich theology that they need to survive the week ahead. 

To accomplish the work of spiritual formation in our people, let's choose songs that cause them to remember a beautiful picture of the One Most High God who sent his son Jesus that we might know Him more fully and be fully known by him.


There is an undeniable power at the intersection of words and music. Songs are able to engage both the heart and the mind in a way that no other delivery method can. Our people are being formed into the image of Christ as they worship in Spirit and Truth.  

Music triggers areas all over the brain. When we hear a song, our auditory cortex is stimulated. Sing along to the song, and we activate our premotor cortex. When we focus our attention on the lyrics or wonder at their meaning we activate the parietal cortex. Hearing a familiar song we've heard before causes our prefrontal cortex to spring into action. Begin to dance along, clap, or even sway to the rhythm and neuroscientists suggest our neurons will actually synchronize to the beat. Crazy!

So when you begin the intro to "10,000 Reasons" in your worship gathering this weekend, the brains of your people will actually be lighting up like Christmas trees. That gives us as worship leaders a unique opportunity invite people our people into both a richer understanding of Jesus and a deeper affection for Jesus.

Although you might not see it on their faces or measure it by how loudly they sing, God is able to use the power of music to stir the hearts of His children.  With the songs we select each week we are inviting our people to know God more fully and to love God more deeply.


When we gather for worship, we are being asked to unify our hearts around a common set of truths. Sadly, over the last 75 years the songs we sing have been a great source of division in the church. I would suggest that this is at least partly because we have focused more attention on the WAY we sing instead of on WHAT we sing. 

As a worship leader, when you draw the attention of your people toward the truth they are singing you are also helping them find their shared identity as the body of Christ. When my church of 120 people gather in our local YMCA gymnasium and sing "In Christ Alone" this Sunday, I am inviting them to declare their unity around the gospel. We will connect our voices and search for harmony. When we sing together we are a living picture of the church. When you say "stand with me and sing" you are also saying "stand with farmers and bankers, school teachers and truck drivers, nurses and stay at home parents - and together let's declare the gospel!" By singing the gospel together we are inviting the Spirit of God to draw us into unity.

The gospel is such good news that men who would not be caught dead singing in public will close their eyes and sing along with their brothers and sisters the great truths of the faith. Worship leaders, the songs we select for this weekend's services hold immense promise for shaping the people of God into the image of Christ for we are what we sing. 

James Tealy is the worship pastor in Redemption City Church (Franklin, TN) and teaches songwriting at Belmont University. He has penned chart topping singles for Kari Jobe, Josh Wilson, Unspoken, Lauren Daigle, and more than 80 others. Redemption City Church has just released "HANDED DOWN: Songs of Redemption City" and you can get a free copy of the album here: bit.ly/sorc2

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