Helping Your Congregation Sing!
In the Old Testament, singing was an important, mandated element of worship in the temple. The Levites were instructed to lead the people in song, and the people were expected to join in the singing. The psalms are filled with commands for the worshiper to sing, such as, “Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth! Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day” (Ps. 96:1, 2). This command to sing does not change in the New Testament. The apostle Paul encouraged the New Testament church to sing (see 1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
Worshipers have no option but to sing, because Scripture commands it. Week after week, gathered as the body of Christ, we are spiritually renewed, realigned, and sanctified by singing to the Lord and singing to one another. The crucial question is not ‘Do you have a voice?’ but ‘Do you have a song?’ As redeemed people, the answer is always, “Yes!”
I believe one of the greatest lies the evil one has convinced us to buy into is that we “can’t sing.” Over the years I have heard countless Christians say they “can’t” sing. Either they were told so at a young age or they just don’t feel confident when they sing. My response is always the same: “That is a lie from the pit of hell.” We must stop buying into the lie that our singing voice isn’t good enough, that our vocal quality is a hindrance to worship.
God is not judging the pitch or tone quality of our voices as much as he is listening to the heart. As those who lead the congregation’s song, we must instruct and encourage the congregation to use their voices, however they sound, for the glory of God.
As we join in congregational singing, some sort of leadership is required, as people don’t normally begin singing spontaneously. This leadership, however, should never overshadow the song of the people. The voice of the congregation should be primary, for it is the main instrument in congregational song.
The singing voice is vitally important to congregational worship. Early Christians battled over the inclusion of instruments in the liturgy at all. Organ began accompanying hymns as late as the last half of the sixteenth century. Before that, it would introduce the hymn and play in alternation with the unison, unaccompanied congregation. The term “a cappella” literally means “as in the chapel” and was originally used in reference to congregational singing.
God’s people have been singing praise since long before the birth of the church. Old Testament followers of Yahweh sang praise by means of canticles and psalms. Moses led the people in singing the song of the redeemed. David led the people in singing praise psalms in the presence of the Ark (the place of God’s presence on earth). The New Testament church continued those traditions and added hymns and spiritual songs to the repertoire. The church of God has always been a singing church.
Let’s explore some practical ways in which leaders can encourage congregations to sing out the song of the redeemed. The following are a few approaches I have instituted in my own local church settings over the years.
Sing Songs That Are Familiar
Singing familiar songs means we must teach new songs less frequently. I recommend teaching no more than one to two new songs per month. When a new song is taught, make every effort to sing it again within the next two weeks. This allows the congregation to become familiar with the song and fully participate in the worship service. By allowing songs to make their way into the rotation more often, the congregation becomes familiar with the songs and thus encouraged to sing out. But be careful not to overdo this. Singing the same song six out of eight Sundays may be a bit too much.
There are many ways to teach new songs. For those songs with a chorus/refrain, I will teach the congregation the chorus first. I sing it for them once and then ask them to join me on the second and possibly third time through. Then we begin the song from the beginning. When we arrive at the chorus/refrain, it is familiar to the congregation and they are able to participate. Other ways include introducing the song as a special music piece and/or posting a link to a video/audio file of the song on social media (be sure to encourage your congregation to regularly interact with your church’s social media pages if you go this route). If you are introducing a new hymn text, consider matching the text with a familiar hymn tune. “Come Thou Fount” (NETTLETON), “Amazing Grace” (NEW BRITAIN), “Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners” (HYFRYDOL), and “Be Still, My Soul” (FINLANDIA) all have flexible, highly singable melodies that work well for congregational singing.
Sing Songs That Are “Singable”
We must sing songs that are singable for the average church goer. This means songs that can be sung by the middle schooler just beginning band and the grandma who has grown up singing from a hymnal.
To discover if a song is singable, we must ask the correct questions. Is the melody crafted in a way that flows well? If you hum the melody, is it beautiful? My good friend Andrew Braine, founder of WorshipBetter.com, says, “As a general rule, if most members of your congregation wouldn’t ever be caught humming the melody, it probably is not a strong melody.” So, hum the melody. Is it beautiful? Is it memorable?
