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 …

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