people will actually sing if you let them.

This past Sunday I recorded the last verse of  our closing hymn: How Great Thou Art.  Please take a second to listen: How great thou art-1. HFASS <—–click here

One of my non-negotiables going in to starting a church was that congregational singing be the primary musical expression of the gathered people of God. Not a band. Not an organ. Not a singer-songer writer strumming guitar chords. But the congregation itself.  Singing together means breathing together.  It means creating harmonies that cannot exist when we sing alone.  It builds community and sustains us in a way that nothing else can.

The liturgy booklets at HFASS include the actual music.  I know, very old fashioned of us.  I think churches musically infantilize people when we assume that because they “can’t read music” that they can only manage lyrics projected on a screen. I myself cannot read music.  But I can figure out that when the note goes up, I sing up and when it goes down I sing down and that notes with dots at the end are a little longer. That’s about all I or anyone else needs to know and when faced with an unfamiliar piece of music I have a great deal more chance to participate in singing it if I see the music than if you only give me the lyrics.

It has taken us awhile to become the singing congregation we are.  We have a cantor who leads the “choral guild” – a group of people (whoever wants to show up) who come 40 minutes early every Sunday to learn the harmonies so they can sit among the congregation and help support the singing.

Churches CAN learn to sing together.  I implore you to not leave music to the professionals because it belongs to all of us.  Singing together is a human birthright not just something the congregation is invited to do if they feel like it while listening to the real musicians make all the music for them.

 

 

 

About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org

  • Todd R. Ball

    Way cool!
    It sounds almost like southern harmony, shape note singing. Nice sound. Todd

  • http://www.pamfaro.com Pam Faro

    This is fantastic! And I couldn’t agree with you more. Thanks for this.

  • http://heartworkguides.com Elaine Hansen

    Ahh – my favorite thing when I was growing was the congregation singing together – miss it. I’ve already listened to the recording a couple of times. Thank you!

    Bernice of Sweet Honey and the Rock does a workshop where she invites all the voices into the room around one note – she says everyone’s voice is needed to make the note whole and the sound complete – and you don’t have to be able to sing well. Your voice is needed. Standing in the middle of the congregation singing with everyone leaves me feeling a oneness with all that is hard to express.

    You are definitely on to something.

  • http://www.ourclinicaltrial.info Allan Schur

    Thanks for allowing us to sing along with you!! Sometimes in the effort to be “modern”, it seems the church gives no thought to those left behind. My wife Sharon was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007 at the age of 54. Alzheimer’s has since robbed her of the ability to read. Short term memory loss makes learning new songs impossible but she DOES remember the words and music of hymns. For someone with Alzheimer’s to be able to sing from memory is both a blessing and a true ministry. Sharon LOVED the hymn. She sang, smiled, understood and enjoyed this hymn of praise. FYI, musical memories, the ability to remember the melody and often the lyrics, seems to be stored throughout the brain and is often the last thing the disease overcomes. THANKS for sharing!!!!

    • http://www.ourclinicaltrial.info Allan Schur

      Sharon was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in ***2005*** at the age of 54

    • http://www.sarcasticlutheran.com Nadia Bolz-Weber

      Thank you for this. And blessings to you. Keep singing,
      Nadia

  • Kenton

    Yes and Amen.

    My church does both the congregational music (words on screen in standard typeface) and the special music that features a soloist (words on screen in italicized typeface). (And just using the words “special” and “soloist” in that last sentence rubs me the wrong way.) The unspoken implication is that the congregation is not supposed to sing the italicized words. I guess it might not be as polished as it would otherwise be. (And who knows? Maybe God would not be as pleased with our worship?)

    It doesn’t stop me though. Damn the conventions! Even if I’m the only Art Garfunkel, John Oates or Jim Messina in the place, I’m joining in!

  • bls

    Great post. Thanks for the encouragement!

  • http://saintmarkslutheran.org Mark Brown

    Amen. Being LCMS, we have enough differences, but this is something we can find common ground on. (Although we do have an organ. That, and the lack of tats, probably just make us retrograde instead of ancient-future.) The hymns are the congregations. They shouldn’t be stolen by professionals, bands, Nashville or worship leaders. 4 years into throwing the hymnbook open our congregation will sing almost anything (as long as it doesn’t have a too complicated rhythm.) And I’ve never yet heard a congregation that sings that sounds bad or lacks the Spirit.

  • Kathy

    I enjoyed the sounds of the children in the background. How lovely to be singing and teaching the children that worship in song is important and valuable – and how wonderful that they are IN the service and not off in some separate space!

  • http://rottenqueerchristian.blogspot.com/ RQC

    Allan,
    (((big bear hug)))

  • LeeAnn

    The worse thing about the choir or small group or a soloist singing at our church, is that the congregation applauds them at the conclusion of the song! I refuse to applaud. I prefer to view the singing as an extension of worship. No applause is needed to connect with God.

