Congregational singing is dead, and we have killed it. If it wasn’t dead before Covidtide, it probably is now. So let’s start again, and let’s get back to basics. The pop-worshiping house cover band style will never grow and sustain a culture of singing.
Here is a new way forward.
Teach your people. Teach them why we sing. Teach them why we sing the songs we sing. Teach them that anyone can sing, and how to sing as well as they possibly can. Teach them to sing liturgy, psalms, and the best hymns. Christians must understand their history as a singing people and the biblical mandate to sing together, or they won’t understand why they should sing in the first place. Singing is your job as a worshiper.
Dust off the organ console.
There’s a reason the organ was brought back into the church during the Protestant Reformation. It wasn’t because it was cool. It wasn’t that it helped people feel “connected.” It wasn’t because it was relevant, and obviously not because they were listening to organ music in their cars! (Side note: Rick Warren doesn’t get it.) It was because the organ is uniquely able to support sustained, hearty congregational singing. It’s not that I hate guitars. In fact, I listen to guitar-driven popular music all the time. But even when amplified, the guitar just isn’t up to the task of leading and supporting a large group. That’s not what it was created to do.
Bring the choir back.
With a choir, you have a significant part of the church committed to serving as an example and encouragement for the rest of the congregation. And it’s much easier for a hesitant singer to join in with a sizable, confident, prepared group than a soloist or smaller ensemble.
Make it obvious that your congregational singing isn’t supposed to be a pop performance.
Is it really any wonder that congregational singing has declined as the church has increasingly mimicked the musical entertainment of our culture?
When the congregation’s role in singing is shifted from primary to dispensable, as if they’re singing along at a rock concert or with the radio, there’s no compelling reason to sing out. Even our vocabulary has changed. Instead of chancel or platform, we have a stage. I even read something recently recommending the creation of a “worship producer” position. Want to offer christianized pop entertainment? Keep it up. Want to revive congregational singing in your church? Don’t make it into such a spectacle. Turn up the lights, stand still, and be serious about the task at hand.
Get rid of the lead singer.
While we’re on the subject of performances, there is absolutely nothing that kills group singing like a soloist crooning into a microphone. If it is absolutely necessary to have an individual leading by themselves, make sure it’s someone who can model a warm, pure, neutral tone, without affected vocals or ad-libbing. If possible, eliminate the amplification, or at least have them step back from the microphone after bringing the congregation in, so that the congregation learns to take initiative and not simply defer to the leader. Build a culture in which people are confident in their own ability to sing.
Build worship spaces conducive to singing.
Get rid of your carpet. Seriously. All of it. It’s icky, ugly, and unhealthy. Get rid of padded pews and those weird [non-] acoustic panels, too.
Why do we build multi-million dollar buildings supposedly meant to house corporate worship and then make them as resonant as the back aisle of a Jo-Ann Fabrics? Build spaces that aren’t so hostile to the song of the faithful. Start by building spaces that reflect the theology of worship. When people step into a space built for Christian worship, it should be like they are stepping into another world. That sort of architecture almost can’t help but be wonderful acoustics for singing.
Sing all the time.
Make singing, and not just musical entertainment, a part of your church life outside Sunday services. Sing your faith in Sunday School. Sing at church functions. Encourage families to sing at home. Make singing part of the culture.
Encourage and support the arts in the community.
Take a group to the symphony. Offer the use of your buildings for school and community rehearsals and performances. Though it may not mean immediate results for your congregation, it will promote music-making in your community. Let’s face it, with the proliferation of recorded music in our society, we have gone from being music-makers to music consumers, and often lazy, indiscriminate ones, at that. Congregational singing in worship has slipped because the church has followed the society down that path. Do what you can to reverse it.
Bring the kids back into corporate worship.
Honestly, there’s no way congregational singing can survive even another generation unless we start with the youngest worshipers. Speaking as a former elementary music teacher, though abilities vary, every child can and should learn how to sing. There are lots of ways to do this. Bring back the graded choir program, and allow them to sing regularly. Begin a music academy. Host a music camp during the summer. And although we’re not making music like today like we did in previous generations, musical arts still thrive in many areas through school systems. That means your kids might be your greatest musical resource. Make sure they learn how to plug that learning into the local church before they graduate and are no longer involved in music making on that level.
Of course, that means children should be included in worship. Nothing is more tragic than a church that segregates children into their own environment, especially with frenetic energy and over-stimulation. Teach them to lift their voices along with the church in liturgy.
Make the music worth singing.
The primary job of church music is to support the liturgy. Plan accordingly. Choose beautiful hymns and liturgical settings with good, singable melodies that fit the theology of the poetry. Choose solid texts that sing your faith, not just how you feel about your faith. Forsake the musical fast food of the recording industry, and replace it with something that will bear good fruit.
Stop doing the same songs over and over and over.
First, don’t sing “songs.” Sing liturgy and hymns. Moving on…
I read a blog post today in which a worship leader said he would do the same song three times in a month! When I was a kid in the mid 90s, my church sang “Shout to the Lord” in something like 15 straight services. I know because I was at each one, and by the last, nobody was singing besides the “worship” team.
Basically, don’t do what the pop-worship church has been doing for decades.
Radical? Maybe. But whatever the point of pop-worship was, it has failed. We need a culture of singing that springs from historic Christian worship, not one that mimics the whims of a culture obsessed with meaningless entertainment.
Some of these suggestions are not practical for immediate use in every church. That’s okay. Congregational singing wasn’t destroyed overnight, and it won’t be relearned overnight. But in time, implementing these ideas would begin to build a singing culture in our congregations once again. It will take a concerted effort. It will take patience. It will take making changes that aren’t popular with everyone or that might not immediately resonate with the culture around us.
Don’t forget. We sing a different song.
Flickr, creative commonw