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!