    • http://vmwishes.com Mike

      I agree with you LeeAnn. I HATE, HATE, HATE when the organist, choir, or (yes, even) the children singing receives applause. Our congregation has so many admirable qualities… but this glaring flaw really gets my goat!!!

      And for the record, I am one of our congregation’s musicians. When I play my clarinet, saxophone, tin whistle, or vocal chords during worship, it is an act of Christian stewardship. It is NOT a performance. I just want to run out the side doors whenever I am part of a group that receives applause. If you were moved by the music, please let me know after the service with a kind word… NOT during (or even immediately after) the service with clapping or cheering.

  • http://vmwishes.com Mike

    As a musician, I am often dismayed when only lyrics are provided. It takes music out of the hands of the congregation and “leaves it to those who know what they’re doing” (e.g. the organist, choir, etc.) When I visit a church, I want to join in the singing of hymns. When only the lyrics are provided, it robs me of that ability. I have to wait to hear the song before I can join in.

    I also cannot stand that the new ELCA hymnal has dropped the harmony line out of a whole bunch of it printed music. While most people can only (or choose only) to sing the melody line, the congregation sounds better when you have that handful of people singing some harmony. When a congregation knows that it sounds good, it tends to sing with more gusto… which in turn makes it sound even better… which leads to even more gusto… etc.

    Why have we confused making worship accessible with dumbing it down? (Of course this also true of every element of our society both in and out of the church… so why should I be surprised here?)

  • Elizabeth

    I hate it when only the lyrics are given, without the music—whether in a hymnal or bulletin, or projected on the wall (which for some reason I hate even more). Our church has the traditional hymn singing accompanied by organ….but at least once a Sunday, the organist just stops playing, in the middle of a familiar hymn, and lets the congregation sing without accompaniment. To hear us all singing in parts is a joy! (Well, I dunno. Maybe hearing it isn’t a joy. But doing it is!)

  • http://www.mjarts.com Marty Jones

    One of my first favorite hymns, when I first found Faith in college…
    I’m looking forward to singing with you next month. We’ll be in Denver on the weekend of the 8th.
    ‘sadly’ we look like your parents… :o)
    A nearby community church dropped its 100-member gospel choir for a praise band… looking for ‘seekers’…
    One of the members of our ‘small group’ is one of the guitarists for our church; it’s always a joy when he brings his guitar and we sing before studying.

  • Judy Mincey

    As a shapenote singer, this resonates with me. An all day singing is a worship experience like no other. And group singing does bind the group in a special way. We may not sing pretty, but at least we sing. It opens us to each other and to God. Sing Loud!

  • Charles Canaan

    Thanks for all the above comments – it is nice to know that there are others out there that have similar thoughts and feelings about the role of music in worship. I was beginning to feel I was becoming extinct like the dinasaurs of old.

  • Mary B.

    YES! My congregation has resisted having “praise teams” for this very reason…the music belongs to the people and they are willing to try new hymns and to sing out on the familiar and the unfamiliar. and I agree about the “real music”…we still use hymnals as well as printed music (with the music) and I’m struck hearing folks sing different parts even in the back rows. Not many places in our world where we can lift our voices without fear or shame, so the church shouldn’t let go of that, ever.

  • http://meditatingontherain.wordpress.com meditatingontherain

    I am reminded of my old parish priest who often started Mass with the reminder “It says “Make a JOYFUL NOISE unto the Lord,” it doesn’t have to be perfect!” He had an okay (not horrible, but not musical either) voice and happily sang every song throughout the Mass with a big grin on his face. (He also made a point of not shushing children or babies, but woe to anyone with their cell phone left on in church…)

  • http://www.quirkyknitgirl.com Stephanie Ivy

    I love singing. One of my favorite times about my current church is that we are so small there’s not a real choir — a small group of us are the sometimes singers, who perform a song or two on some Sundays — so we all sing. It’s great.

  • http://www.lanier.org/~matt/venisanctespiritus/ Matt Lanier

    I’m a recent new addition to St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church (and choir), and the quality of the congregational singing was a key point in encouraging me to join. I remember my first time there hearing the congregation and choir drone while the celebrant chanted the Eucharistic Prayer, and I was hooked as soon as the whole place busted out in a rousing version of the Sanctus that everyone knew by heart. As a former cantor for 17 years in some other local churches that valued “quality” over congregational participation, the difference was immediate and incredible. ‘Cuz, you know, when you sing, you pray twice :-)

    • http://www.sarcasticlutheran.com Nadia Bolz Weber

      St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church is basically our big sister.

  • D.E. Bishop

    Yeah, what everyone said!

    The city of Minneapolis is reintroducing group sings in the summer in various city parks. MN State Fair is doing the same thing every one of the 12 days of the fair. I’m really excited for that. I love those kinds of things!

    Most of my congregations have been really good about singing in worship. One in particular was not. It was a very dysfuntional tiny town of 300. There were some bullies who, over the years, had thoroughly shamed and intimidated most of the congregation into silence. Very sad state of affairs that I was unable to penetrate.

