One Sunday morning a number of years ago, after driving all night with a few friends, we hadn’t reached our destination and had no idea where to go to church. At the gas station, as we refueled, we asked an elderly black couple obviously on their way to church if we could join them. And that’s how I ended up at a black church outside of Memphis, singing call and response songs with a boy of maybe 11 providing the accompaniment. That church understood something about worship that many of the churches I’ve visited recently just don’t seem to get: worship is corporate. It is inclusive.
I was not familiar with the songs. I was not familiar with the lyrics. I was not familiar with the style or the tunes. Yet I was able to join in immediately and sing with as much self-forgetfulness as a white boy who can’t clap can have in that situation. It was accessible, not just to others from their community, but to a complete outsider. I was recently in the position of visiting quite a few different churches. One thing that was sad was how difficult it was to join in the singing at many of them, and thus how few people were singing. And this happened at churches on both extremes of the worship wars. Highbrow or lowbrow, band or piano, neither was a good indicator of whether the worship would be anemic or actually lead people to engage in bold worship with their voices.
Have the worship wars really left us so confused that we’ve forgotten the most basic things about music and singing in a church service? When the people can’t join in singing the songs, it doesn’t matter how good a case you make for your particular style.
In other words, style actually counts for very little. I’ve noticed three things that lead to the congregation singing during worship, regardless of whether the music is contemporary or traditional or something else.
A tune that is easy to learn and easy to sing
A tune that is hard to learn or hard to sing does not promote singing. In traditional worship there are plenty of hymns that are easy, and plenty of others that aren’t. As we move more and more to a post-church era, we need to realize that many people don’t know the old hymn tunes and reevaluate which ones are too hard for people to learn or sing. Music lessons should not be a prerequisite for people to be able to join with great joy in our worship. If you feel the need to spend church time and resources teaching regular attendees to sing parts, I submit that you might want to re-evaluate what songs you are singing. Many hymns have easy tunes and are easy to sing. Use them. I’ve even seen churches try to make the congregation sing choral pieces. There’s a reason that a choir sang it originally. It’s because it was too hard for the average Joe to sing. Beautiful? Yes. Fit for corporate singing? No.
This can be a problem in contemporary worship as well. The habit of taking songs that are performed by popular CCM bands and trying to sing them in worship does not necessarily work. As with choral pieces, they simply aren’t written to be sung by a large group, and many of them don’t lend themselves to it. I don’t particularly like CCM songs, but if we’re going to sing them, can we at least pick ones that are singable in a large group?
Focus on leading, not performing
In contemporary services, it seems to be a common occurrence that the leaders are performing rather than leading. One church I went to recently had a fantastic band. It was the best Christian concert I’ve been to in a while. Rocked out the house. But I couldn’t sing along, even with the song I knew quite well. Every time I tried, one of the singers up front would do something different and throw me for a loop. First the lead singer started harmonizing with slightly different words in a slightly different meter over top of the melody. Then a female vocalist sang one verse as a solo in a different key. Then the lead singer stopped singing and rocked back and forth inserting exclamations into the microphone. I finally gave up in exasperation and looked around. Nobody else was singing. They were watching the performance. And frankly, it looked like that was what the band was going for. Every time we began to focus on God, they would make a change or do something distracting, as if to remind us that they were there.
If anybody is inclined to shake their heads and tsk tsk at worship bands and how they’re always doing that, I ask you whether classical musicians are any less inclined to get attention for themselves? If the leaders don’t focus on leading but rather on how they can stand out, the people won’t be able to join in, which leads to my next point.
Leadership must call people to sing
This is really part of the previous point, but it’s so essential, it needs its own space. There might be a full worship band or just a pianist, but without clear leadership of the singing, the congregation will be like an orchestra without a conductor. In many churches the elders have heard the criticism that their worship is stodgy, and in an attempt to fix it up, they’ve gotten a praise band. But then they get pushback from their wives about the music being too loud, so they mute the drums behind a cage, turn down the volume, and so tightly control the music that the band cannot let loose in singing. They spend most of their energy making sure they don’t get so loud that they can’t hear the lead singer, whose voice can just be heard above their instrument if they play quietly enough. The congregation, meanwhile, is left playing the same game, of attempting to sing quietly enough that they can hear whether they are in the right spot.
And if anybody does dare to sing out, they’ll stick out like a sore thumb, since they will be louder than the one who’s supposed to be leading the melody. What a painful way to sing. And those who don’t have great voices? Forget it. They don’t want to be embarrassed caught singing when the people around them have given up. If you don’t want your band to let loose, I suggest that you switch to a confident pianist. If you don’t have a confident pianist, I suggest you sing a cappella. In any case, you need a bold singer who will call the congregation to join him through his singing.
Where one or more of these things is missing, it ends up squelching the joyful singing of the people of God. However, whether you have a worship band or music stuck in the 1950’s, let me encourage you that I’ve seen both styles used to effectively lead people to God in joyful singing. That’s why I started with the example of the black church outside Memphis. The style is not important. What is important is that worship be led in such a way that people join in.
Does this mean that nothing else about our music matters as long as people are really singing? Not at all. There are a number of other factors that are incredibly important, but when 5%, 10% or even more of the congregation can’t or won’t join in congregational singing, we’ve got a fundamental problem.