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The Pure Joy of Teaching a Song

The Pure Joy of Teaching a Song

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There is unimaginable power waiting to be unleashed. It is the transforming power that God gives every worshiping community when they sing their faith. But too often we act as if people can’t sing, or don’t want to. We invite them to sing, but we don’t take the time to teach new songs.

I don’t mean turning toward the assembly and showing them a choir-director type beat pattern. I don’t mean singing the song through with full accompaniment and backup singers hitting the harmony and pretending that the assembly automatically picked it up. I do mean the following things:

  • believing the people into the song
  • weaving the congregation into the song
  • embodying the song

Believing People Into the song
This is the time to communicate a simple message, “I believe you can sing.” And in order to do this, some things are essential:

  • Don’t tell folks how they ought to feel about what they are about to sing. They are fully capable of discerning the movement of the Spirit themselves and will resent the intrusion.
  • Make certain your facial expression does not contradict the mood of the song text. Leading a song of praise with a flat expression sends a dramatic mixed message, kind of like saying, “God is good… I guess….” Leading a song of lament with a smile on your face is just creepy.
  • Give a clear signal with voice, face and body about when to begin singing. If you simply use your voice (for example, saying, “One, ready, sing”), then visual and kinesthetic learners are at a disadvantage.
  • Make certain the band members are singing. There’s a terrible disconnect if the lead singer is encouraging people to sing, but the band members couldn’t care less about singing. If the band members are mostly men, it also gives every man in the congregation even more reason not to sing than they have already been given by society.

Weaving the Congregation Into the Song
This is when we say, “There’s a reason we’re singing this song at this moment.” Think of the last time you heard a guest speaker introduced. What did you want to know? What seemed unnecessary? If someone gave a great introduction, what made it great?

As you prepare your ‘weaving’ moments, ask these questions:

Q: Why are we singing this song/chorus/hymn at this moment in the service?
A: If we’re singing “Lord, we love to enter your house” as we’re preparing to leave, somebody got careless. It matters when and where a song is sung in worship.

Q: Does the song have an explicit biblical connection?
A: Help people understand that they are singing the truth of a real biblical story. We’re not just singing, “Lord, you are worthy of our praise.” We’re showing them the actual stories that show why God is worthy of our praise. Seekers want to know the story.

Q: Does this song have a story?
A: I was taught the South African freedom song “Somlandel’u Jesu (I will follow Jesus)” by a man who had been unjustly imprisoned during the period of apartheid. When I asked him how he survived the cruelty of his imprisonment, he said, “By singing.” I will carry the visual image of that man singing with his fellow prisoners for the rest of my life. So when I teach that song, I also tell his story.


Embodying the Song
This is where we show the song to the people rather than conducting them. This is the hardest and riskiest part of song enlivening because we have to be vulnerable. It’s also hard because we tread the fine line between purposeful drama and showing off (or acting out). Here is the key element:

  • Teach voice to voice


As scary as it may be, the way people learn a melody is by hearing it in someone else’s voice. Turn off the keyboard, put down the instruments, and let your voice be the teacher. Master the song you are teaching, divide it into manageable bits, let go of the soloistic frills, and give the people a reason to praise.



John Thornburg is a pastor who travels the country helping congregations recover their singing voice.


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