Every 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”.