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3 Additional Questions About Congregational Engagement in Worship

 

 
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Author: Dan Leverence
 
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Posted May 24, 2016 by

W

orship leaders love to discuss congregational engagement. And for good reason – one of our most sacred responsibilities is to lead people into an experience where they’re able to encounter the real and living God.

I’ve noticed in recent years, however, that this conversation often comes with a remarkably similar set of talking points. It’s generally assumed that (1) if the congregation can’t hear themselves, (2) if they’re unable to sing along, and (3) if the accompanying experience is too flashy or professional, then the resulting experience isn’t (or can’t be) worship.

I have a few additional questions I’d like to offer the discourse.

Why do we elevate the importance of hearing one another sing?
In my search of the Scriptures, I find a tremendous amount of importance placed on gathering, the singing of songs together, encouraging one another, and a variety of other non-negotiable worship experiences. But there’s no mention of maintaining the ability to hear one another. Obviously, audio systems and microphones didn’t exist before quite recently, but I find it curious that we’ve been so quick to adopt a fundamental belief about worship that isn’t rooted in the Bible. Amplifying technology is (admittedly) often poorly used and the advent of the audio system has introduced an uncomfortable factor for many churchgoers, but so did drums a few decades ago.

Should every person really be able to sing every song?
While I have no quantifiable research or evidence, I suspect that the “singability” factor has become a much larger question in the paradigm of modern worship. Historically, it was never expected that everyone always sing. Obviously, this is a different era and we have an overabundance of new cultural considerations that we’ve never had before. One of those considerations, however, should also be the fact that we no longer live in a singing culture.

Decades ago, families would gather around their televisions to sing along with variety shows that displayed lyrics at the bottom of the screen with an accompanying bouncy ball that guided you along. Today, the variety show is extinct and (in American culture) so are experiences where people sing together regularly. Outside of the seventh-inning stretch and church, it’s extraordinarily uncommon to be in a place where group singing occurs.

Group singing ANYwhere has now become unusual. On any given weekend, when people walk through the doors of our churches, this is their framework. People’s lack of singing isn’t always a reflection on their spiritual condition. It’s, perhaps, more a reflection on how we teach about worship.

It’s also important to remember that there are seekers in our midst. At the church where I’m privileged to lead, ex-gang members sit next to businessmen and ex-strippers sit next to soccer moms. And they all invite their friends. I’m extraordinarily sensitive to the fact that at any given worship service, one of those people who isn’t singing may be in church for the first time in their life, taking it all in, and investigating Jesus. I’m okay if they don’t sing.

I am in NO way suggesting that we should abandon the idea of corporate singing. It must be preserved as Scripture mandates. And we should, of course, give our best efforts to choosing songs that will help our churches engage with God in worship. However, placing a hyper-focus on “singability” will always prove challenging, given the fact that evaluating songs in this light is innately subjective and extraordinarily difficult to quantify.

Is there really an equation that factors in an acceptable level of “professionalism,” skill, or technical enhancement and equals worship?
I’m often befuddled by the assertion that a worship leader, instrumentalist, or experience can be too good or too polished. It is my long and dearly held belief that God deserves nothing less than the best we have to offer. Excellence should be sought regularly and unashamedly.

There was a time in history when great, magnificent, breathtaking, and awe-inspiring art was created in the Church. This can and should happen again but it will look different than it ever has. We now live in a digital age and art is viewed more broadly. The pallet of an artist can now be a light board. Their paint is the fixture. And their canvas is the stage. We squelch the ability for those artists to create when we teach them that there’s no place for moving lights in a church. The analogy could go on.

If we expect new generations to engage with the Church, we shouldn’t sabotage ourselves by thinking that they desire a sub-par experience. They don’t. They attend concerts that they love and think the Church is irrelevant with its dated music and methods. Authenticity in all things is paramount, but an authentic experience is not incumbent upon a flawed one. We should strive to be real in every moment of every worship service. AND we should strive to do the best we can with what we’ve been given. I can think of no better definition for excellence.

At the end of the day, I want my church to be engaged in worship as desperately as every other arts ministry leader. While there are no easy answers or solutions, I appreciate the way that the conversation has helped me refine my ongoing philosophies about worship.

Dan Leverence is the Worship & Creative Arts Director at Parkview Christian Church in suburban Chicago where he oversees the Arts Ministry for a large, growing, multi-site church of more than 7,500. He and his wife, Angie, have one son, Tate. Find more at www.middlebrained.com.


7 Comments


  1.  
    Sarah Hisle
     
     
     
     
     

    Finally…someone with a different point of view! As a “contemporary” worship leader, I know the importance of balancing volume, “singability” and the distraction of a “show”. I put these things in quotes, because I think they are strawman arguments. . Have you sang some of the old hymns? Wordy and very very high in the vocal range, with difficult harmonies. I LOVE the old hymns, and occasionally include an updated version of them in the service I lead, usually in a lower key. I also try to address the differences in female and male voices, giving options for both. So if one song out of the 5 we do is more “difficult” I’m ok with that. Often, people will listen with their eyes closed, and hands raised. Some pray during the song. That’s ok, it it is meaningful for them. Other newer songs they sing with gusto! And I am so tired of the “professionalism” issue. It is distracting and uncomfortable to hear people struggle with a song. Better to practice practice practice and give the Lord your absolute best, to honor him and to encourage others to do their best. Some of the most meaningful moments have been encouraged by lighting, and professional sounding musicians. I am NOT saying that it is all perfect or without egos, but many appreciate a very well presented thoughtful contemporary service and I appreciate everyone who pours their heart out to make it meaningful. Thanks for this article!