  • Darlene Fletcher

    When all types of voices imaginable join as one to sing and praise together…..what a joy for the spirit!! I have sung in choirs and been a soloist for many years (no applause, please) my favorite time is when the music is shared by all those present. Thanks, Nadia.

  • http://Www.congregationalsinging.com John Thornburg

    I’m thrilled to hear about your encouragement of the congregation’s singing. As someone who left parish ministry 11 years ago to focus on empowering the congregation’s singing, I have wonderful stories to tell about those sacramental moments when we know we’re all breathing together and the Holy Spirit is shaping the moment. Thanks so much for this great posting!

  • Aaron

    This was one of the things that really stood out when I visited HFASS. Not just that the singing was amazing, but that people really sang. I loved it. And I sang along. It was fun :)

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  • Sandra Orrick

    For seventy years I have been involved in music, sacred and secular. My undergraduate degree is in music. I have served as church organist for various types and sizes of congregations who expressed their appreciation and agreement with the sentiments contained in music in different ways: reverent silence, joining in song, clapping along, polite applause, raucous ovations, whatever. People should not be intimidated by others’ perceptions as to what is proper. God accepts their prayers and praise in whatever form it is offered; why can’t we?

  • Mau de Katt

    I love the singing at HFASS, and I loved singing that hymn last week (even though I missed a lot of notes on the harmony).

    Just out of curiosity, where were the microphones located that were recording this?

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  • http://brainatthedoor.blogspot.com Hugh

    I have been involved in leading church singing since I was a 10 year old choir boy 48 years ago and, more recently, singing in a choir a “playing” guitar (I’m a chord basher) as part of a music team and I couldn’t agree more that it is about leading God’s people in an act of worship and not about being a performance. My pet hate is the churches that have a worship team who ‘lead’ and what is described as a ‘time of worship.’ Firstly it misses the important point that worship is how we live and shouldn’t be limited to a specific part of a service and secondly because of this it tends to become a performance with the ‘worship team’ not linking up with the rest of the service.

  • Shalom

    I agree! People actually sing if they can follow the lyrics on an overhead projector, as I have observed in my church. They are also less likely to be shy to sing along if they know their voice is not the only audible voice in the air. The more people leading the song(s), the more people will join in – and that makes a big difference in the whole service.

  • Harold Stassen

    Singing in church is reason #1 why I will never darken the door of a church again. It is the most boring and shaming thing I can imagine. I’d sooner have root canal done.

  • Marshall

    Thanks for that beautiful audio.
    I feel disoriented, left out, when I don’t get to sing in church. … At the same time, music seems to be about the most divisive churchy issue, people who don’t get theology still have fixed ideas about music, as some of the comments above show, not to speak of choice of styles or particular songs. Lyrics only? The chord changes are so regular you can always find the root note, or some satisfying harmony. Don’t like to sing? Well, don’t; stand and breathe. Or not. Don’t like applause? Come on REALLY, applause is praise, don’t be greedy and take it for yourself; stand up and join in, praise God.

  • Tim Gubsch

    Thank you for the reminder of this, Nadia! I am serving as a church musician in another denomination now, and I appreciate the “singing together” tradition from which I have come. It is why I love what I do; I needed the reminder!

  • http://www.gloriadeiknox.org Eric Luedtke

    I love the idea of having the music available for folks to follow along, and I find it distressing that in some hymnals they have chosen to print only the melody line and not the harmony (nothing like hearing a congregation go into harmony on a classic hymn).
    However, one thing that my wife has discovered in us having small children is how challenging it can sometimes be to manage two children and a worship bulletin at the same time. Projected lyrics are nice because they offer “hands-free” worship opportunity. It’s not logistically possible to project the notes (at least I’ve never seen anyone do it) so projected lyrics sure beat not being able to engage at all in the midst of worship.

  • http://www.laurelmasse.typepad.com Laurel Massé

    Rev. Nadia, I have been a professional singer all my life, and I could not agree with you more. Yes, I have specialized training, and knowledge, and a particular voice, but outside of a concert situation, that does not, nor should it, make me the only singer in the room. Rather, I am there to support the congregation’s singing, or to be the singing voice when the congregation just can’t do it – funerals, for instance. But always to lead and let go, lead and let go.
    Thanks for your sermons. I’m always glad to find a new one.

  • http://www.lindahudsonwriting.net Jon Spangler

    Nadia and all,
    Thanks for your sermon. We do not hear this topic preached about much at St. Gregory’s out her in SF (your “big sister” community, as you phrased it) but we sure “walk (or sing) the talks.”

    After 15 years at St. Gregory’s I sort of understand how this works–which took some time since I grew up with a church organ, choir robes, performance liturgy and music, pews, kneelers, and juggling the 1928 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and Hymnal as a tad.

    Bless you for your evangelism about making that joyful noise! :-)


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