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How to help your congregation to sing

Over at the 9Marks blog, Jonathan Leeman provides some tips for how to help your congregation sing. I would qualify some of his comments, but most of his tips are very good. Here are the tips, but head over there to see his full explanations. I’ve added a few comments in brackets.

  1. Teach the congregation the importance of worshipping God in song.
  2. Encourage thoughtful, purposeful singing through private and public prayer.
  3. Make sure the congregation knows why they are singing the chosen song.
  4. Choose “congregational” rather than “performance” songs.
  5. Please, oh please, turn up the lights.
  6. Please, oh please, turn down the musical accompaniment.
  7. Consider the dangers of highly rehearsed and “excellent” music, as well as heavy instrumentation.
  8. Look for a balance between new songs and old songs.
  9. Use songs that represent a broad range of human experience and emotion.
  10. Vary the way a song is sung. [This is not so important to me as it feeds the contemporary need for “novelty.” I would rather cultivate an appreciation for tradition. However, there is certainly nothing wrong with occasional variety.]
  11. Where possible, arrange chairs or pews with some facing each other and not just the stage. [I am a huge proponent of this.]
  12. Consider the room’s acoustics. [Yes! Contemporary, “theater” styled churches give no consideration to this these days.]
  13. Perhaps place musicians and singers to the side for a season. [Or, put them in the back! That’s what we do in our church.]
  14. Model enthusiastic singing. [I’m not so concerned with what “enthusiastic” implies these days, but I agree that the pastors need to model active singing.]
  15. Print the music, pick songs with good parts, and look for other ways to promote musical literacy. [Wow! I’m thrilled Leeman said this.]
  16. Hold a singing class. [Ditto.]
  17. Occasionally sing a cappella.
  18. Regularly remind the congregation that they are the primary instrument in corporate worship.

Any tips you would add?

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

30 Responses to How to help your congregation to sing

  1. Take time to parse hymns, particular older ones with outstanding messages that language shifts have made less obvious. Whether an extended feature of a service (say 10 minutes on occasion), or in an education class, or just quickly (60 seconds) working through the text of a single verse. Or do it via email, or in the printed order of service, or on your website with a link in the order of service.

    Communicate ahead of time to the congregation the songs they will be singing, especially if they are new. I’m not so naive as to think that most people will open an email sent earlier in the week and take a close look at what songs the congregation will be singing, but I suspect some will. Hook this communication up with the previous point.

  2. My daughter and I visited Capitol Hill Baptist a year or so ago and I can say that the church there puts into practice what Jonathan Leeman is commending. It was wonderful to be part of the singing of that congregation. The sparse musical instrumentation used was very unobtrusive. We appreciated it!

  3. I don’t really know that I could add any tips. I’m still just starting out trying to figure out how I would teach a congregation to sing. A lot of these tips surprised me because they’re things I’ve never really thought about, like considering the acoustics and turning the chairs to face each other and not the stage. One tip that I see for sure in my church back home is number 14: “model enthusiastic singing.” My pastor there pretty much is the embodiment of that tip. He loves worship and really gets into it. It’s great to see the pastor singing sometimes even more enthusiastically than the congregation itself.

  4. Having led worship for years pre-seminary, number 14 resonates greatly with me. While enthusiastic can sometimes be equated with charismatic nowadays, I’m sure this is not what is meant after reading the authors explanation. Men of the church are charged with the spiritual leadership of the individual families that it consists of. We are reaping the price of stoicism (Clint Eastwood like manliness) that has remained unaddressed in our churches for the past few generations. Once we can get men singing, I truly believe that we will see an explosion in congregational singing and participation.

  5. These tips are really practical and helpful. I think it is a very good idea that “Hold a singing class” to help congregation to sing, just have question on “how”. Open a Sunday school singing class? Or set a time before or after worship to teach the congregation to sing? For instruments accompaniment, I think it has both side, if it is used in a proper way, accompaniment would totally encourage congregation to sing, so strongly agree with the idea that “put the musicians in the back”. That’s such a great idea to shift the attention to God instead of the musician on the stage.

