4 Keys to Unlocking Congregational Singing


By Neil Oldham

Have you ever been a participant in a worship service where—by taking in the people in the seats around you—you feel like you’re at a concert where no one knows any of the songs?  Some churches have a culture where people merely gawk at the stage taking in the “awesome” on display.  And there are certainly churches with less-than-awesome worship arts on display who are facing the same problem!

So can we fix it? My guess is that many leaders who serve at churches that don’t sing explain it away as a spiritual matter that can only be resolved by a moving of God’s Spirit.  Certainly, it’s a spiritual matter and true worship will always emerge through the work of God’s Spirit.  However, many of us just need to get out of our church’s way! Here’s are some tips on how to encourage your church to sing:

1. Stop using Chris Tomlin’s key signature! 

Most male recording artists—regardless of how good a worship leader they are—record their albums in a register that the average human cannot aspire to sing in.  Female artists are often altos and, thus, tend to write in more reasonable keys (though occasionally they fall too low). Few of our churches these days are blessed with parishioners who each know how to hear/sing the part that best fits their vocal range.  Thus, most of them will only sing the melody and that makes it very important for us to place the melody in a reasonable range.  Tools like CCLI’s SongSelect make it very easy to adjust keys to an appropriate range.  Open a lead sheet and adjust the key until the melody generally falls in an octave range somewhere between C & C. 

For many of us, this will mean setting aside our personal preferences—even at the expense of vocal quality.  In another life, I sang bass in a collegiate southern gospel quartet and my comfort range falls lower than most folks’. So I always choose to place the song toward the top of my range so that it’s in a safe range for my church.  Alto leaders, you may need to do the same.  Tenors and sopranos may have to lead toward the bottom of their range to accommodate their churches.  Can I suggest that it’s much, much more important for your church to feel comfortable singing than it is for you to sound your very best?  After all, it is really all about them worshipping…not just watching us do it! 

2. ASK them to participate.

What a novel idea, huh?!  Sounds overly simple but, if you commit to making strategic asks, I think you’ll be surprised at how well your church responds.  Take advantage of songs they should know really well to step back from the mic and ask them to “take it away” for a verse, a chorus or more.  Ask them to clap on a new song.  Ask them to read scripture with you.  Ask them to give a shout. Encourage them to lift their hands if they can identify with the message of the song.  You get the idea, right? A lot of times I get GREAT results from just exclaiming, “Sing it out!” Be strategic with your asks, though.  If you’re church is typically a bit less active than a knot on a log, you probably won’t make much progress by asking them to jump about or dance!  But asking them to clap a little or raise a hand might just be appropriate.

3. Play songs they know and give them time to really learn a song. 

What good is it to have the hottest song repertoire around if you lose your church in the process? Choose your songs purposefully and teach them thoroughly.  Songs that your church is still in the process of learning need to be a serious minority in your average weekend song set.  Consistently flooding your services with new material is a sure-fire way to create a disengaged culture.

4. Be willing to throw out a song that’s just not serving to engage your church. 

It may be a top 10 song on all the worship charts.  Maybe you even heard it at a big conference where it was everyone’s favorite! Perhaps your whole band even loves to play it.  Even so, if you try teaching it to your church and they never really buy into it, you may have to cut it loose.  You can always check to make sure there’s not another issue involved (i.e. vocal range, arrangement, etc) but, at the end of the day, there’s no sense in leading songs that no one wants to follow you on.

And let’s remember that when we talk about changing culture—cultivating a church that sings can truly be a big culture shift—we’re talking about a process that seldom happens overnight.  But patient perseverance can transform a church’s worship culture!


Neil has been the worship pastor at LifeQuest Church in Springfield, MO since 2007. He is also the author of BlueCollarWorship.com, a worship blog that has ministry tips, tools, and resources for leading strong in the local church. Oh, and more importantly, he’s a husband and a dad!

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    18 comments on “4 Keys to Unlocking Congregational Singing

    1. Pingback: Four Keys To Unlocking Congregational Singing (via Worship Leader Magazine) | mgpcpastor's blog

    2. I love Song Select, and use it all the time, specifically to get songs in a decent key. If you give people a chance to sing, they will.

