Ninety believers opened their hymnals. The pianist began the familiar chords of “It Is Well with My Soul.” Everyone in the room opened their mouths and sang with deep wells of emotion on their faces. But they sang softly, remaining seated and hesitant to let their voices ring.
Why? The pastor explained: “If we sing too loudly, the other tenants of this building will call the police on us. The authorities will close down our meeting, take me in for questioning, and possibly worse.”
This scene took place in an unregistered church in a nation that forbids Christians from assembling together. The congregation loves to sing. But they are longing for a better country, a heavenly worship gathering where they will be able to raise their voices without fear.
All of this raises the question: how are churches in the West, where we have considerably more freedom, doing at congregational singing? In contexts where we can praise Christ as enthusiastically as we’d like, is our singing as strong as it could be?
God himself sings over his people (Zeph 3:17), and he has created us in his image. We are compelled to sing by the glory and majesty of God. Scripture commands us to fulfill the delightful privilege of singing together when the local church gathers (Col 3:16). Christ has redeemed us, causing praise and gratitude to well up in our hearts. All of this means singing should be as natural to us as breathing. And yet, this side of eternity, no church sings perfectly. We’ve all got room to grow. And the decisions pastors and musicians make will either help or hinder their flocks in this vital aspect of the church’s life.
With all of that in mind, we’d like to offer four suggestions for how churches can improve their congregational singing, along with four pitfalls to avoid.
Suggestion #1: Begin with the pastor.
God’s Word calls pastors to set an example for the flock (1 Pet 5:3). If a pastor walks into the service late, reads over his sermon notes during the singing, and looks disengaged, it conveys to the congregation that singing doesn’t matter. On the other hand, when a pastor delights to praise Christ in song, his joy transfers to the whole church. No matter who may lead the singing, the pastor himself is also a “worship leader.” What a delightful privilege!
Corporate worship is a feast on the Word of God. Paul tells us that we let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly through the songs we sing (Col 3:16). That means that pastors should see the church’s songs as an extension of their teaching ministry. You’re placing words on the lips of the congregation, and they’re likely to remember these words longer than they remember your sermon! The congregation sits at the banquet table of the King; don’t serve them junk food.
Pitfall #1: Don’t abdicate; collaborate.
We fear that the ministry of song and sermon are functionally separate in too many church services today. It’s easy to let the musical folks plan the worship through singing, while the pastor prepares his message. But this drives a wedge through the service, separating what God intends for us to keep together. Every moment of the church’s gathering is both an expression of worship to God and a ministry from God to us through his Word. Singing the Word, praying the Word, reading the Word, preaching the Word, seeing the Word summarized in baptism and the Lord’s Supper—all of it is doxology.
This means that pastors should collaborate with their musical staff and volunteers rather than abdicate their responsibility. Pastors (those who are “able to teach,” according to 1 Tim 3:2) ought to exercise some form of oversight over the whole gathering, since every aspect of the service teaches and shapes the congregation. But don’t do this alone. Include and involve the musical staff and/or volunteers with which the Lord has blessed you. There are a thousand ways that pastors, worship leaders, and musicians can work together.
So, pastors, steward your relationship well with those who give leadership to music. Empower and equip them. Let them know that they have your support and trust. Don’t lord it over them, but listen to their input.
Likewise, worship leaders and musical volunteers, foster a thriving relationship with your pastor. Pray for him. Be patient if he doesn’t understand music well. Seek to learn from him about theology even while you try to teach him about music.
Suggestion #2: Sing great songs.
If congregational singing is a holy act, and if we are what we sing, then we can’t be lazy in selecting hymns. We must choose great songs—songs that artfully exult Christ with deeply meaningful lyrics and melodies we can’t wait to sing. Better to have a small repertoire of excellent songs you sing well than an ever-growing list of the “latest and greatest” material that the congregation barely knows. Our folks can only internalize a limited number of songs deep down in their hearts. Like a museum curator who selects only the best works of art to display, we must take care to pick songs of the highest quality.
Strive for songs that aren’t just theologically true, but that declare the truth in soul-stirring poetry. Choose melodies that aren’t just singable for your church, but that enhance the meaning of the words through their compelling beauty. Just as a master chef selects ingredients that are at the same time nutritious, aromatic, and flavorful, we should prioritize songs of substance that seem to get richer the more deeply you plumb their meaning.
Great songs have stood the test of time. Our ancestors have entrusted us with them, and we should pass them along to our children. Assemble any Christian group, and practically everyone can join you in singing “Amazing Grace” confidently and passionately. We’re drawn to sing great music, much like we’re drawn to stand in awe of a beautiful painting.
There are great new songs too. They breathe fresh air into our singing and help connect age-old truth with modern sounds. These are appropriate, too, though harder to find.
Pitfall #2: Don’t settle for a song simply because it checks a box.
Sometimes churches select songs that herald robust theology but are too difficult to sing. This can discourage church members, making them feel that they need to be “musical” in order to participate, when Scripture commands the whole church to join in.