Is the song’s melodic range accessible to the congregation? Many melody lines of songs (traditional hymns and modern praise songs alike) are in a range too wide for the average congregation member to sing. Additionally, research has shown that people today have smaller singing vocal ranges than previous generations (one such study can be found in “Who Gets to Sing in the Kingdom,” by Ruth King Goddard, presented for the Christian Congregational Music Conference at Ripon College in Oxford, United Kingdom). There may be a number of reasons for this trend, including the lack of musical training in schools, fewer opportunities to sing in today’s culture (a result of being an increasingly non-singing culture), and believing the lie that we can’t or shouldn’t sing. Regardless, as leaders of worship, we must consider the vocal range of our congregational songs and determine if our people can effectively, and physically, sing the songs.
One common trait employed in many of today’s worship songs is the octave melody jump. Jumping the octave may sound good on a recording and in performance venues, but the average congregation member will not be able to follow along. Songs that utilize this technique are set in a key that sound good in the top octave range for the artist on the recording. When the jump occurs, many in our congregations will simply stay down the octave for the entire song because they can’t, or don’t want to try to, make the jump of the octave. Oftentimes people will stop singing altogether. When this happens, the song lacks the energy of full congregational participation.
There is a school of thought that says if you want people to sing louder, turn up the volume of the music. That philosophy may work well in a festival-style event such as a concert, but when it comes to congregational singing, the voice of the congregation should be of utmost importance. If a main responsibility of a leader of worship is to lead the congregation in their song, the congregation should be singing. But what do you do if the congregation does not sing? Here is a four–fold approach that I have implemented in my own local church ministry settings.
1. New Songs
As mentioned before, teach new songs less frequently. Do not teach more than two new songs per month. Teaching new songs less frequently allows for the congregation to learn the songs quicker and participate more fully.
2. Song Repertoire
Compile a song repertoire for the church. For those churches utilizing hymnals, this has already been done for you. For those churches that do not use hymnals, the song choices can be overwhelming. There are countless songs to choose from, but having too large a repertoire does not allow for the congregation to become familiar with the songs which leads to them not feeling comfortable in singing out.
3. Song Lists
I create three song lists to be used when selecting songs for congregational worship. I call them the Top 40, Bottom 60, and Classics (hymns are “freebies” so, in essence, there are four lists to choose from). The Top 40 list contains songs that match the church’s theme for the year as well as any new songs we want to teach the congregation. The Bottom 60 list consists of songs from the previous year that we want the congregation to continue to sing. The Classics list includes songs that are so familiar to the church practically everyone joins in because they know the songs so well.
The guideline is to select 50 percent of the songs for any given Sunday from the Top 40 list. The other 50 percent of songs are to be selected from the Bottom 60 list, Classics list, or from hymns. The process of selecting songs from these organized song lists accomplishes two things: 1) the worship leaders are given guidelines for song selection; and 2) songs are being sung more frequently, giving the congregation the opportunity to learn them and participate more fully.
4. A Cappella
At least once in the service, the worship leader is required to back away from the microphone and encourage the congregation to sing a cappella. The purpose is to allow the congregation the chance to hear themselves, encourage one another with their singing, and be encouraged by their own voices.
At one particular church, our church worship leadership team decided to follow this four-fold approach for a six-month period, with the hope of accomplishing the goal of encouraging the congregation to participate more fully in singing in the worship services. To our delight we accomplished the goal within three months. The congregation began singing out in a way they never had before. We were amazed. Moreover, we decided to continue to follow the guidelines beyond the six–month trial period.
Song leaders must understand that congregational song not only expresses a response to God but also tells the story of God. It is a crucial way that congregational worship helps to form the congregation’s faith. Leaders of congregational song must consider the voice of the congregation as of utmost importance and give worshipers the opportunity to fulfill the biblical command of singing their praises to the Lord.
For further reading on helping your congregation sing, see Steven Brooks’ book Worship Quest: An Exploration of Worship Leadership (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2015), which is being hailed as a must-have resource for worship leaders.