Telling the Story With Congregational Singing
Singing is just one of many ways the congregation can participate in worship; however, it may be the most impacting. Rick Warren says, “As a pastor, I hate to admit this, but people don’t remember sermons or speeches—they don’t even remember paragraphs. What people remember are simple statements, slogans, and phrases.” Simple statements, slogans, and phrases are hallmarks of great songs. Other great speakers concur. Speaking of congregational singing, C.H. Spurgeon said: “Personal praise is sweet unto God, but congregational praise has a multiplicity of sweetness’s in it!” Martin Luther said, “Next to theology, I give the first and highest honor to music.”
Throughout history, church music has experienced different levels of congregational involvement. For example, in the Middle Ages, the Western church congregations were silenced and forbidden to read Scripture aloud or sing during corporate worship services. The congregation’s role in church was minimized by the priests to protect the “integrity” of the service (important note: God is not dependent on congregational singing for church growth as evidenced by the fact that the church grew during this period). Congregational participation blossomed during the Reformation as Luther championed its reinstitution. The doctrine of the Priesthood of the Believer resulted in congregants participating in various roles in the worship service. Congregational singing became one of the most important features of the corporate worship service.
Congregational singing that honors God, honors Scripture. Methods come and go but the message of God never changes. Using songs with theologically true lyrics is essential in worship that honors God and benefits people. As the crowd engages in singing, the songs of the church will become an indelible part of their lives. Worship leading is an incredible responsibility as an individual’s theology is formed by what they remember. When led well, the community leaves the church building singing one or more of the songs. Chances are, as good as the spoken sermon is, people will not be humming the points of the sermon on their way home.
Music can be a powerful storytelling tool in the worship service. The songs we use to tell the story must be carefully selected and led to connect the congregation with God’s message, presence, and mission. Worship that honors God is right in content and deliberate in context: theologically true lyrics and effectively communicated.
The basic structural elements for the meeting between God and his people are the same today as they were in the Old Testament: God convenes the meeting, each member uses their talents to contribute to the church, the Word of God is taught, the believer renews her commitment to God, and a sacrifice is offered. Webber states that “the norm of Christian worship is both Word and Sacrament.” Biblical Christian congregational worship revolves around retelling the gospel story and responding to it as a people. Historically, God’s people responded to God, in corporate and individual worship, by remembering, anticipating, and celebrating. God’s is a story of redemption. Remembering the saving works of God is a central practice found in both the Old Testament and New Testament corporate worship settings. Singing, praying, giving, taking communion, gathering, symbols and especially preaching are acts of worship that help the congregation remember God’s story of redemption.
God’s people gather to remember the promises of God that have been fulfilled and to anticipate the fulfillment of promises. God’s Word exhorts, encourages, and equips believers. Music is best used in a church service as a soundtrack connecting the entire worship experience together in a memorable way while delivering content from the head to the heart.
In worship, we remember the benefits and the duties of being a child of God—we belong to God and his kingdom. Believers gather to trust and celebrate that God will keep His word and fulfill every one of his promises. Israel had the Promised Land to anticipate. Christians anticipate the promise of heaven, the new heavens and earth and the kingdom of God.
A natural climax to the act of remembering and anticipating is celebrating. The style in which God is remembered, anticipated, and celebrated corporately varies depending on local culture. Congregational singing can seamlessly tie these three ancient elements together. In corporate worship, the substance of response is more important than the style of presentation.
A Woven Gospel
I agree with Robert Webber’s warning: “We ought not allow worship to be accommodated to current cultural norms to such an extent that worship loses its meaning.” “Such an extent” is the key phrase. The redeeming substance of a congregational song is the lyric: is it theologically true? Music style and presentation is important for the cultural context: it carries the truth of the gospel woven into the lyric and into the heart of the sinner for which Christ died. Powerful congregational singing proclaims the truth of the gospel, to God and each other, through the hearts of the redeemed.
Get People Singing
Here are a few suggestions I use in coaching worship leaders that will increase congregational singing.
- Lead with love
- Pray your songs
- Greet the congregation before you get on stage and after
- Lead songs in the culture of the congregation
- Sing songs in the key of the congregation (see my app)
- Sing familiar songs—incorporate new congregational songs regularly but sparingly
- Use theologically true lyrics with terms that guests can understand
- Choose tempos that fit the meter and message of the lyric
- Display or print lyrics clearly and in the correct order
- Prefer the congregation’s or community’s musical style preference over the staff’s
- Don’t choose songs solely based on radio or polling popularity
- Put the songs in a sequence that take the crowd on a journey toward intimacy in worship
- Feature vocal melody as the prominent sound in the mix: congregations sing to singers
- Clearly, intentionally, and affably invite the crowd to sing
- Focus on connection, not perfection—excellence is a good value but it’s not the goal
- Always do your best—be prepared
- Use songs that support the sermon theme
Rick Muchow will be teaching at the National Worship Leader Conference in VA (May 17-18) and KS (June 21-22). Find out more here.
Rick is a pastor, worship leader, and coach: encouraging and equipping worship leaders. For nearly 25 years, at Saddleback Church, Rick built a worship team that served 20,000 attendees weekly. He has coached over 150,000 pastors and church leaders from 60 denominations from over 100 countries. rickmuchow.com