Are you noticing a lack of congregational participation in your church worship services? Is there a deadpan expression covering their faces? Perhaps a few brave folks are singing while the rest look like they’re bored out of their mind. In Psalm 105:2, David encourages us (God’s children, the church) to sing God’s praises and to tell the world of His wondrous works. There are dozens of other verses in the Bible that speak to the same theme. OK, so where’s the disconnect in our worship services? Let’s explore some of the reasons why and look at how you can remedy the problem.
BLENDED & CONTEMPORARY
The issues and solutions discussed in this article are focused squarely on the blended and contemporary worship settings. Why? It all comes down to the shift from a hymnal-using congregation singing well known (and very old) hymn tunes- familiarity is high and participation is encouraged and expected. When a church has shifted to utilizing a blended or contemporary praise and worship style, a few problems begin to arise. Let’s investigate the top issues in this setting.
THE COMMON PROBLEMS
ISSUE #1: Lack of Planning
It’s extremely easy to let planning fall to the way-side. It seems simple enough- get up and sing a few songs to fill the sanctuary and then let the sermon do the heavy lifting. I’ve attended many worship services that had virtually no connection to the sermon at all. It was just a bunch of songs and that’s it. It’s both an intellectual and emotional challenge that worship leaders face week-to-week.
ISSUE #2: Familiarity
There are new worship songs coming out all the time. I should know, as of this writing, I’ve been in the studio quite a bit over the past decade and have several worship projects available on Bandcamp. A constant stream of new material (from established and new artists alike) means we’re far less acquainted with these new melodies and lyrics- a stark contrast to the established canon of hymns.
ISSUE #3: Key & Range
Hymn tunes are largely written in four part harmony. This allows for people with different vocal ranges to all sing comfortably. It also allows for a much greater range in the primary melodies and in the supporting harmonies. Praise and worship songs are a different animal. The melodies and lyrics are much simpler and any harmonies are close and tight- making it harder for people with different vocal ranges to sing the same melody.
ISSUE #4: Communication
A music director in a traditional setting has a different job from a worship leader in a blended or contemporary setting. The music director is typically conducting a choir and an orchestra in addition to the congregation- everyone follows the arrangement set forth in the hymnal and rarely deviate (obviously, this isn’t considering special anthems and songs). In contrast, the worship leader is often leading a band with guitars and drums and is tasked with relating to the congregation, teaching new worship songs and encouraging participation. The problem is, worship leaders tend to stray from the relating, teaching, and encouraging.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
SOLUTION #1: Take Notes
The best thing you can do is to start taking notes after each and every worship service. You may not have a picture perfect memory, but focus on the things that stand out- the facial expressions of the congregation, more singing on song 1 but not on song 4, the feel in the room during and between each song, the comments and response from people involved (congregation, staff and volunteers). Writing these things down gives you data to work with that can greatly aid in making course-corrections in your worship experience. Make adjustments based on your feedback and notes from week to week. Repeat a popular song that resonated with the congregation. Lower or raise the key of a song to make it easier for everyone to sing- even if it doesn’t showcase your voice as much. Be open to change and considerate when you do make one. It’s a slow process, but well worth your time investment over the long haul. Taking the time to plan this way will reap huge rewards in the future.
SOLUTION #2: Consider Your Perspective
You probably feel like you’ve sung the latest popular Chris Tomlin song a thousand times, right? You’ve spent hours and hours learning the song, rehearsing with your band and then singing the song in the worship service. By that point, you’ve sung the song dozens of times. Consider a different perspective- what about the average person in the congregation? They’ve only heard it once to your dozen times. Starting to see the difference? Always take the congregation’s perspective when planning your song sets. Sure, you’ve heard a certain song what feels like a million times, but a person in the congregation has heard it only 4 or 5 times- this is where they are just becoming familiar enough to sing along. Don’t fall into the trap of leading a personal worship service in a corporate setting. What do I mean by that? Avoid using new songs every single week because you get bored with certain songs. What’s old for you may be fresh and new to your church. Remember, one of the main things to consider with corporate worship is singing together. If you fail to provide an metaphorical open hand for them to join you, it simply becomes a worship performance.
SOLUTION #3: Make It Easier To Join In
This actually has a couple distinct parts. The first part relates to picking a key that’s easier to sing for the average Joe. Many worship leaders are high-tenors and love to showcase their voice by pushing the upper part of their range in high keys. Remember, it’s not about you- the worship leader. It’s about everyone in the room. Try starting with the key on the recording and dropping it a whole step or so. Too low can be just a bad as too high. Sing the song in a relaxed setting with friends and experiment with different keys until you find the best compromise. The second part relates to repeating songs that resonate with your congregation. Remember I told you to take notes? Now’s the time to read through them and find the songs that best encourage participation. Here’s the thing: every church will be different. There’s no standard that you can follow to guarantee more singing. Wanting to introduce a new song? Try this: start your worship set by saying a few words about the “new” song and what it means to you. You may even have a bit of scripture or a short life story that will provide more emotional impact. Keep it brief and on topic and launch right into the song. Then repeat the song at the top the following week. Take a week off and then repeat the song in the middle of the set on the fourth week. That whole process took a month, but now the congregation has a much better familiarity with the song and will be very likely to sing along next time you use it.
SOLUTION #4: Encouraging Words & Body Language
I’ve read articles that state very clearly that worship leaders should stick to singing and let the pastors do the preaching. I disagree. Always keeping things brief, share your heart through personal story or scripture and do it before or after the worship set- or a break before the offertory works well for this. What should you do during the worship set and throughout each song? Ask the congregation to participate. Tell them they sound great when they sing along. Open your eyes and smile! If you tend to stare at your music stand or keep your eyes closed all the time, that puts up a barrier between you and the congregation. Sure, you may feel more vulnerable by opening your eyes and looking into the eyes of the congregation, but it is extremely important that you do so. Build the sense of community through interaction and intentional service planning. Use your body language to convey a sense of joy and honor to our Lord and Savior. These are simple things that are often overlooked and even avoided. Struggling with what to say? Take some time to talk through it with your pastor and ask for advice. Spend time in prayer asking the Lord for guidance. Approach it from the perspective of building a relational bridge to the congregation and never let it become focused on you.
When you boil it down to the essentials, it’s pretty simple to get your congregation singing along. Consider your steps as you move forward and always be mindful of your perspective as you lead. Take this verse as you go forward:
John 4:23 (ESV): But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.