There is nothing greater than hearing the voices of our congregation sing out in praise and in worship each service. Whether it’s a new song or a timeless classic, you can tell when everyone is in sync and participating with their voices through song. It is also easy to tell when things are a little off or not quite together, and if you are like me, you have experienced both of these along with everything in between. Maybe you are one who struggles getting people to participate in congregational singing. Maybe it was once there but has faded over the years. Every person who comes into your worship service is affected by certain factors that have been put in motion long before they ever show up. Your church can experience greater participation in congregational singing by evaluating three key factors by which each participant is affected: song selection, service order, and worship environment. These factors greatly influence each participant and how they will respond when it comes time to sing.
I want to do everything within my power to invite participation from our congregation to sing. The single biggest factor that will make or break participation is song selection. If you are like me, each week’s set lists are planned and prepared weeks ahead of time. When planning each service, I first want to make sure it is balanced. Meaning, do I have a good mix of timeless, familiar songs and contemporary, newer songs. A timeless song is exactly what it means: a song that has stood the test of time. Whether it was written 200 years ago or 20 or 2, it is still impactful. These songs are typically the ones that produce the greatest participation.
When considering a new song, I always ask three questions:
- Does it have lyrical depth? By this, I don’t just mean is it overly repetitive. Do the lyrics tell a story or convey a message. A repetitive bridge in the song could emphasize a point.
- What is my motive behind learning this particular song? Am I only doing this to provoke an emotional response? It’s a popular song on the radio. This is the next song our congregation will love. The next timeless song we are learning. Is it timeless or just trendy?
- Is it singable? This is the most subjective question and could really depend upon each congregation. However, there are some songs that we love to sing along with in the car that do not translate well to congregational singing. Could you have your choir or praise team learn it first and sing it a few times within a couple of months then move it to a congregation song? Do you have the instrumentalists to pull off a more difficult arrangement?
If the goal is to invite participation, then song selection is a huge factor in accomplishing this task. There is much more that goes into song selection and song set grouping that we can discuss in a separate article. These basic practices, however, are a good place to start.
We talked about song selection being the biggest factor, yet another factor that has a tendency to be a bit subjective is the service order. How do you structure the order of each part of your service? Over the past 25 to 30 years there has been a trend to start singing right at the beginning of the service and continue some element of music right up until the pastor delivers the sermon. Up to that point many churches practiced a method of “Tension and Release” with their music. Meaning, there were specific points of the service that included no congregational singing-some intentional times made for welcoming guests or giving announcements with no musical background. This method is gaining popularity again because it gives the congregation a “release” or break within the service that is welcomed and appreciated. We have a big, upbeat, and vibrant opening set of songs to begin the service, followed by an intentional time to welcome guests and invite them to fill out a communication card. This is typically followed by our choir singing, then a second set of lighter, more mellow congregational music that begins to bring things down a bit before the message is delivered. We have found that there is a greater participation of people singing with energy when we include a time of “release” in our service order.
The first two factors had to do with planning the music and service. The last factor involves the worship environment. By this I mean, what is the environment of your meeting place communicating? Is it communicating spectator or participant? There are many different methods and philosophies on the design and layout of an auditorium or sanctuary. We are not here to discuss that one method is better than another; however, there are many things we put in place in these environments that unintentionally deter congregants from participating in worship. Many entertainment venues and concerts will darken their space when they want spectators. But, when they are inviting people to participate they will bring the lights up and ask you to participate with them. Our church has a great lighting system that can do many things, and there are times that we darken the room for videos or concerts. For congregational singing, though, we always bring the lights up. On special days, our choir will sing with the house lights down, then we bring them up for congregational singing. This might seem like a little thing to consider, but it can have a huge impact on inviting people to participate in corporate worship.
Certainly, there are other factors worth mentioning, and we haven’t gone into a tremendous amount of depth with each of the factors. The overall message here is that there are influential factors in our planning, song selection, and environment that affect people participating in congregational singing. It’s definitely worth consideration.
I would love to discuss this further in the comments below, or feel free to email me.