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10 Things I Did Not Do that Improved My Congregation’s Singing

 

 
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Author: Scott Connell
 
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Posted February 14, 2017 by

My congregation sings better than they did a year ago. I have been their worship leader for just over a year, and I have seen progress in their participation in worship through singing. They sing louder; they sing more heartily, and more of them sing than a year ago. This realization occurred to me as I was reading an article on the decline of congregational singing, and it caused me to wonder why we are not a part of the trend.

Here are 10 things that I did not do with my congregation over the past year that I think has helped our congregational singing:

1. I did not turn the lights down.

Too often worship services look like concerts. The problem is that concerts are for listening and worship services are for singing. Keep the focus on the congregation, not only on the stage.

2. I did not turn the sound up.

Loud volumes prevent the congregation from singing. If they cannot hear themselves sing they will not sing. If they cannot hear their neighbor sing they will not sing. If they can hear both, they will be more likely to sing.

3. I did not try to sound like the YouTube video.

These videos can be very helpful teaching tools to learn the melody and style, but then turn them off and don’t go back to them. They are generally produced as concert settings and they are not your musicians. Let your band members be who they are and make room for the congregation’s part.

4. I did not try lengthy or frequent instrumental solos.

I like a well-placed instrumental solo, especially if it is used strategically to help the congregation think about a Scripture on the screen or just “breathe in” the text they have just sung. A “Selah” moment can be very helpful, but too many of these and/or solos that are too long tell the congregation to check out. It is like telling the people “this is not about you.”

5. I did not try the newest worships songs.

We need to give some of these new songs some time to prove themselves. I like to try new songs, but only after I have seen some staying power in them. There is also a threshold in a worship service for new songs. More than one new song in a service is risky. A new song every week is too much. Protect worship’s familiarity. That is your greatest aid to congregational singing.

6. I did not try to get rid of their old favorite songs.

Part of the damage of our race to acquire the newest songs is our simultaneous rush to discard the older ones. My congregation loves some songs that I don’t like as much or may even be tired of. But if the theology is sound and the musical setting is appropriate, let them sing. It is not about us!

7. I did not try to greatly expand the song library.

CCLI currently lists about 300,000 songs. And new songs are coming out every week. How many songs do we really need to sing every year? Probably about 40-50. We have more songs at our disposal than at any point in worship history. That means we need to say “no” to most of them.

8. I did not try rhythmically challenging melodies.

While the chord changes with contemporary worship are simpler than traditional hymnody, the melodic rhythms can be quite complicated. Smooth it out, take out the solistic turns and variations, teach it well, and make it congregationally friendly. Who cares how cool it sounds if the only ones singing are on the worship team.

9. I did not try too many songs in a worship service.

We can argue about how people should really want to sing more, but every congregation has its saturation point for singing each Sunday. Most have not sung the rest of the week so Sunday is a vocal workout. If your congregation is singing well for 3 or 4 songs, but by the 5th song they are beginning to drop out, you may not be serving them by adding the extra song. Don’t criticize them, serve them and help them grow.

10. I did not have my band play on every verse and chorus.

Musical accompaniment has one major purpose: supporting congregational singing! The most important sound on Sunday morning is that of your congregation. Have the band stop playing occasionally and let the people hear each other. I promise they will sing louder and more heartily in response!

Let the people sing!

Scott Connell is a professor of music and worship at Boyce College/SBTS in Louisville, KY. He holds a Ph.D. in Christian Worship and serves as worship pastor at First Southern Baptist Church in Floyds Knobs, Indiana. He and his wife Mary have seven children.


26 Comments


  1.  
    Kristina Newcomb

    I worship in a 225 year old evangelical Congregational church in NE. We just got out of the UCC!! Praise God. We have traditional worship, a pianist and organist and use Celebration hymnal (wonderful). There are 12-25 on Sunday morning and you’d think there were 100 singing. We love to sing hymns and praise our Lord.




