In the year 112 AD, Pliny the Younger—Governor of Bithynia—wrote a letter to Trajan, the Roman Emperor, seeking advice about the Christians he was interrogating and torturing. In this letter, Pliny recounts the peculiarities of the Christian community. He observed that the early Christians sang “to Christ as to a god,” telling us that musical liturgy was a fundamental part of the early church’s gatherings.
Paul’s letters confirm this reality. Paul writes with a rhythm and cadence that occasionally releases into song (see Eph. 1:3–14, 3:20–21; 1 Tim. 3:16). His musical interludes are Christocentric, ecclesiastically attentive, and missionally conditioned. They remind Christians and church planters today about what has been secured for us in Christ while motivating us to appreciate the privilege of co-laboring with God in his mission.
Songs About the Son
Colossians 1:15–20 and 3:15–17 use music to showcase the centrality and supremacy of Christ. There is no reality in which his lordship does not reverberate. In Colossians 1:15–20, Paul repeatedly uses the pronoun “him” and the adjective “all” to underline Christ’s preeminence. The hymn’s position within the letter shows the apostle leveraging this Christological song to ground the community in Christ (see Col. 2:6–7). This perspective helps us draw lessons for pastoral ministry and church planting.Church planting does not begin with the efforts of the planter but is an outflow of God’s accomplishments in Christ. Click To Tweet
First, Christ is unequivocally the source of life and the “headquarters” of the church (Col. 1:18). Therefore, church planting does not begin with the efforts of the planter but is an outflow of God’s accomplishments in Christ. Christ builds his church (Matt. 16:18); the church planter is but a toddler invited by the sovereign Lord to co-labor. Second, Christ sustains all reality (Col. 1:17). Therefore, the rootedness and health of our churches are grounded in him who holds “all things together.” Third, Paul’s writing is doxological—it springs from worship. The apostle’s writing sings about God, modeling how we should sing about the Lord’s words, works, and wonders in our witness to the gospel.
Songs by the Spirit
In Ephesians 5:18–21, Paul elaborates on the hallmarks of a community filled with the Spirit. Addressing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and singing and making melody to the Lord contrasts with a life of debauchery. Paul tells us that those who keep in step with the Spirit sing to one another and make melody to the Lord (Gal. 5:25–26). Being filled with the Spirit is seen in strengthened and sanctified relationships and gratitude to God.
The hive of demands associated with church planting can weigh heavy on the heart. They bring untold pressure to families and can strain long-standing friendships. Like Paul, who served God with ministry teams of colleagues and friends, the church planter relies on relational networks to advance the gospel in their context. In the face of the trials, temptations, and tempests that come with church planting, the Apostle Paul reminds us to sing. We are to sing to one another and God—to sing about the gospel through melodies and hymns that the Spirit inspires.
As we sing, we express gratitude to God even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. We may even find ourselves encouraging one another to remain firm in our faith through psalms and spiritual songs.
Songs of Service
Philippians 2:5–11 tells us of Christ’s condescension in taking on the form of a slave to serve and save those enslaved by sin. This descent from glory highlights a counter-cultural attitude: Christ relinquishes honor and glory for the sake of humanity. Christ is the paragon of service, a service he discharges to the point of death. When we apply these musically influenced words to contemporary church-planting efforts, we hear refrains of humility, sacrifice, and mutuality.In the face of the trials, temptations, and tempests that come with church planting, the Apostle Paul reminds us to sing. Click To Tweet
The temptation to inflate our station and influence is as perilous as a car running on flat tires. It’s an exercise in vain glory, blinding us to the precipice at the end of the road—an assembly line of idols focusing our worship on the created thing instead of the Creator. To combat this temptation, Paul tells us to have the same mind as Christ (Phil. 2:5). He sings about embracing a humble disposition in which we consider others more highly than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). As we do, we may find ourselves driven by gospel humility instead of competition, jealousy, or pride. Humility is the prince of virtues. It makes us agreeable as we serve God with others. It’s motivated by Christ and frames him in the center of God’s portrait of redemption.
As Pliny noticed almost 2,000 years ago, the church’s songs of adoration for Christ are strikingly distinct from the siren songs of the world. So, like Paul, let us sing our delight in the humility and supremacy of our Savior as we labor to make him known around the world.