There have been many discussions on the topic of why our congregations have stopped singing. Many have brought out good points that we should address but in reality each congregation has its own personality. With that in mind, every church is probably going to define “engaged” in a different way. I have lead corporate worship experiences for nearly 48 years and there are some questions that I might suggest you consider to evaluate your congregations singing.
Do the Lead Pastor and Staff model good worship behaviors that encourage people to sing?
My pastor is a worshiper and so it is a joy to watch him engage as we lead. In fact, he sometimes just walks up on the stage and celebrates with our team or he may walk to the front of the stage and shout encouragement to our team. This is not so in many churches. The topic one is a tough one to approach but the truth is obvious to your congregants. If the Pastor remains seated reading his sermon notes and the staff members in the room are running around attending to details during the worship set, then the people are seeing a poor model of worship participation. The folks watch their leaders and generally mirror their worship behaviors from them.
Are you teaching too many new songs at once?
At our church, we have a standing guideline that you should not teach more than one new song per week. It’s just my opinion, but I think a congregation can only add 25-30 new songs per year to its repertoire. As musicians, we get bored with the same songs over and over and so we get motivated to teach all the new songs that we have found or written last week. Folks need time to catch up with you, so maybe you should slow it down a bit. Once you introduce a new song, repeat within a 2-week window and again on a regular basis until it catches on with your congregation. Familiarity may breed contempt with your worship team, but it most certainly breeds engagement with your folks.
Do those leading have a congregational focus?
Some church musicians are heavily leaning towards excellence in performance and showcasing their musical talent. Most of these folks are good hearted, but never had a mentor to lead them to focus on engaging the congregation is singing. We have far to often equate musical talent with spiritual maturity in church leadership. Our tendency to become casual observers of worship has brought a lethargic spirit to the passionate expression of worship by our people. This is why we should exhort our people to words with words that call them to worship and help them focus on the eternal. Worship is a verb, and engagement is an essential element to remake worship an action word.
Are we putting songs in correct keys for the congregation to be able to sing along?
This has been something that I have addressed for many years but the debate still rages on this topic. My point is that people sing better when the notes are not too high or too low. The keys and arrangements of songs must be attainable if you want maximum participation. Many worship songwriters have extreme ranges and they feel their songs must be done in keys that will maximize the strength of their voices. I get that, but most folks in the congregation have about a 12-note range, and they are more likely to sing if it fits their range. I recently did a choir for a Harvest Crusade where Chris Tomlin was leading and even he lowered the songs from the keys he recorded in so that the congregation would be able to sing more comfortably.
Do you arrange songs that make it easy for the congregation to follow?
If the rhythms are too difficult, folks stop singing. When the rhythms are tough for you, then the non-musical folks will be lost trying to sing. If there are long intros or long instrumental solo rides during the song, you break the flow and people will stop singing. Try not to sharpen your arranging chops on the congregation. Worship is time to make it interesting, but not difficult. Keep it simple and interesting, and they will follow.
Is your meeting space conducive to worship?
Are the lights an enhancement or a distraction to your experience? Does the fog machine really represent the Holy Spirit entering the room? Are your chairs in your congregation straight rows as if you were attending a lecture? Does the audio experience cause you pain (too loud) or frustration (bad mix) in the same way every week? Now, I know that no worship space is perfect but my question is this: does your worship space distract or attract folks in worship? Over produced sound and lights are distractions in worship. Just like a guy with a new drum set often overplays and feels obligated to use every drum and every cymbal on every song, many production teams feel they need to show off all of the bells and whistles of their gear every week. Seat the folks so that they can see each other singing and not just watch the leaders on the stage. When bubba sees another bubba singing, he will likely give it a shot. (Sorry, this is probably too much Texas going on in the text). Use technology to enhance what you are trying to accomplish. Too much will cause you to lose your focus and distract the congregation from fully engaging in the moment.
Are you using a worship-leading choir to help you engage your people?
Many in the modern worship movement have abandoned the choir as a useful tool to aid in leading worship. Might I suggest to you that the choir gives the congregation permission to sing? Most people in the crowd do not want a mic in their hands. They will always admire those that do, but if the only people on the stage that sing have a mic it becomes an exclusive club. When the choir fills the stage with folks that are just there singing away, it gives the congregant the image of inclusion. In other words, “I can do that." The choir also gives the first impression of inclusion to those that first visit your church. The worship choir brings much needed energy to the room when you want the congregation to sing. You can back away from your mic and bring the instrumentation down and everyone can hear the voices. This creates that fully engaged feel that brings unity and solidarity into the place. Many of the largest congregations in the country are still using the choir as a part of their worship leading team. Places like Lakewood, Second Baptist in Houston, The Potters House, Prestonwood Baptist, Community Bible Church, and 27 of the 50 largest churches still use a choir weekly. The role of the choir has changed from a performance-oriented group to a worship-leading group. Please remember that we are all worshipers, and God is the audience.
Do you use good songs or great songs in worship?
I know that this is a very subjective question. What I am saying to you is we need to be very selective in the song that we use. Songs that have strong biblically based lyrics and solid attainable melodies are where we should start. Then, equally as important, we must choose songs that fit the dynamics and needs of our congregation. Not every song is for every congregation. Just because it is on the CCLI top 100 most popular song list does not mean every congregation should sing it. Not every congregation should use only current modern worship songs. In fact, I think every congregation should be eclectic in style and try targeting the entire demographic of the room. Good songs help the level of engagement in the room.
How important have you made the issue spiritual preparation for your team?
Do you pray with your team before you lead worship? Does your team meet for a separate time of Bible study/discipleship? Do you spend as much time spiritually preparing as you do physically preparing. Do you ask God to lead you as you choose the set list every week? We should prepare our worship set much like our Lead Pastor prepares his sermon. Spend time developing the theme and songs that God needs to speak into your people. In the solitude of your office, pour out the desires of your heart to God, and ask him to lead you to the right songs, scriptures and transitions for each service.
May I suggest that you evaluate the response of the congregation in light of the time spent in spiritual preparation? Twenty-five years ago as we started to lead worship at Community Bible Church we only had about 250 folks coming to worship. They were not very responsive and we knew that it was going to be a somewhat difficult journey. Every Sunday morning for nearly 2 years I would come to the church early and walk through the worship center praying for God to bring about a spirit of celebration to our people. Now our people are excited and filled with anticipation as thousands gather to worship each weekend. Many testimonies from prominent churches in our nation have similar endings. Much Prayer, much power … no prayer no power.
This is by no means an exhaustive narrative on the topic but it should stir conversations with your team. Even if you disagree please make this a topic of discussion in your worship planning meetings and with your worship team. We must continue the quest of teaching our people to engage in worship. You are the key person to speak these truths into your church. May God give you creative and substantial direction as you lead your church into His presence each week.