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Help! My Congregation Won’t Sing


Author: Dave Williamson
Leadership Category: ,

Posted October 14, 2014 by


o—if a tree falls in the forest, but no one is around, does it in fact make a sound?

Using this ancient conundrum, let’s apply it to a congregation in worship. Re-stated: If the worship leader plans, the band rehearses, the singers sing, but the congregation mostly just sits and listens, has worship happened?

On an elemental level, some worship has happened.
1: The leaders have worshiped.
2: The people’s thoughts have been directed toward God.

But…how much more might the corporate God-encounter have occurred, to his glory and our benefit, had the people truly participated by singing those psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs?

In truth, a large part of worship leading has to do with “barrier-removal.” There are many fingers on that glove, but let’s just talk about the things that help people sing, and remove some obstacles that conspire to keep them silent.

By the numbers:

1: Choose songs that people already know, or can learn easily.

  • All people resist change. And teaching a new song represents discomfort.
  • Be intentional about how many new songs you introduce—in most congregations, two or three per month is about right. Then, repeat them often enough so they become familiar. By the way, make sure that any songs you sing are 100 percent biblically accurate!
  • Pick songs that are not so “outside” that they are hard to learn. The best congregational worship songs have a certain melodic “inevitability.” A good basic rule of thumb is how many repetitions did it take you to learn the song well enough to introduce it? Multiply that by at least two for the congregation.
  • Be aware that a congregation’s “golden octave” encompasses middle C to C an octave higher. All congregations can handle low B’s and A’s. Also upper D’s. Young congregations can sing high E’s. But at the extremes, people will stop singing.
  • Worship music currently is often artist-driven—based on who is popular. If you choose to be oriented that way as a team, then make sure you choose songs by artists that are people-friendly and easier to sing and, as mentioned before, scripturally sound. Many newer artist songs have a range of an octave and a fifth (say, low A on the verse to high E on the chorus). That’s the same range as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a song notoriously difficult to navigate vocally, even for accomplished singers. 

2: Throw people the ball once in a while.

  • When everything through the sound system is loud, louder, and loudest, people can’t hear themselves sing, and will stop just to listen.
  • In every worship set, dial it back to just acoustic guitar or piano or synthesizer alone—even a cappella—at least once.
  • Sometimes, you as worship leader need to go off-mic and let the people sing without a vocal leader. They will respond, given the chance. Lead visually in these moments, not by conducting, but by worshiping.
  • By the way, your senior pastor’s involvement is critical to congregational worship. People take their cues from him. No matter what you or your worship leaders do, you will not overcome a pastor who doesn’t join the sung worship.

3: Help people contextualize. Help them find reasons to sing.

  • Don’t be afraid to explain: “God delights in your songs.”
  • Don’t be hesitant to pray: “Lord, we love You back …”
  • Do use Scripture. The word of God is more compelling than the words of even the best worship leader.
  • Do be concise: This is primarily the people’s time, not yours. Let them sing.

4: Consider installing (or re-installing) a worship leading choir.

  • People sing better when they hear more voices and see more people “like them” engaged in worship.
  • A choir that sings passionately in your musical style (it can be done, rockers) and walks in its worship-leading calling is a powerful presence in unlocking the congregation’s involvement. A well-led choir can sing effectively in any musical style.
  • Any choir should “look like” your church. If your church is made up mostly of 20-somethings, the choir should mirror that.
  • The choir doesn’t have to sing every week. Once or twice a month will help enormously.

Don’t believe me? Get the book, God’s Singers. Give the (new) choir a chance. It doesn’t have to be—in fact shouldn’t be—like all of those “irrelevant” (to you) choirs you’ve encountered in the past, no matter what the style.

In all these things, be intentional and be patient. Your people want to sing, and they can sing. They just may not know it yet.


Since 1969, Dave Williamson has been worship pastor in churches small, medium, and large. He is a producer, arranger, and author. His new book, God’s Singers is available today. Visit worshipleadingchoir.com find out more.





    I really see that the church has gone in a bad direction.
    1. The sound is always way too loud. Yes I’m older, I am also very aware.
    2. Ditch the in ear monitoring system. With those things you have no connection to the congregation. You then just become the pro~band that is playing Christian Music.
    3. Pay attention to the people are singing. Some people don’t sing the same song to the tune that you are playing, They could be singing their prayers to God as Worship. Want you can’t hear the church with in ear systems. Give them some room in the chorus and verse to finish praying.


    I’ll be honest… I was hesitant about doing a ‘worship choir’ thing, but a few months back had a “worship jam” – a night for anyone who was interested in worship to come sing or bring their instruments and join in on a normal rehearsal to see what it was like and to introduce themselves. The goal was to create a safe atmosphere for more musicians to come out of the woodwork. The response was HUGE. So much so, that I invited them all back Sunday morning to lead worship. It ended up being a large choir of singers – a mixture of my worship leaders and others not yet involved + a ton of guitarists and other instruments. I didn’t plug in the extra instruments, just had them up there to play along The congregation loved it. Everyone was engaged. The sound was huge. The atmosphere was worshipful and heartfelt. Since then we’ve been having ‘worship jams’ every few months and leading the following Sunday with the choir of singers. It really does work. I was skeptical, but it is now a much-looked-forward too event at our church.

    Gene Rollins

    Try “seeding” the congregation with singers. Non-singers don’t want to sing alone. An enthusiastic singer nearby will encourage the shy


    Very practical and insightful article. I wish worship leaders in Africa especially Nigeria, get to read this…


    Great tips! I found myself nodding away to those you raised. Thanks, Dave!


    Very practical! Best I read on this subject to date!


    Great article and very timely. It seems that so much contemporary worship is artist driven and really makes participation by the congregation quite difficult. Melismatic ornamentation, difficult rhythms, octave jumps, keys for high tenor vocalists, wide melody ranges, and loud sound are much more performance characteristics and do very little to encourage participation by the average singer in the pew.

    The one point that I would disagree with is when you encourage the worship leader to “Lead visually…not by conducting, but by worshiping.” This implies that my work as a worship leader to direct, encourage and lead a congregation in its singing by conducting them to sing to the glory of God is something other than worship. My worship as a worship leader is directing a band, a congregation, singing and/or playing an instrument and may not look like the people in the pews. This isn’t not worshiping, it’s just acknowledging that worship takes multiple forms and that the practical side of worship leading is just as important as the emotional or “spiritual” side of it.


      I think you’re saying the same thing as the writer of the article… they were simply implying not to stand there and conduct the congregation as choir director would with your hands, but worship off-mic and lead them visually with lifted hands or on bended knees. Show them it’s not your show but you’re merely helping to usher them in…. at least that’s how I read it.


        Tim, I agree with much of the article, but on the point of leading, I’m saying exactly the opposite. He says, “lead visually… not by conducting, but by worshiping.” It seems pretty clear by that statement that he sets the two at odds…worshiping is not conducting and conducting is not be worshiping.

        I do agree that we should sing off mic and let the congregation have the floor and hear their own voices. I think that’s something that is missing too much in our churches.

        However, if I stand their and lead the congregation, by conducting, then I am not guilty of not worshiping. I in fact am worshiping because I am leading God’s people in their singing. Is it less worshipful to direct or conduct God’s people while they sing than it is to stand back and look worshipful? I don’t think so…I’m offering my gifts, talents, and body to worship God by my conducting.

        Again, I agree wholeheartedly with the majority of this article and practice many of the things that he suggests. And I believe that too many churches encourage (unintentionally) watching “worship” on the stage more than they encourage singing. I just don’t want to see us create a false dichotomy between the practical aspects of worship leading and what some consider to be actual worship.

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