  6. I have no idea for additional tips for this. these tips are so good and helful. The churches should use these tips in that what Jonathan Leeman is commending. I am still learning through these tips.

  7. I think these tips are very useful, especially the last one concluded that the congregation is the primary instrument in corporate worship. I had experience in a church, the accompanist played the piano really overs the congregation singing. Seems she doesn’t really care of the congregations singing, but all about her own playing. It really bothered me. These tips gives some general idea that what should we do in the corporate worship. It is also a reminder that we shouldn’t pay much of attention to the music itself or a particular musician in the worship.

  8. I love this list of tips, it really helps. I think No.3 is very important: make sure the congregation knows why they are singing the chosen song. Worship leaders and music ministers have the responsibility to guide their congregants know why they are sing, do not always assume that texts can explain the entire purpose you choose that song. Congregants might sing the hymn by their mouth without the heart. If the worship leader can hint and emphasize the purpose of singing that hymn before or after the song or during the stanzas, congregants will pay more attention and prepare the right heart when they worship God.

  9. Last point “regularly remind the congregation that they are the primary instrument in corporate worship” is very important. I found in my own experience that a lot of time congregants just watch the worship leaders up the stage and be the audience and doesn’t realize that they are actually the primary instrument in corporate worship. Corporate worship is never a performance or a show, it is congregants join together in unity to worship God. Instruments are not the primary instrument in corporate worship, so they should not draw people’s attention away from worshipping God. Pastors and ministers should encourage congregants participate more in corporate worship singing and reminds them always about they are the primary instrument.

  10. I would like add one tip, “If you are one of worship team members, such as worship leader, singer, instrument player, or even sound engineer, think about a song deeply before you sing it with congregation.” The worship team members should be toughed their spirits by the song first. Then, they can share the song with congregation.

  11. As Megan does, I like number 14: “Model enthusiastic singing.”
    Sometimes I want to express my love to God when I sing hymns, but I usually don’t do it. I need to sing enthusiastically. One of solution of the problem is I need to practice motions that could be useful tool for expressing, such as raising hands, clapping, and even dancing. But, most important point is I need to be a enthusiastic singer not by practice but by Holy Spirit.

  12. It would be good to make their own favorite Hymn book mixed with contemporary worship songs for a small group.

  13. Great tips! One other tip that I thought of is the possibility of getting congregational input. I’ve never been a worship leader, but I suspect some leaders get unsolicited suggestions. I understand that a leader might not be able or even be willing to incorporate all suggestions they might receive, but perhaps they might understand some unique needs of the congregants!

  14. Number seven really shed light to what “excellent” music in worship should be. While we should strive to do our best, it is not an excellence for the sake of performance, but excellence for the aim to “facilitate excellently”.
    I would also add to the list, find creative ways to teach new songs that allow the congregation to learn them quickly. Congregations will not get a new song right away so don’t be afraid to take time to teach it to them.

  15. “4.Choose “congregational” rather than “performance” songs.”
    This is the one point that I cannot stand. Everyone should worship God, not just the leader or backup singers. Many times, I can see that some songs are just sing-able to the worship team but not congregations. When I am in this situation, I will say it silently to myself, “Are you showing off?”
    In addition to “performance song”, I would add “testimony song”. Don’t use it is the corporate worship. Use it to testify!!!

  16. “7.Consider the dangers of highly rehearsed and “excellent” music, as well as heavy instrumentation.”
    Yes, over rehearsal is not good; however, neglecting practice is not good either. We have to find a balance in between.
    I used to serve in a church that did not really emphasize on practice. “God looks only at your heart.” This is the best excuse they gave to “escape” practice. As a result, the corporate worship ended up badly.

  17. I agree with number 3. There are so many times in worship that an explanation of the song and its application has been a huge aid to my understanding in worship. This requires the leader to think about song selections instead of simply “plug in” whatever song sounds good, they like, or is the new fad. When people understand and can apply such knowledge to worship, a new dimension is made available to them.

