Do they hate these songs? Are they bad singers? Am I singing out of tune?
These questions rolled through my mind during a worship service in 2017. I was leading our congregation in singing during one of our first Lord’s Day services. The church was newly established and small in number, and—to put it kindly—the singing in our gatherings was uncomfortable.
Most of the members either didn’t grow up in church and weren’t used to singing at all—or their church experience was so different that all the songs we were singing were unfamiliar. Whatever the reasons, we were a long way from the kind of heartfelt, exuberant participation that every worship leader hopes to elicit from a congregation.
By God’s grace, the singing in our services is a much more enjoyable experience now. The growth wasn’t rapid, and it didn’t come through revolutionary tactics or clever strategies on my part. Rather, steadily and stubbornly implementing a few key principles has gradually transformed our congregation—though still small—into Christians who confidently and sincerely sing together of our Redeemer.
An insecure congregation won’t become strong overnight, but here are five habits in corporate worship that will, over time, develop your congregation’s worship muscles:
1. Choose Singable Songs.
Your congregation needs songs that are simple and memorable enough to sing along. It is frustrating to observe how many of the most popular worship songs are not singable. With uneven, syncopated rhythms and choppy, interval-laden melodies, many songs for modern worship are almost impossible for anyone but a trained vocalist to sing well.
Your congregation needs songs that are simple and memorable enough to sing along.
Stress hymns over pop songs. The metered poetry of a hymn text makes it intuitive and quite easy to catch on to its timing and rhythms. By contrast, a pop song’s lyrics often rely on rhythm instruments (drums, guitar) to provide clues about the song’s timing. Using hymns (classic or modern) over pop worship songs will make your songs more singable to the average congregant.
Keep your songs in a modest vocal range. Most professional recordings feature songs in a vocal range inaccessible to Sunday morning worshipers. Pay attention to the melody’s range—how wide a spectrum of notes does the melody span?—and the song’s key. If necessary, you can lower the key of a difficult song a step or two from its recorded version.
2. Keep a Small Repertoire.
With the collection of worship songs always growing, it’s tempting for a worship leader to keep adding to the repertoire of songs used in the church’s services. Being introduced to new songs every week might feel exciting to some, but it will leave your congregation unprepared and under-engaged in the long run.
A 50-song repertoire that your people know by heart provides a vastly superior worship diet to a bloated and ever-expanding catalog of vaguely familiar melodies. We want church members recalling hymn texts in their moments of temptation, comforting their loved ones on their hospital beds, and carrying gospel theology in their minds throughout the day. This can happen when you make sure your people know a small number of songs really well.
We want church members recalling hymn texts in their moments of temptation, comforting their loved ones on their hospital beds, and carrying gospel theology in their minds throughout the day.
3. Lead Simply.
The role of a leader in congregational music is to serve as a guide—reminding worshipers of the song’s melody and rhythm, giving them a cue to keep everyone together during the act of corporate singing.
Leading music on a Sunday morning is not the time to demonstrate your vocal prowess, or to compensate for your frustrated dreams of being a finalist on American Idol. Worship leaders are often tempted to improvise on a song’s melody, adding vocal embellishments and affectations that spotlight the leader instead of equipping the congregation to offer its best sacrifice of praise to the Lord.
Make the melody clear, and don’t aim to be impressive.
4. Accompany Subtly.
We live in the era of big bands and slick production. In your instrumentation and song arrangements, aim not to reproduce the scope and sounds of the latest worship record, but to capably support the song and equip the congregation to sing it well. Guitar solos and extended instrumental sections run the risk of overshadowing the congregation, making the lead musicians the focal point of your people’s attention.
The most important instrument in your worship service is the collective voice of the saints lifting their praises to God. Don’t unintentionally communicate something different with frequent musical virtuosity from the stage.
The most important instrument in your worship service is the collective voice of the saints lifting their praises to God.
5. Favor Substantial Content.
There is no single aspect of congregational singing more essential than this: Sing the gospel! If you want your people to sing heartily, then ensure that your songs give them something worth singing about!
Robust, enthusiastic singing flows from hearts and minds that have been steeped in the grace of Christ in the gospel. The more your church’s songs focus on the worthiness of God and our redemption in Jesus Christ, the more the hearts of your people will eventually be drawn to heartfelt praise—not by the skill of your musicianship or through manipulative leadership techniques, but by the unsurpassed beauties of God in the gospel.
Whatever else you do—however many voices lead from the stage, whatever instrumentation used, however ornamented or simple your arrangements—put the soul-saving gospel of Christ into the mouths of your congregation, week after week, month after month, year after year.
Since our awkward, insecure services of a few years ago, the Lord has grown our little church into a body of exuberantly singing saints.
Pastors and leaders, as you carefully shepherd your church in worship, may God make your congregation into a confident chorus of the redeemed, offering him “a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Heb. 13:15).