  2.  
    Paul Mabry

    Excellent article! Thanks so much for sharing these ideas. They give me some fresh thoughts for leading worship in our fellowship.




  3.  
    Kathi Creed

    I have not enjoyed the worship service in our congregation since the leaders seem to be doing nothing more than performing for an audience. Some do enjoy the entertainment but that’s all it’s become. I grew up in a congregation that sang a cappella in 4 part harmony. I miss hearing the congregation sing. I miss hearing myself worship




  4.  
    Jared Mitchell

    it’d be more helpful to tell us what you DID. I agree with most points in your article. But all congregations are different.

    Now you’ve told us what we shouldn’t do. What should we do?

    Tell us what you DID.




  5.  
    Kent Hall

    It is the greatest honor to lead people in praise & worship. I know that they will follow a humble spirit whatever the coonditions; Jesus will always be the way !




  6.  
    Vaughn Schiebout

    Our congregation was shown that there is a lot of group psychology going on in discussions around worship. At times there might be something ‘off’ and for example’s sake you could call it a five, but some people try to make it appear to be a twenty-five. At times you can have a group consensus of ‘making peace’ in worship discussions and a few will use that to have a louder say in the group. I would say that perspective is important on whether or not to agree with the points. The book ‘How Your Church Family Works’ by Peter Steinke is an excellent reference in this area.




  7.  
    Cheryl Davidson

    Agree that this should be customized to each church and its culture. Not really cookie cutter, though some good points to consider. It is interesting that each sentence started with “I” and think the most important thing to remember is that it is only the spirit of God that causes His people to worship. Plan, prepare and then pray for your people that the Spirit of God will move during in hearts during times of corporate worship. Most importantly, ask God to remove your pride.




  8.  

    Great stuff! Thanks for these reminders, as some are counter-trend.

    Additional ideas (I’ll present them positively):

    – Sing in congregationally friendly vocal ranges (mostly baritone, some alto, rarely tenor).
    – Sing songs your people LOVE to sing with strong melodies that highlight great truth.
    – Lead in a way that is personal, inviting, and inspiring to join in.




  9.  
    John

    I’m glad these things worked for you in your situation, but can we please stop acting as if all churches are the same? Numbers 1 & 2 are purely subjective and may no work in all situations. Have you ever been to a concert where the lights are down and the sound is really loud? I have and people were still belting out the songs. More so than in many churches I’ve been in.

    If people are singing to Christ and engaged then who are we to say what is acceptable worship or not, regardless if it’s Sunday morning at church or Saturday night at the local concert venue?




    •  
      Alison

      It seemed to me the writer did a pretty good job of describing his own congregation and his own experience without making a blanket statement. Your objection herein comes across as inappropriately cranky.




  10.  

    I tend to agree with Liz about the first 2. Most congregants are not confident singers, and tend to adjust their volume to mix well with their surroundings. I agree that some can be too loud and counterproductive, but If the volume is too low, the congregants adjust and sometimes sing more timidly. They want to feel a part of the bigger worship, but not like they are singing a solo for the people around them. Also, we use varying house light levels throughout the worship, that is commensurate with the song/focus, etc. It is not a universal principle that dimmer or brighter is best.




  11.  
    Greg

    Soooo many articles these days on written about the exact same things…

    The problem is, the answers will be different for every church! Worship leaders, just learn what your OWN congregation likes and do it. Stop looking for answers from other churches that may not be like yours. It’s not a difficult concept. If you can’t figure it out, then literally start asking people in your own congregation what they like or dislike. Guaranteed you will get a profusion of feedback!!




  12.  
    David Roberts

    I was going to say that number 1 confused me. I have heard from people in worship services that they don’t like the attention being on themselves. That is why I turn the lights down. I think that to turn them off is a mistake. You don’t want anyone to fall asleep. Thanks for your viewpoint Scott.