  2.  

    Steve W (above) has said much of what I might have said.

    Let me add just a bit to point 3, and a bit more to point 2.

    On point 3, you state, accurately, “There was a time in history when great, magnificent, breathtaking, and awe-inspiring art was created in the Church.”

    That time corresponded to a situation where about the only form of participation most of the congregation had in worship was visual or aural participation. EVERYTHING was done FOR the congregation by the priest(s), deacon(s), choir and other worship leaders.

    We’re not there anymore, for the most part, thankfully. Christians across almost all traditions have reclaimed the notion of the “full, conscious and active participation” of the whole of the gathered assembly in worship. This includes singing, reading scripture, leading prayer, and active participation as well in sacramental actions– not just receiving the benefits, but also the recognition that the prayers offered are fundamentally the prayers of the whole people LED by the pastor/worship leaders, not the prayer of the pastor/worship leaders the people may occasionally join (if at all).

    So, the purpose of art in this context of substantial physical and vocal, not just visual and aural participation, is different. Now art isn’t there to “wow” the masses, but to elicit their full participation in a great number of ways. This doesn’t mean that art (whether musical or visual) is to be any less excellent, but it does alter what qualifies it as excellent. It could be simply stunning, but if it ends up calling attention to itself and/or doesn’t actually help the worshipers actively worship all that well, it may be more distracting than helpful.

    On point 2, I think it remains the case, legitimately, that not ALL music requires the congregation also to sing. There is still room for aural participation as a form of actual participation. So there is still room for the occasional piece by a choir, or a vocal or instrumental ensemble– something the congregation, as a congregation, couldn’t offer well but such more specialized groups with the opportunity to hone their skills could do quite well– as PART of the overall offering we make together in worship. The key, though, is the balance. When we’re seeing many reports of 70-80% of the congregation almost never singing songs supposed to be for congregational singing, there’s a real problem. And the problem probably isn’t primarily with the congregation. The same is true when the balance of time in worship is spent listening to soloists– whether singers or, yes, the preacher– rather than engaging ourselves more actively in the worship of God through singing, prayer, confession of sin, affirmation of faith, and sacrament.

    Worship leaders– you are there to lead the people in THEIR and thus OUR collective worship of God together. You’re not there to do it for us or simply to tell us what to do.

    At least, not unless we’re seeking to return to the late medieval and pre-Vatican II pattern of worship as being primarily the work of the folks up front, while the rest of us just watch and listen.




  3.  

    Interesting questions. Here are just a few of my thoughts on each of them.

    1.) Yes, there is no place in the Bible that specifically says we need to hear each other in worship, but there are places that imply it. For instance Ephesians 5 says we are to address one another “with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs…” The idea is that the congregation is not only singing to God, but also singing to one another, and as such should be heard. Our job as worship leaders is to facilitate the conversation between our congregations and God, and between the congregation members themselves. You can’t do that if no one can hear each other.

    2.) I Agree that not everyone will sing all the time, and that’s fine. But there’s a difference between actually singing all the songs and being able to sing all the songs. There is a pretty significant musical divide between people who regularly sing and those who only ever sing once a week in a worship service. What is easy for those of us who are musicians is often difficult for those who aren’t. That’s why it’s so important to use accessible songs. If a song is accessible, then each person in the room has the option of engaging or not. If the song is inaccessible then the vast majority of those people don’t even have that option.

    3.)I fully agree that there is no such thing as too professional or too excellent, but there is a point at which some professional elements (lighting, visuals, specific performance conventions) can prove distracting, instead of engaging people in worship. The trick is to find the best way to draw people into the worship experience and then seek excellence in that, rather than trying to emulate the excellence of certain venues outside the church. Worship can be professional without looking like a U2 concert.




  4.  
    Joseph Krol
     
     
     
     
     

    Although good points are made I believe some of the opinions provided are a bit misguided, or maybe not necessarily valid. Specifically on question 2 “Should every person really be able to sing every song?” The question goes on to describe how… “Decades ago, families would gather around their televisions to sing along with variety shows that displayed lyrics at the bottom of the screen with an accompanying bouncy ball that guided you along. Today, the variety show is extinct and (in American culture) so are experiences where people sing together regularly. Outside of the seventh-inning stretch and church, it’s extraordinarily uncommon to be in a place where group singing occurs.

    Group singing ANYwhere has now become unusual. On any given weekend, when people walk through the doors of our churches, this is their framework. People’s lack of singing isn’t always a reflection on their spiritual condition. It’s, perhaps, more a reflection on how we teach about worship.”

    I don’t see this as a bygone era that should be left in the past…quite the contrary music and corporate singing is a place where families can come TOGETHER. I believe that the earthly trappings of America are the reason for the separation between the kids and their parents and divide and conquer is a time proven method of evil to gain an advantage. So why not create an atmosphere in the church where the kids can enjoy the ability to sing together.

    I agree that someones lack of singing is not necessarily an indication of lack of worship, however setting an environment of acceptable corporate participation is essential to maintain a feeling of belonging and can lead to salvation. Although it is not specific to Worship Whenever two or more are gathered in His name He is there with us. So being corporately in concordance is Biblical and beneficial.




  5.  

    Great thoughts. On the issue of “hearing one another” I would refer to Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19… I think the value of “singing to one another in psalms,hymns …” is more effective when I can hear both the voice and the heart of those around me.





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