Reality check: none of this matters in a cosmic sense.
If we make these things that what makes-or-breaks us, we become consumers who instead of worshippers. Let me restate: the first church had none of this to worry about; they met in catacombs (translation: underground graveyards) amidst a huge persecution and weren’t overly worried about their perception by others. They were far more concerned with the fact that God was DOING something and how they were going to be a part of it. They didn’t care about growth or numbers and were openly persecuted by the government and established religious sects, yet they added to their numbers (daily!). Let me re-restate: if you “can’t worship” because of any or all of these things, you may need to rethink your motivations. Worship is, after all, still a choice, still a response to God’s offered mercy, and so singing as worship must be no less.
However, just as God used the circumstances of the ancient church to speak to their culture, so too does He use our circumstances to speak to OUR culture. These things DO matter, but in a “here’s how we can help people focus” sort of way, a “here’s how to remove distractions” way, rather than a “this is necessary or else we can’t engage God” sort of way. Many of these can apply regardless of budget; these are to degrees, not to some absolute standard.
They influence, they do not mandate.
They are also not really “rules” so much as they are “principles.” Rules are situation-specific; principles are cross-cultural, and will apply in every culture but will apply differently. Some are extremely practical, while others are more “vision-based.” For the next two posts, I’ll write a slightly exhausting (but not exhaustive) list of what helps people sing in church on Sunday … or whenever. We’ll start with the first of the two biggies.
There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it - having a plan always helps people sing. I know that, in some cultures, the plan is “we sing stuff we always sing so we don’t have to plan,” but that doesn’t usually work in most western contexts (and it's still a plan). We should always plan that something will go differently than planned - because something almost always does. But if we plan ahead, fewer things will be able to phase us; instead of having to deal with crisis AND come up with a plan in the moment, having a plan means that shifting gears to accommodate new developments can happen more smoothly. There’s a notion among some clergy that the only time the Spirit of God works is “in the moment” but I would suggest that the Spirit of God more often helps us develop plans for gathering rather than interrupt them. Or, perhaps you could say yes, the Spirit always works in the moment - but there are a lot more moments ahead of the service or gathering than in it, and the Spirit works in those moments too (and perhaps we should listen).
A great example of this is jazz music. Jazz is often seen as a very loose, un-planned kind of music because of the high number of improvisational solos found in almost every piece. What seems as unplanned melody, however, is actually extremely strategic. The basis for good improv is a good chord progression that, I assure you, was carefully created by the author of the piece. What makes it seem effortless, however, is that each musician that is part of a good jazz ensemble has spent years (usually decades) perfecting their skills. The reason a jazz musician can “make up” a solo on the spot is because they’ve done it a thousand times already. They’ve played thousands of chord progressions similar to the one to which you’re listening, experimented and failed in many of them, and gradually perfected their own personal style. What an audience hears in any good improv solo sounds off-the-cuff, effortless, unplanned, but in reality is the product of hours upon hours of practice and careful planning by a whole community of people.
If we’re doing what we’re doing on purpose and seeking to partner with what God is doing already, then the big-picture plan is already in place and we simply need to spend the time to learn what God’s got in mind (to say nothing of the fact that God actively invites us to use the creativity with which he created us - this is a partnership, by His choice). If you don’t spend time in advance to find out what God is doing, then don’t be surprised if people have a harder time engaging with God that day, particularly in something as personal as song. Yes, there will be times when things have to change at the last minute, but if this is your rule rather than the exception, you’ve created a last-minute culture and will not only burn out your ministry staff (volunteer AND paid), but you’ll also be ignoring rather than imitating the character of God, who spent all that time between Genesis 3 and Matthew 1 tilling the cultural soil for Jesus’ birth.
Furthermore, songs that are chosen on purpose for a gathering will allow the message of the morning to more fully penetrate the minds and hearts of those who have come to participate. This doesn’t mean, for example, that if the theme is “God’s Faithfulness” every song has to have the word “faithful” in it; the process can and should be a lot more subtle and story-driven than that. But it does mean that we must consider every piece of the gathering and how they relate to one another.
One might even say that everything that follows this element depends upon accepting it: planning matters.
Next Time: the other biggie that helps people sing on Sunday …