    •  
      Jan

      Turning lights down can cause difficulties for those who rely on written music for the words and music. The use of projected words work for some, but there are also those of us that have difficulties with viewing them on a monitor or screen, no matter how large. If the song isn’t one I know well, I like to be able to read my part of the music as well. I know I am in a minority, but being able to participate in the music is an integral part of my worship.




  13.  
    Gary Hollinger

    After a quarter century of leading worship, a hearty amen to all of these Scott.
    I would add a BIG eleventh one: choose a key that average mortals can sing in. Most men are baritones and not tenors. If you sense that guys are having to drop an octave to keep singing the high parts you need to drop the key – maybe as much as a step and a half to facilitate congregational participation. E2 (or even better D for longer notes) is about all the average untrained guy can comfortably hit. Pitch it down and watch the men join in!




  14.  
    George Collins

    The only one that has not worked at my church is # 2. At least not in its entirety. A majority of our people tend to sing louder if they can’t hear themselves as well. It’s as if it’s a comfort thing. If the sound covers up their voice, they are more willing to sing out. I realize this is not all encompassing. On the flip side, they love it when we drop out and they can hear themselves. It’s all in learning your people. Great article man! Great resource.




  15.  
    Liz Craciun

    I agree with many of these points, but have to say on the first two (re: lights and volume) it likely depends on your congregation. We have actually found the opposite to be true. Our congregation sings better with lights OFF and volume UP, and I believe it is because they feel less “exposed” and more enveloped in the worship experience. It seems to free them to be expressive and sing out without fear of standing out and drawing attention to themselves.




    •  
      Gary Hollinger

      Good point Liz. There’s a sweet spot for volume that is sometimes hard to find but it’s a point where it’s loud enough for people to feel as though they’re not going to “stand out” to the people around them if they sing with gusto but not so loud as to drown everyone out with the band. Leaving some acapella or minimal instrument sections helps everyone hear the singing and encourages participation as well.

      This is also why I tend not to vary my standard song arrangements a whole lot. When people are unsure what’s coming next they hesitate to sing out for fear they’ll suddenly be exposed. Musicians like to vary what they do, congregants like to know what’s coming.




  16.  

    Scott, how do you choose what key to sing in? Do you think that’s a factor in congregational singing?




    •  
      Samuel

      Yes: The Piano Keyboard was set in the key of C Major because the vocal range that everybody can sing the most comfortable is between Middle C (C4) and an octave from there, C5.

      You have to see which is the spectrum that the melodies are mostly surrounding. In these times, people (especially young) like to feel a (healthy) effort to sing, and therefore the center of the spectrum you should aim for may be centered in the 2/3 or 3/4 of the middle C octave, and by watching the notes over C5 –let’s say, people can actually sing D5, E5b [flat] or even E for young people, but only as more like a passing tone and not as a main note that has all of the power and maintains for long.

      The sad truth is that the Christian Music industry, I believe, has some sort of obsession with tenors and high pitches, and churches tend to choose tenors as lead singers because they are the only and most ables to sing those songs, too. Most of the times contemporary songs (and even some Hymns!!) WILL be too high, surrounding mostly B4, D5, and even E5 or F5#!! When you just sing for the first time (before publicly performing it) and you just feel “woah, this is too high”, then it will be very possible that you will have to lower it down by two whole and a half steps.

      Baritones have a pretty representative range of what a congregational range is, but you also have to recognize that men always want to sing higher than they should most, and women lower than they should most.




  17.  
    CRAIG MCKENZIE

    Right on! I’ve been our worship leader (volunteer) for MANY years. We have a singing congregation and seem to be bucking the trends that I see written about so often. I wondered why until I read this article. As worship leaders, the band are worship participants first, then worship leaders. Don’t cover up the congregation with the instruments. Let them sing and let them hear themselves sing!




  18.  
    Andrew DeKemper

    Wow thats crazy, these are all things that I have done in my church since I’ve been the Worship Pastor. Glad to know they are universal techniques that work other places as well. Thanks for the blog it made me feel like I’m on the right track.





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