    3. Neil,
      I could not agree with you more on all four of your points but I especially ascribe to your first point. I have noticed that many worship bands sing in such high keys, that it is impossible for most to sing along. Ladies simply sing down an octave to match the male leader. But then the male jumps up an octave (typical of Hillsong music) and the ladies simply sing the same notes, with nowhere to go to intensify their worship. The guys are left without the ability to match the vocal range, and find themselves as observers. Thank you for addressing these issues. I hope we will all learn from them and make the appropriate adjustments.

    4. So good. The church I’m serving at sings around 75% (to make up a number) of the time. Been curious as to why they “shut-off” at times and then other times will drown out the worship team.

      Great points. Thanks for writing.

    5. I’m surprised that the use of hymnals is not mentioned here. Many hymns have rich lyrics that not only glorify God, but edify and teach the congregation as well. The presentation of songs in hymnal format makes it easier for the congregation to learn the song as there have a visual reference for the song’s melody. You can’t get that in a PowerPoint slide.
      I’ll go out on a limb here and say that by putting the worship team up on a stage with many of the elements that you would see in a concert, the church actually (albeit inadvertently) creates a the expectation of performance among the congregation. Instead of being moved by the Spirit of the Lord, congregants are urged to clap, shout, dance, etc. by someone from the stage. When it comes to leading God’s people in worship, let’s make sure that we stay out of God’s way.

      • Good point, however, I was told by my senior adult congregation to stop pulling out the hymnals occasionally. Throwing hymns and traditionally strong songs at people is missing the points made above. It doesn’t matter what the song is. You have to worship where your Church is or they will be disconnected and that’s mostly a lyrical issue. Yes, hymns are tried and true, but there is tons of music out there now that edifies the Church and glorifies God just as well. Plus, let’s be honest with ourselves, there are fewer and fewer congregations out there that grew up with hymnals and have the emotional links to hymns.

        • Just because the older congregants are fewer and fewer, and have an experiential knowledge and understanding of hymn lyrics and music, does not mean that the hymns should be thrown in the landfill. Having ‘notes’ and words in front of me (as in the hymnal) is totally helpful in following the song, even it it’s a familiar song. When the huge screen in front and the onstage worship team is playing and singing their set….and if the congregation can’t quite get into it…the commands from the leader sometimes are slightly demeaning. It is not a ‘concert’. The worshipping church sings to the Lord. A concert performance is for the audience and it’s pleasure…often shown by clapping, shouting, whistling, stomping, dancing, etc…..The Lord looks at the heart of each individual, and personal reflection of each person is and should be part of that time of singing in the church worship service (reaction visible to God, not the worship leader). I play keyboard on the team in my church and am often frustrated by the leaders’ desires for us to sound like the recorded version of their favorite band. Just sayin’.

          • You bring up another great point at the end there, Bonnie: leaders need to make the song fit their band rather than the other way around! Most of us in what I call “blue collar” ministries don’t have the capability to replicate the studio super-produced sounds on the worship recordings, anyhow.

      • Frank, I have no problem with hymns…love so many of them and the richness they bring! The problem I have with hymnALS, though, is that–whether we like it or not–our culture has largely lost the knowledge of how to sing parts and read music. It used to be taught in our schools from an early age. Now the vast majority of our society is musically illiterate and has know desire to be taught.

        So most just sing the melody and the melodies in the hymnals were not written for every-woman-and-man, they were written for sopranos. Thus, the key often needs to be changed from that in the hymnal to fit the average person’s vocal range. We can bemoan musical illiteracy but it doesn’t change the times we live in.

        • The Hymnals were written for pianos or organs and four part singers (in most cases). I was taught to sing 3 of those four parts (Base is a bit beyond my range), but we have lost that in many cases. The melody seems to be the main focus and the part singing is dying. With a number of musicians playing songs their way it can be hard to sing pleasing harmonies . You cant predict their next chord. Even in our church of mostly older members we have lost the harmonies. Is it through lack of skill or interest .I don’t know, but it is sad to loose the rich harmonies that add so much depth to the music and worship.

    6. I especially agree with the last suggestion. Just because the song is popular and sung by your favorite artist and every church in America is singing it and it is in the Top 10 on CCLI or PraiseCharts, does not mean it is meant for YOUR church. Whether it is in worship or in a concert you must always KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE!

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