There are times when sitting in a sanctuary or community center or reissued movie theater on a Sunday morning is nothing less than an affront to the ears. All around us our brothers and sisters mumble and slur their way through the songs, while everyone tries to keep from being distracted. There is a lack of quality singing in churches each week. So do we need to give our congregations singing lessons? That would be hilarious! By quality singing, I don’t mean vocal excellence. What they need is not singing lessons but rather the permission to sing. Just like in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “Happy Birthday,” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” If your church doesn’t sing it’s probably because of one of two things: either they haven’t been invited to sing or the obstacles to their singing have not been removed. I have identified four things that hinder congregational participation.
4 Dysfunctions of Congregational Singing:
1. Not realizing the congregation is present
Great communicators, actors, comedians, professional singers and yes, great pastors are aware that there are actually people in the room. As in any gathering the crowd must feel welcomed and comfortable. So is the case with congregational worship. An intentional, warm welcome is important. I am not saying that a “greeting” has to be the opening of the worship experience but a nice smile goes a long way, then clear direction as to who is singing and who isn’t. Though the trend is not to over direct people, clear direction as to sitting and standing is surprisingly important. Corporate reading of Scripture is also an important activity toward congregational participation.
Note: It’s my opinion that in an intergenerational congregational context, that 12 minutes is a good amount of time for people to stand. Standing longer than that will affect the concentration level for many people. In a crowd filled with younger age demographic this really doesn’t matter.
2. Vanilla song choices
The process of finding great songs is extremely important. Oh it’s easy to follow the normal path to find songs, but to find great songs that are congregational in their appeal is an entirely different story. I have a friend who is a photographer with National Geographic and he told me that to get 30 pictures for a National Geographic article, he took 14,000 pictures. Finding great songs requires a lot of time. The lesson here is, don’t settle on the easiest way to find good songs. Recruit people to help you and take the time to find great songs. As well, do not just depend on your own personal tastes in choosing songs. You will be fooled.
3. Bad key choices
Really? Why does this matter? Well it doesn’t matter at a rock concert or in an auditorium filled with 18 to 35 year olds, but church has wider age span. So the rule of thumb is that men sing higher than women and women sing lower than men. Crazy? Oh but it’s true. Just take note the next time a female is leading worship. The songs will, for the most part be in keys that are more singable for the intergenerational congregation. Most male worship leaders, in order to sing more comfortably put songs a higher range. When this happens, the congregation often is left behind. This rule does not apply for well-known worship artist concerts. In this case everybody in the room knows all the songs and can sing them in any key. Be intentional about key choices for your congregation.
4. Music that is too “busy”
In a contemporary worship band there is a tendency for everyone in the band to play too many notes at the same time. This can be helped by “thinning out” the arrangement. Change the parts that band member plays from verse to verse, chorus to chorus. Add things, take things out. Be creative with this. But most of all avoid the “sameness.” This takes a lot of thought and experimentation, so most of these ideas need to come prior to the rehearsal. But the congregation needs to hear themselves sing. And the congregation needs to be inspired by the music. Just like in the movies, music embellishes the moment. But playing “too busy” causes numbness, and boredom sets in. As the jazz legend said, “It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.”
Theologian, John Calvin says, “singing subdues the fallen heart and retrains wayward affections. St. Augustine says, “Singing is praying. When one sings one prays twice. While singing in the front of the Lord, we are in touch with the deepest center of our heart.”
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.