  18. I completely agree with Ben. Many times the explanation of a song increase the meaning behind why we sing the song for a worshiper. For instance, When I learned the story behind the contemporary song Overcome by New Life Worship church, it became all the more real. The song was written after the church had gone through many years of trials and they were able to overcome because of the strength of Christ in their church and their lives.

  19. Excellent list! Let me add one more. Read Scripture during the music portion of the service and use the songs to reinforce the Scripture. Telling about the song and why you’re singing it is excellent but it is secondary to Scripture. We utilize a theme for the music and read Scripture that teaches the theme. The music then exegetes the Scripture we just read.

  20. I think there may be is a tip that could add to this list, which is explaining the reason of chosen the hymn and share some spiritual insight that the leader has for the hymn, to help congregation to have a better understanding of the hymn. I believe that would encourage the congregation to sing with understanding. Personally, it always gives me a deeper impression and understanding, when leaders share their “story” or “journey” with certain hymns.

  21. All of these are excellent tips! The two that stand out to me are: to turn up the lights – I hate it when the sanctuary is dark and the only lights are on the stage where the musicians are. I also love the idea of printing the music so that people can see it. The church I belong to has not used a hymnal for 20 years and there is such an obvious lack of musical knowledge. I would love to see us start using music again. I think a good place to start with this would be to have a singing school with the children.

  22. I agree with Keji L. Worship leader should make the congregation know why they are singing the chosen song. It is important to know the reason they are singing.The resposiblity of the worship leader is remind them the purpose of worship. God wants are our hearts not only our actions.

  23. I would add that song leaders should not lead as if they are giving a concert. Their behavior and “expression” should not draw attention to themselves, but to God. Their voices, while it is important that they can be heard in order to guide the congregation and keep them together, should not overpower the congregation. I also believe that the way a leader dresses to lead worship says something about the way they view God and our relationship to Him in worship. (Can we please outlaw flip-flops on stage?)

  24. Several of you have expressed this sentiment: don’t assume the congregation will get the connections between the various parts of the service (songs, Scripture, sermon, etc.). I guarantee many, if not most, people will miss it – we have to connect the dots for them, whether by printing it in the bulletin or speaking it from the stage. We have to help our naturally distracted congregations to focus rightly in worship.

  25. I agree with Aeil. Practicing too much is a bad thing, but so is not practicing. You should at least be able to play a song in the congregation, and if you’re playing with others, practice is a necessity if you’re going to mesh well and sound good. I think that a song that sounds bad because it hasn’t been practiced enough is just as distracting to the congregation as a song that’s been overly practiced and sounds performance-y.

  26. Recently, I went to the Methodist Church and they had a wonderful acoustics. Every methodist churches that I went, they have nice acoustic sounds and have considered about the acoustics preachers and musicians.

    Choose “congregational” rather than “performance” songs. Yes, this is important to focus on congregational rather than performance songs.It might interests the listeners if you put too much into “performance”. There is a danger of “performance” songs.

  27. I believe that all of these are helpful to congregational singing. I personally love the idea of singing a hymn a capella. This would allow for the congregation to really hear each other and be edified by the text. Though I am a fan of having a church orchestra, organ, and piano, it can be a bit loud at times. It may be a good idea to find pieces that are softer instrumentally to allow for better singing of the congregation. I also believe churches are losing opportunities to teach their members to sing. This has begun by taking away children choir, youth choir, and in some cases adult choir. When people know how to better sing, they will be more likely to sing as a congregation.

  28. I second the motions to turn UP the lights and turn DOWN the musical accompaniments. Also, I remember many times before the praise bands were popular that we sang a verse of a hymn a capella. In the churches with praise bands, I don’t remember ever having that opportunity. Doesn’t that say something about how the instrumentation has taken priority over the congregational role?!

  29. I also like the idea of singing a hymn a capella. I think sing a capella helps the congregations to listen to each other. I found even the choir members sometimes while singing do not listen to each other. To listen to others also help us to train our ears.

  30. John – good point about choirs. What a perfect place to teach people to sing and what better time to start than when they are young. I never thought of children’s choirs as a training ground for the worship service. (Of course, if they only sing silly “Children’s songs” or poorly written musicals, maybe we’re still not preparing them.)

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