Help! My Congregation Won’t Sing
So—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.