When Your Congregation Isn’t Singing: 15 Questions

 

1Every worship leader has the experience from time to time of a service that just seems to fall flat. The songs didn’t work, or the musicians didn’t gel, or the technology didn’t cooperate, or the congregation didn’t respond. Whatever the reason(s), even in the most passionate of congregations, there are times when the singing isn’t exactly robust.

But when that’s the regular pattern, and when the congregational singing is consistently paltry, what is a worship leader to do? I would suggest that if a worship leader is observing (over a period of months or years) his or her congregation isn’t singing, that some difficult questions need to be honestly asked and answered.

In no particular order or importance, here are ten questions a worship leader (and his or her pastor) should consider:

1. Are the songs too high? If they are, people will tune out. From C to shining C is a good rule for the average range of most singers, allowing for occasional dips down to As and Bs, and occasional peaks up to Ds or Es.

2. Are the songs too unfamiliar? Too many new songs will overwhelm people. Introduce new/unfamiliar songs at doable pace of one or two per month, with enough revisiting of those new songs that people can grab onto them. Follow up new songs with familiar songs to build back capital.

3. Are the songs worth singing? Maybe your congregation isn’t singing along because the song isn’t particularly strong, or intended for congregational use, or something that connects at a corporate level. Have a high bar for what you put on your people’s lips. A good song, at a certain level, is almost irresistible to sing.

4. Is the volume too loud? If people can’t hear themselves (or the people around them) sing, then they will deduce that their singing isn’t important, or needed, or valued, or even worth the effort.

5. Is the volume too low? If people don’t feel supported and safe enough to sing at a comfortable volume without feeling exposed and alone, then they will hold back and stay tentative.

6. Is the room too dark? Restaurants turn down lights so people feel isolated even though they’re in close quarters. Concerts turn down lights so people look at the stage. School teachers turn down lights so their students quiet down. People are conditioned to become more insular in dark lighting, and so it shouldn’t be a surprise that when churches turn down the lights during the singing, it actually has a detrimental impact on the goal of fostering congregational singing.

7. Is it all about the platform? The more pronounced the division between the platform and the congregation, the weaker the singing. The more continuity there is between the platform and the congregation, the stronger the singing. The congregation should not feel like their contribution is meaningless. Just the opposite.

8. Is the pastor un-engaged? This probably deserves the # 1 spot on this list. An un-engaged or disinterested pastor will do more to discourage congregational singing than all the other factors on this list combined. A congregation watches, studies, and ultimately emulates its pastor.

9. Is the worship leadership inconsistent? When a congregation encounters a different leader every week, drawing from different kinds of repertoires, teaching different songs, using different bands, and leading in a different kind of way, then they become defensive. The worship leadership (even if it’s shared amongst different people) needs to be consistent in repertoire, tone, philosophy, and approach, or else the congregation will tune out.

10. Is the melody clear? Call me old fashioned, but there is a right way to sing a song, and a wrong way to sing a song. A worship leader (and the vocalists and/or choir) should sing the song the right way. They should sing the melody correctly. And the sound engineer needs to make sure that melody is crystal clear. Then the congregation will know what they’re supposed to sing. (Sometimes it really is as simple as this.)

11. Are the lyrics readable? Whether you project the lyrics, or print them, or use a hymnal, or a combination of different methods, the lyrics need to be readable, in a big enough font, and presented at the right time. Badly done projection, late slides, too-small-fonts, typos, or all-of-the-above can do more to discourage singing than we realize.

12. Are the people regularly – and literally – invited to participate? Don’t underestimate the power of consistently saying things like “Let’s sing this together”, or “we’re going to learn a new song together”, or “we learned this song together last week, and we’re going to sing it again now, so please join in as soon as you’re comfortable”. Little phrases – said well – can send a regular message that you place a high priority on the idea of people singing together.

13. Have you prayed? Pray before you lead worship, with your worship team/choir/organist/instrumentalists, and ask humbly and boldly for God’s help, blessing, guidance, and power. Ask God to help your congregation see Jesus clearly, to worship him with freedom and joy, and to give you a heart of love for His people.

14. Have you tailored the arrangements to your congregation? Serve your congregation by tailoring the keys, introductions, interludes, transitions, etc. to them. Don’t just do a certain song a certain way because that’s the way it was recorded. Intentionally arrange a song to serve the actual people who will be standing before you at a given service.

15. Is Jesus at the center? If our worship is only possible because of Jesus, and if the scriptures really are all pointing to Jesus, and if the Holy Spirit really is always glorifying Jesus, and if the worship of heaven is now and evermore will be centered on Jesus, and if the deep need of every person in our congregation is nothing more and nothing less than Jesus, than the principle responsibility of a worship leader is to exalt Jesus. Choose songs that exalt Jesus. Do everything you can to point away from yourself, your name, your fame, your platform, and your presence, and point to Jesus. You will be moving in step with God Himself, and over the course of time, through faithful and pastoral leadership, you will see (and hear) a congregation more enticed to sing to the “heavenly anthem” that “drowns all music but its own”.

