Congregational Singing Lessons Revisited Part 2

There are at least six practices that can discourage congregational singing. Some of these may be affecting the singing in your church service. Some simple changes can make a big difference.

In Part 1 I summarized and provided a self evaluation on the first two of the four dysfunctions of congregational singing outlined by Stan Endicott in Worship Leader's November 2011 eNewsletter article CongregationalSinging Lessons. Here are the last two dysfunctions followed by two of my own:
Bad key choices.
Stan’s guidance is clear; multigenerational worship requires lower keys than male worship leaders typically choose.

Self Evaluation Grade: A. Choosing a key the whole congregation can sing in should be a no brainer, but apparently it is not! I never realized men sing higher than women, but I do now. I can’t remember leading a song in a higher key than the recording I learned the song from. Most of the time I am taking songs down, and sometimes that includes altering the melody to deal with range problems (the capo is my best friend!). I asked two of our female vocalist if we are keying the songs we sing too high; they answered “no.” It turns out that having an average vocal range is a blessing. When I settle on a key for a song, it works well for most people in our congregation too!

Music that is too “busy.”
Stan’s recommendations are to thin out the arrangement, avoid sameness, let the congregation hear themselves, and inspire them by the music.

Self Evaluation Grade: B. Some of our songs have more ambitious arrangements than others and we try to keep things interesting. The key idea to remember is to “let the congregation hear themselves.” I agree that with large worship bands thinning out arrangements is essential and avoiding sameness has value too, but that is not the reason the congregation can’t hear themselves. If the band volume is too loud, it is too loud. It can be too loud regardless of the number of instruments. When the band is too loud, singing is discouraged. When the band is not loud enough, singing is discouraged. When the team vocals can’t be heard clearly, singing is discouraged (especially on new songs). There is a sweet spot for both the volume and the mix, and if the sound crew doesn’t find it, singing will be discouraged.

Stan says “the congregation needs to be inspired by the music,” and that seems to be the conventional wisdom among worship leaders. My personal experiences have taught me otherwise. Let me share two examples.

Bouzouki Story. I built and used a 4-string bouzouki in worship. The feedback I received from the worship musicians on playing the instrument was less than encouraging: not a full enough sound, sounds tinny, sounds different, … I asked someone I knew in the congregation about the singing on that Sunday fishing for feedback on my bouzouki. She thought everything was fine and wasn’t even aware I had been playing a different instrument!

Drums Story. We were doing the music for a men’s retreat for another church. We had a four piece band: acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, and electric drums. The pedal on the bass drum failed shortly into the first set and the drummer played on using what was working. During the second set, the cable fell out the electronic brain quieting the drums completely. When the drummer realized what had happened he plugged it back in and jumped in at an appropriate point. From our perspective it was a disaster. I found it interesting that when we were talking about our difficulties that few of the guys were even aware there was a problem; they thought the worship music was great!

I believe the congregation needs to be inspired by the message of the songs we sing to God and to each other. There is a certain level of ability and excellence essential to encourage and support congregational singing. It’s easy to lose sight of that when we get too wrapped up in the music.

Here is one last story. I was talking with my son recently. He made the observation that in the churches he has attended (large churches, large band) the time of singing was more of a concert than a time to worship the Lord. Congregational worship in song is different than a concert because of its purpose and focus. It looks different, feel different, and the results are different!

Two More Dysfunctions

As I reflected on Stan’s insights two of our healthy practices of congregational singing came to mind and I simply reframed them as dysfunctions.

Not regularly giving the congregation the opportunity to sing acapella.
Many congregations never truly get to hear themselves sing; the band pretty much drowns them out. I have been at large conferences where all I could hear is the band; I could not hear my own voice or the voices of the people next to me. I have found when you silence the instruments, the voice of the congregation rises to the occasion. We typically do it on the last verse or final chorus of a hymn because their melodies seem to work well without instruments. We have used choruses, but they have to be selected more carefully because many are more dependent on the supporting rhythm instruments to fill vocal gaps or their melodies aren’t as engaging alone. We don’t do this every Sunday, but it is a regular practice and a very uplifting and encouraging one for everyone!

Not repeating songs enough to really learn them.
People sing tentatively or don’t sing new songs and songs they don’t know very well. Planned repetition of songs is essential to building familiarity and confidence. The challenge is to introduce enough new songs to keep things fresh, and yet have enough well know songs each week to keep everyone fully engaged. There are practical limits to how many new songs a congregation can absorb before singing begins to suffer. I have to know my congregation and my music team. I have to deliberately plan repetition of songs, even when I might want to sing other songs, because it is in the best interest of the congregation. I know our music team will tire of a song before the congregation because we play it many more times. I practice most songs at least eight times for every time we play it in a worship service. I have found that some songs grow on me as I sing them more and more; some don’t and I stop using them.

Are you giving your congregation a regular chance to hear and find its voice?

Are you giving your congregation a fair chance to learn new songs?


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