January 19, 2015

Make Room for Singing on Sunday (Part 8)

Other Things That Help People Sing on Sunday (Part 7)

There’s one thing we started with that we should probably end with as well: people can sing on sunday and it may not be worship. People may not sing on Sunday and may be worshipping. The Spirit’s presence is not always felt by volume or visible or audible participation. But if your congregation doesn’t have time to sing, then your worship pastor and his or her volunteers can’t do what they’ve come to do.

Lead pastors, this one is for you. Music and the arts have their place within gathered worship, but so does the sermon … and the sermon’s place isn’t at the top. Let that sink in for a minute. The sermon - a performance art in and of itself, if I (and others) may say so - is not the top of the food chain when it comes to our time of gathered worship.

Don’t close your browser; hear me out. 

When we gather together, we come to engage God, to respond - as a group - to the mercy extended us. That happens in a lot of ways, but we must be very careful not to take each element out of its place. Your sermon, for all the time you put into preparing it, crafting every word, practicing … am I the only one who does that? … for all the effort and study and time you put into preparing your message, it is only PART of the story of the morning. It is not your words that drive the worship of your congregation - it is the Living Word who extended them mercy. It ALWAYS starts with God. What that means is that the Living Word must come first, then the written word, then everything else; message, music, announcements, slides, sketches, painting, stage design, environment, etc. What I’m saying is this:

The music and message only play supporting roles in the rest of what’s happening.

Our primary purpose is to gather together in God's presence.

Not to sing. Not to listen to a sermon. Not to give money. Not to announce that pot luck coming in a few weeks. These things aid that purpose, but as we said many times earlier, that purpose only requires two things: God and His People.

Like the scriptures say, don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought. You and I know all too well that we can all get pretty big heads about our crafts. But our words or melodies are not what change lives; only God does that. Yes, He does that through what we sing, through what we preach, through our careful crafting of a gathering and the story we tell. But He can do that without those things too, if He chose to. We’re fortunate that He DOES choose to use those. That’s the kind of God He is - He invites our participation in redemption. He doesn’t do it alone, though He could. We’re always invited to be part of the means. Oh, and what’s cool is that our willingness is a visible expression of redemption in progress.

It’s beautiful.

Furthermore, do not forget that the time of gathered worship is only one time on one day of a whole week. God doesn’t simply stop working when we finish the benediction. In fact, many times, when our congregations are SENT into the world, that is when the real work of being the church - of transformation - begins. While we gather in the name of Jesus, we must also be SENT in His name or our gatherings are all for nothing. Without our good works, without actually participating in the mission of God to redeem our world (you know, the one you just preached about), our faith is basically dead.

Like I said last week, leaders must participate if they expect their congregation to follow.

Make sure you make time for singing and don’t crowd out the music with too many extra words. The average attention span for spoken word of your congregation is shrinking anyway; make every word count. Don’t dishonor the word you’ve been given by beating it to death or adding extra, and in so doing crowding music and the arts right out of your gathering time. Let the music help you tell the story and let it help to begin to cement the principles on which you teach in the minds and hearts of your congregation.

And then send them out to cement it in practice ...

Next time: I have no idea, what questions do you have? Did I miss anything?

January 12, 2015

Other Things that Help People Sing on Sunday (Part 7)

We talked last time about how choosing music designed specifically for congregational singing is important for helping our congregations engage on a Sunday morning. But there are many other things that help, so here’s a few more:

The Sound of Others Singing

We feel like singing more often when others are singing with us. This is true for the congregation that loves to hear the intricacies of congregational voice (usually traditionally-styled churches), but also for the congregation who prefer to hear, not themselves sing, but others with more professional voices, so they pump the worship team above the congregation. In both cases, other people’s voices aid the experience of engaging. What this means is that a critical mass of other worshippers is helpful, as is your sound system. Many things I’ve read say you need at least 50-70% of your space occupied to have a critical mass. If your space (sanctuary, gym, auditorium, movie theater, whatever) is mostly empty (twenty people in a room meant for a thousand), people are going to have a hard time engaging. But a small chapel meant for 50 that’s filled with 40 can be an incredible experience, in the same way that 8,000 worshippers singing in a room for 9,000 can. It’s not the size of the space; it’s how you use it. Likewise, your sound system should be appropriate for the size of your space; if your subwoofers are too small, you won't be able to hear the bass or kick drum in the back of the room, nor will you accurately represent the lower ranges of male singing or the piano. If your sound system is too big, you probably paid too much and may inadvertently re-part the hair of your congregation ... and then they'll never hear the band.