On the other hand, some songs have melodies that sing incredibly well, but their words are vague spiritual clichés. Again, hymns like this will ironically discourage a singing culture in your church, because over time the lyrics will not dig deep roots into believers’ hearts.
The connection between song selection and your church’s culture of singing usually takes years to develop. It’s not the type of thing you can change in a week or a month. But with patience, prayer, and perseverance, careful pruning of your song list can engender real growth in the congregation’s joy in song.
Suggestion #3: Highlight the horizontal dimension of congregational singing.
We sing to the Lord. Yet, as we do, we are also “addressing one another in Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19). Singing is an act of love. It is, in part, how we care for our brothers and sisters and help them follow Jesus. Week after week, the Holy Spirit uses the body of Christ to renew, realign, and refresh our souls as we hear the voices of God’s people around us.
This means that believers can delight to lay down their preferences and consider others more significant than themselves by singing enthusiastically even if the song isn’t in their favorite style (Phil 2:3). Make sure many of your songs use the first-person plural (“we, us”). 1 Corinthians 14 calls us to prioritize “building up” the church when we gather (1 Cor 14:5, 12, 26). How amazing: God uses the imperfect, sometimes-out-of-tune singing of saints young and old, from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, to conform his bride to the image of Christ.
One way churches can showcase this unity is by having the instruments sometimes drop out entirely. When all you can hear is one another’s voices, it encourages folks to sing—they can’t rely on the folks playing up front. And it reminds the church that we are here to minister to one another.
Pitfall #3: Watch out for decisions that may unintentionally diminish the horizontal dimension of congregational singing.
It’s often been said that every choice worship leaders make, no matter how mundane it seems, will either hinder or help the congregation sing to one another. Certain areas, of course, are matters of wisdom, not biblical requirement. For example, worship leaders are free to close their eyes while they sing. Indeed, singing is a form of prayer, and we often pray with our eyes closed. However, if the leaders always shut their eyes, the congregation may learn to follow their example, and the “one another” aspect of congregational song seems diminished if church members never see each other’s eyes. We say this not so much to insist on this particular small point, but to remind us that the congregation is always watching. Leaders should remember that the ways we hold ourselves sometimes have unintended consequences. In Keith’s church, the musicians sit on the side while they play, simply to buttress the reality that singing is the whole congregation’s responsibility.
Likewise, lighting and seating arrangements subtly convey what we expect from congregational singing. A darkened room with spotlights on the stage reminds us more of a concert than a family meeting. Such features may train church members to expect an entertainment experience, even if such an expectation is subconscious and unintended. But turning up the lights so that folks can see one another, and arranging the seats (if possible!) so they can hear one another’s voices can reinforce and invigorate the corporate dimension of song.
Suggestion #4:Serve the congregation through excellent musical accompaniment.
Psalm 33:3 tells musicians to play skillfully. This instruction is consistent with our calling as believers to work heartily at whatever we do, as for the Lord and not men (Col 3:23). Church singers and musicians should seek to support, enhance, and beautify the singing of God’s people.
This means that just as preachers spend hours in preparation to minister faithfully, musicians must work at their craft. Practice, prepare, and pray for fresh vitality. Listen to new music, arrangements, and sounds. Become more fluent at your instrument so that you can pay better attention to how the congregation is singing during church. This way, you can grow at making adjustments—such as in tempo, dynamics, or timbre—that will help the church engage with the song.
Pitfall #4: Accompaniment that makes it hard to sing.
Many common challenges—the overly exuberant drummer, the diva-like background vocalist, the subversive choir member, or an unhealthy priority on performance—can be corrected when we teach and encourage those involved in our music to be excited about using their many rich and colorful gifts for the purpose of supporting the congregation. Every singer, instrumentalist, and choir member should share in facilitating the high calling of congregational singing.
In other words, train your volunteers to pursue excellence in accompanying and enhancing the singing of the church, rather than in performing the most virtuosic passages they can muster on their instruments.
When professional musicians turn up for a gig in a recording studio, they don’t show off every skill they have. They play to support and highlight the main artist, usually the singer. Mature musicianship means knowing that less is often more. “Excellence” doesn’t mean “as complex as possible” or “as loud and overwhelming as possible.” Pick keys that are suitable for the whole congregation rather than those that showcase the lead singer’s voice. Arrange songs to be intuitive to follow, so that congregation easily picks up when to start singing each verse. And encourage your instrumentalists to sing along. Not only is it powerful for the church to see them sing (remember, everyone up front sets an example for the whole body), it can help the musicians play parts that better support and undergird the singing.
Singing today: a foretaste of eternity
In congregational singing, we enjoy a “forehearing” of the new creation. We anticipate the final day when Christ will gather his people around his throne and we will join in an anthem of praise to the Lamb who was slain. On that day, those who now sing softly under fear of arrest will open their mouths in exultation as God’s people from every tribe and tongue proclaim his glory.
Written by:Keith Getty and Matt Merker