21 thoughts on “When Your Congregation Isn’t Singing: 15 Questions

  1. Judith Stokes April 13, 2016 / 12:04 pm

    Good questions! Hope all is going well in your worship at Truro and your family, Jamie.

    God’s blessings on you!

    Judy

    • Troy martin May 20, 2016 / 11:29 am

      Great article! Years ago as I was leading Worship. The HolySpirit urged me to stand next to my wife as we lead together. The unison of Gods power between husband & wife leading worship. The intimacy of God is so powerful. Its not about the leader, nor how good the band is. As we focus on Christ, the worthiness of His grace. Our desire is to lead people by the Holy Spirit into the Holy of Holies. To look out and see people worshiping Christ freely, open arms, tears running down their face. On there knees. I love to see Gods presence fill the entire place. Our desire is to see the power of God minister as we simply worship. Yet I say simply worship. It can be trying when you dont pray & seek. Read scripture, read the songs listen to the words. Its almost as your preparing for the sermon. Worship leaders are in a battle, we are at the forefront of Gods army. The enemy doesnt want worship, or you to be ministered to, he trys to distract us anyway possible. To see the pastor and worship team work in unity is Awesome.
      Holyspirit Driven.. Amen

  2. Tony Hartsfield April 13, 2016 / 1:01 pm

    Great list. It shows how much forethought a worship leader should be applying while planning. I would add to #11 that projecting slides that are busy or with a lot of movement in the background can also distract. It makes it harder for me to concentrate on the text.

  3. paschott April 13, 2016 / 4:58 pm

    #4 and #6 – if I’m supposed to be participating in worship, don’t treat it like a concert where I’m a spectator and applauding after each song. I should hear those around me, not just those on the stage. I should also be able to _see_ those around me, not just the light show up front. Of course, with the volume up and the lights down, do you really know if people are singing?

    Something related is when you’re on your 4th or 5th time through the (very loud) chorus and _then_ decide to have the congregation repeat the chorus without the band. I’m glad that volume and light were the main issues, but enough that I dreaded the music part of the service far too often and had to leave at least once because it was physically painful to me.

  4. Steve April 14, 2016 / 8:48 am

    We’re the hymns that were written 800 years ago being played at too slow of a tempo?

  5. Cobalt Cup April 14, 2016 / 8:57 am

    I would also add, do people understand why they are singing? I think this is often missed and hardly ever verbalized in a service.

  6. Jim April 14, 2016 / 9:09 am

    Great Post!

    3. Are the songs worth singing?

    I think that is the number one reason most non-singers don’t sing. Musicians need to keep in mind that most people don’t get excited about singing, and fear singing in public. A lyrically lame, poorly written or meaningless song won’t help coax them out of that.

    Most of the songs we sing at my fellowship are not worth singing, but boy does the band really play it well. They have a great time performing the song, but when you look around at the congregation, most of the people are not engaged.

    How can you tell if a song is worth singing? Read the lyrics without listening to the music. Great music will often mask poorly written lyrics and when you take the music away, you can see that a lot better.

    • Leonard April 14, 2016 / 8:56 pm

      Very true and nicely said! Agreed from both a singer and a person in the congregations perspective! Thanks

  7. Jim April 14, 2016 / 10:56 am

    I find the congregation is too busy talking instead of singing. Doesn’t worship trump fellowship?
    Have they lost their “First Love”?

  8. Nancy April 14, 2016 / 11:14 am

    Great points! For sure, #4 takes me out of the game! 😦

  9. ken April 14, 2016 / 11:23 am

    I’m so tired of the its not in my “singable range” excuse or it is not the volume I like. Or it is a new song. When we get to heaven it will be a new song the volume will be loud and we will sing with our might and from our hearts regardless of whether the range is c to c. Lack of singing us a reflection of our hearts rather than an external issue.

    • Janet Cunningham June 6, 2016 / 8:08 pm

      I’m so sorry you feel that way. You are judging people’s hearts, when it really is about range, “singability”, and yes, often the volume. I have a good range and can sing with the higher tenors in my soprano range, but it sounds stupid when I do! And jumping down the octave is often uncomfortable in my voice and no fun to be “growling” around on the low notes. I’m a trained musician and have been leading worship for over 20 years and I find these factors discourage me from singing when I visit another church. And it sounds like you are expecting untrained people to sing in your “power range.” Truth is, it’s not about what’s comfortable for you, it really is about what’s comfortable for your people. Maybe we’ll all have 6 octave ranges when we get to heaven, but for now we are charged to help our people worship to the best of our ability. No one would put thumb tacks in the pews and expect people to be comfortable if only they had the “right” heart!

  10. Larry Geiger April 14, 2016 / 11:40 am

    Are the songs singable. You sort of mention this but not in a complete way. Some songs are just plain un-singable. Now, maybe, there is some wonderful, trained, practiced worship leading soloist that can sing it. Often, if that’s true, then folks assume anyone can sing it. Nope. Doesn’t work.

  11. Victor McQuade April 14, 2016 / 5:29 pm

    The one thing I never see in these kinds of lists is, “Does anyone ever solicit the input of the congregation when a new song is presented?” After all it is towards them that we are supposed to be ministering.

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