Ambient Environment

Our five physical senses matter in worship. Remember that one time you walked into the sanctuary to the smell of dead mouse? Yes. Yes you do. What about the other time you were singing and all you could hear was that weird buzzing sound every time one of the instruments was turned on? Remember when you were so sweltering hot that you felt as if you’d faint? How about the time when somebody left all the halogen work lights on? What about when the communion wafers were stale? The smells, tastes, sounds, temperatures, lighting, and many other small details matter to helping people sing. You don’t feel like engaging if you keep smelling something foul; likewise, it can be very helpful to singing if there are pleasant odors in the room. The slide backgrounds we choose (video or still) matter because they can either enhance or distract us from the words we’re singing; likewise, harsh lighting in a room (especially halogen or blue-tinged CFL bulbs) can give people headaches, making them irritable without knowing quite why they feel that way. Think of the ambient environment as the canvas upon which you design the painting of your gathering - don’t start with a dirty palette, but also don’t overfill it. Simple is usually better, but that will depend on the story you’re trying to tell and the audience to which you are telling it.

Readability of Lyrics

It’s hard to sing if you can’t see the words you’re supposed to be singing. Sometimes, words are hard to read because they’re small. Others, the words don’t have enough contrast with the background, be it video or still (think of the difference between reading gray words on a gray background, vs. white words on a dark background). Projected lyrics that appear late may as well not appear at all; you couldn’t read them when you needed them. Projectors that aren’t bright enough or are washed out by badly-placed sanctuary lighting, hymnals that make their font size too small, or even trying to use words on a screen for an illiterate congregation (like kids below second grade) are all distractions that essentially encourage passivity during a gathering. A caveat here: while we might not like to talk about it, age can be a factor in the choices you make. If your congregation is mostly young adults, you can get away with more subtlety in the color palette because younger eyes can usually distinguish the intricacies. However, if your congregation is mostly older (realizing that presbyopia starts setting in around 40 and only gets worse as we age), you need to take their eyesight into consideration and provide larger letters on a higher-contrast background. Default to the older congregation’s needs in this case; their participation is important to teaching younger generations what gathered worship can be like, but they can’t sing the words they can’t see.

Length of the Gathering

Yes, the rumors are true: if you preach or sing or announce too long, you will lose people. They may be physically present (for now), but their minds are on grocery lists, recipes, their aunt’s surgery … anything but what you’re talking or singing about. But remember, “too long” varies from culture to culture. Keep their attention by having culturally-appropriate gathering-lengths. Again, your mileage may vary: in some parts of Africa, a congregation will not blink at a four-hour gathering, but in parts (ok ok - most) of suburban America, one hour is pushing the attention span of the congregation. This is is not necessarily something to lament, it is simply a difference in culture that requires a difference in methods of communication and types of song. And it once again means that you need to plan carefully.

One of my biggest pet peeves is the worship leader who talks too much. Preaching pastors, I’ll let you deal with your own on this one, but worship leaders: you don’t need to re-preach the sermon at the end of the service before we sing. In fact, let the music speak for itself unless there is something so important to say that the song will be less without it. Get comfortable with intentional silence. Music is only useful in contrast to silence; if you’re filling up good, reflective silence with useless prattle, the congregation won’t engage with you because they’ll be too busy trying to figure out why you’re still talking and why it is that you think YOUR words are somehow better than the preacher who just stepped away from the platform. It doesn’t matter if it was the worst sermon ever; don’t do it.

Leaders Who Are Visibly Participating

In the same way that the worship team and especially the worship leader should be visibly present in the gathering to hear the message (to engage with the written word with the rest of their church family), so too should other leaders - lead pastor, associate pastor, youth pastor, children’s pastor, missions pastor, executive pastor, church chairperson, etc. - be present in the midst of the singing on a regular basis, and be visibly participating. This is not to say that those people can’t have bad days or stop and reflect in the same way as any other person might need to. But if you are a leader, then for all the good reasons there are to sing, lead by example and sing your lungs out! If you, as a leader, have any influence at all, people will follow your vocal example. It helps them to know that their leadership actually likes what the volunteers and staff that he or she works with every week have put together, to the point that they can sing with it. In every church I’ve served, I’ve been fortunate that the arts were taken at least moderately seriously, and that the pastors loved to sing with those leading; I know from comments and conversations that the congregation felt the difference.

Next time: making room for singing on Sunday …

January 5, 2015

Singability Helps People Sing on Sunday (Part 6)

I read an article the other day about the rise of the “dones,” a generation of people who are, quite simply, “done” with gathered church. Which is a huge shame, but it’s entirely understandable. So many churches have lost the vision of what it means to BE the church gathered and sent. White, black, urban, suburban, rural, mainline, evangelical … it doesn’t seem to matter the ethnic or socioeconomic or denominational makeup of that church; many have lost the point of why we gather in the first place, and are paying for it as people give up on gathered communities entirely and simply leave.

Last time we talked about doing what we do on purpose, and that nearly everything else we’ll discuss follows from this premise. If you don’t know WHY you’re doing what you’re doing or can’t communicate the reasons for why you do what you do, you can’t expect those who follow you to buy into what you’re doing, even if you’re doing it with some semblance of excellence. Without vision (which is another, slightly ‘buzz-wordier’ way of saying “doing what we do with purpose”), your project (church / business / whatever) will die. It might die very, very slowly, but it will still die all the same.

