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Help! My Congregation Won’t Sing

 
 
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Author: Dave Williamson
 
Leadership Category: ,
 


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Posted October 14, 2014 by

S

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.

 

 


15 Comments


  1.  

    Great responses thus far! There are a few points not yet mentioned, though. So here are a few off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts:
    1. Many people don’t sing because they simply do not like the sound of their singing voice. Even though they know “make a joyful NOISE unto the Lord” is a good thing, there is a strong possibility these people have been told not to sing because their voice was THAT bad. It’s a confidence issue. If people in the church are treated as if they can’t sing, they won’t participate. If we want those who can’t sing to sing, there must be some encouragement outside the context of corporate worship so they will gain the confidence to sing in corporate worship. Encouraging them ONLY in the context of corporate worship is not enough. There must be relentless encouragement for those “non-singers” to break out of their musical insecurity. It takes time, so we can’t give up.
    2. People need the freedom to pray/intercede during sung worship. Not everyone HAS to raise their hands or sing to make the worship leader feel appreciated or accomplished. From personal experience, I have heard God speak during sung worship. I had to quiet my spirit to hear him over the loud music. In those times, I’ve been able to minister to people privately because I heard God speak. If we don’t allow people to pray/intercede during corporate worship, we’re missing out on the healing God desires to bring to his people.
    3. Hurt people struggle to sing. I’ve been there. While hearts ache over deeply seeded issues, it’s very difficult to sing, especially the “happy/clappy” songs. I’m not suggesting worship leaders change their songs to dirges to accommodate this issue. However, there may need to be a sensitivity to minister to them first before leading them into a happy song. They need to know in whom their strength rests, in whom they can take refuge, in whom they can find hope, etc. When these people experience the grace and the peace of God in the midst of their struggle, singing may arise naturally without being “led into worship.”
    4. Worship leading is more than just musically leading people into singing. It’s bringing them before the Lord, allowing the Lord to move in their lives, and watching worship rise naturally. Those who are healed will praise God because of their healing. Those who are oppressed will praise God for their freedom. Those who receive joy through their mourning will praise God. The list goes on. There is also a sense of “waiting” to see what God does. Maybe the worship leader can a) wait to see what God does, b) point out what God is doing in their midst, c) back it up with scripture to demystify the situation for those who don’t understand, and d) explain THIS is why we praise God. Sometimes we need to simply direct people to God’s amazing works before sharing our amazing music. :D

    So, I would like to encourage worship leaders to not stress so much over whether or not people are singing/clapping with the worship team. There are so many contexts to consider since it truly boils down to how the Holy Spirit is ministering to the local congregation. When the Holy Spirit takes hold of people, there is a joy that is expressed in pleasantly unimaginable ways. As worship leaders, we simply need to be sensitive to what the Holy Spirit is doing and join HIM in his works rather than expect the Holy Spirit to join us in our context. If the Holy Spirit does something very different from what we’re used to, let’s not cut Him off so quickly. He’s always seeking to minister to the broken-hearted. We should join him in this mission.

    Again, these are simply my personal thoughts. Blessings!




  2.  
    Anson Stoller
     
     
     
     
     

    I agree with most of this wholeheartedly. One question I had was on picking songs that are relatively easy. While I understand that it can be hard at times for people to learn harder songs isn’t it worth it if they are better? Also, the church was built on hymns and singing multiple parts for worship. Is this because we think we should have simpler worship songs because if congregations sang hymns we should be able to sing more “difficult” songs.




  3.  
    Joey

    I agree with this article but I tried everything from doing easy songs to letting the church sing by themselves and even acoustic a capella worship. I don’t know if it’s a people problem or a worship team problem. This has happened a lot of times. However there has been some breakthroughs. Our team/church needs help with this




  4.  
    FingerStyle
     
     
     
     
     

    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 must politely disagree with “Ditching the In Ear Monitoring System,” but let me explain why. As both a worship leader and an audio engineer, I would highly suggest in ear systems to almost all churches, if they can be implemented properly. When used properly, they help to reduce the often painful stage-wash that causes many churches to struggle to find a balanced mix across the audience, which can greatly reduce auditory distractions that impede worship. Although, for this to work properly, and I think key, I also would highly suggest ‘crowd mics’ to allow the worship team to be able to hear the congregation.

      Example 1: Our church meets in a gym. If we chose to not use an in-ear system, the reverb of the floor wedges bouncing off of the back wall would cause horrendous phasing issues. We do use an in ear system and highly directed mains to keep this space sounding more like an auditorium than a gym. We also use crowd mics to give the team auditory feedback of the congregation singing.

      Example 2: In my previous church, we had the worship band to the far side of the room, and used floor wedges. This made that side of the room nearly impossible to maintain an appropriate volume for the congregation, while the opposite side could never hear vocals clearly. The ‘more me’ syndrome inevitabley would arise, and eventually you could turn off the mains completely and hear zero difference at front of house. You could hear the congregation, and you could also see them wince in pain from poor audio. The trade offs just weren’t good.

      In summary, I do believe that SPL levels should be maintained appropriately for your congregation (typical age range and worship style should be considered, but remember the purpose is to lead people in worship, not to dominate), and that you should always provide a mechanism for your congregation to be heard by the leaders to make an interactive worship leading experience. I just think that we shouldn’t necessarily throw out IEM systems and sacrifice their benefits to achieve the greater goal, but find out how to better use the technology that God has allowed us to develop to reach and even deeper cooperative worship experience between the worship leaders, the congregation, and the Holy Spirit.




    •  
      Bonnie

      Yes, and amen to the “ditch the in-ear monitors” comment.




  5.  
    Leah
     
     
     
     
     

    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.




  6.  
    Gene Rollins
     
     
     
     
     

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




  7.  
    leen
     
     
     
     
     

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




  8.  

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




  9.  
    D
     
     
     
     
     

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




  10.  
    Scott

    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.




    •  
      Tim

      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.




      •  
        Scott

        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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