Singing is clearly not the only thing we do when we gather, of course, but it’s a part of the MEANS of the main thing, and so it’s very important that we get it right (obviously that’s the reason I’m even writing this series in the first place). One of the biggest reasons for singing as a gathered body is participation; as I’ve said before, worship leaders are not here to sing FOR people, we’re here to help people sing WITH us. Which means the music we choose must be singable. But … what does that actually mean?


This one is a point of contention among many worship leaders. There’s a lot of music out there, which means there’s the potential for a lot of good music and a lot of bad music. Some music is really good for singing as a congregation - good theology, yes (which, as we’ve discussed, has nothing to do with whether people sing it or not), but also interesting (but not overly difficult) melody lines and rhythms, clever chord progressions and harmonies, poetry that challenges the congregation (but can still be understood), careful use of dynamics, and a compatibility between lyrics and melody, timbre, mode, and tempo. Worship leaders who choose music simply because it’s on the top 50 on whichever radio station they prefer are not only missing a TON of good (sometimes better) music found elsewhere, but also choose too much music that’s simply not meant for an entire congregation to sing.

One oft overlooked detail on singability is the relationship between the song itself and the worship team’s ability to actually sing it. A congregation can generally sing more difficult music if the worship team is able to lead it effectively. Since the worship team is tasked with helping the congregation engage, it’s important that the team itself is able to sing and play the music. Don’t pick music you can’t play or sing if you want people to sing with you. 

A caveat here, mostly for those in “modern/contemporary” cultural settings. I’m often told that it’s important to find a key in which the whole congregation can sing each song, but here’s the thing: I’ve yet to find this magical key. A congregation is usually made of at least four different voice type, but when you pick a key for a song, you automatically eliminate at least two of those voice types. No matter what you do, you won’t find a key in which everyone will sing comfortably. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t key your songs carefully, but instead of the worship leader struggling to find the elusive perfect key, it would be better to have multiple leaders who can lead songs for several different voice types throughout the worship set. This is about keeping a bigger picture when planning music for our gatherings; the music is part of a story that spans the entire service, and sometimes an entire series. If you think big-picture, your storyline isn’t just the arc of one song; it’s multiple songs and liturgical elements, from prelude/live-intro to benediction. You can pick a key for each song that targets different voice types, and as a bonus, spread out the leadership so no one person is “spot-lit.” Feature men, women, even (maybe especially) teenagers and children of different voice types - you'll show the whole family of God partnering together in leadership and in participation.

This won’t work in every church (not every worship team has all four voice types represented, let alone people who can lead from that voice type), but it’s something toward which to strive. No matter what your teams look like, when leaders lead with confidence, a congregation is more likely to try to sing along, even if it’s not an ideal key for their voice. Clear evidence of this is any concert you’ve ever attended: the audience is just as a congregation, and many of them who know the music will sing along … despite the fact that the band never consulted the audience as to their preferred keys.

Which points us to another part of singability: the congregation has to know the song. By no means does this mean we should never introduce anything new (the scriptures themselves argue the contrary) but it does mean we have to be careful to teach the song to our brothers and sisters if we expect them to join us. Different communities will take different amounts of time to learn new music, so don’t be discouraged if, on the first week you choose to lead a new song, your congregation doesn’t join you. Some singers will learn it very quickly, but most will require some repetition. My personal guideline is to repeat the song for 2-3 weeks to get it in peoples’ heads, and so if I want them to know a new song for a specific service, I’ll try to introduce it a few weeks earlier so that they don’t have to think as hard about the melody. However, I’ve been in churches where it took longer, and I’ve been in churches where it took one week. Every congregation is different.

Lastly, consistency is extremely important for singability. Don’t do the same song five weeks in a row in five different ways; sing it the same way each time if you expect the congregation to sing with you. This doesn’t mean you have to do it the exact same way as the artists who wrote it do (within proper CCLI restrictions, of course), but it does mean that your version should be melodically consistent. If people constantly wonder what note is next, they’ll eventually stop singing and start listening, which in this case, is a problem. Chris Tomlin, for example, is not just a good worship leader because he writes a lot of good music; he is a good worship leader because when he leads, his voice is precise, predictable, and consistent. Every note he sings is easy to hear - you’re never left wondering what note he’s on or what he is going to sing next, because he sings it the same way every time. He is such a big part of the modern worship arts culture because he has written a lot of extremely singable music, and can do it well. This is not to say that we, as leaders, can’t take certain liberties with the music - ad libbing or improvisation - since "predictable" varies from culture to culture. It is to say that a worship leader’s first purpose is to lead the people in song, and leading the people means setting a followable example.