Five Ways to Improve Congregational Singing

By Keith Getty

“My wife, Kristyn, and I recently returned from a tour where we had the privilege of sharing our music in cities across North America. As we do on our tours, we partnered with most of our concert sponsors to host a lunch and time of discussion with local pastors, worship leaders, and other church musicians.

In each of those leadership events, I posed the question, “What are the things you ask yourself on Monday morning, in reviewing Sunday’s services?” Generally, the responses centered around production values, stylistic issues, people management, pleasing the pastor, or finishing the service on time. I do not recall that any one asked, “How did the congregation sing?”

It seems curious that in a generation that has produced innumerable conferences, articles, blogs, and even university degree programs on “worship,” the topic of congregational singing hasn’t been raised more often.  But even if we had been discussing congregational participation, would we know what goal we’re aiming to hit each week?

I do not pretend to be qualified to write a theological treatise on this particular subject. Congregational singing is a holy act, and as I organize my thoughts, I hear my old pastor, Alistair Begg, reminding me that in our song worship, we have to be spiritually alive (dead people don’t sing), spiritually assisted (through the enabling of the Holy Spirit), and spiritually active (committed to daily walking with the Lord).

I offer here some practical advice on strengthening our congregational singing, drawn from both our experience as musicians and also what we have seen and learned in our travels.

1. Begin with the pastor.

Look at any congregation not engaged in worship through singing and the most consistent correlation is a senior pastor equally as disengaged. Ultimately the buck stops with him in congregational worship.

Every pastor must be intimately involved in the language being placed in the congregation’s mouth, for that singing ultimately affects how they think, how they feel, how they pray, and how they live. The congregation should be treated as those who have been invited to a feast at the table of the King; don’t hand them junk food! C. S. Lewis believed singing completes our faith, explaining in his book Reflections on the Psalms, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” This is why I believe many of our pastoral heroes such as Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, J.C. Ryle, and Philip Schaaf produced hymn books in addition to preaching and teaching. Other leaders such as Horatius Bonar, Richard Baxter, and John Calvin wrote hymns themselves.

Pastors not only have a duty to be involved in preparing for the time of congregational singing, they also have a responsibility to personally model and demonstrate the importance of it. We need pastors who constantly delight in their congregation’s singing and the musicians who serve them and who also joyfully and authentically participate themselves.

Pastors, take up your duty in this act of worship called congregational singing. Worship leaders, pray for your pastor faithfully and do your part to develop a thriving relationship with him. The most influential worship leaders in history have almost always had close (though often tense) relationships with their pastors.

2. Sing great songs.

If congregational singing is a holy act, and if we are what we sing, then we can’t be lazy in selecting songs. We must sing great songs—songs that artfully exult Christ with deeply meaningful lyrics and melodies we can’t wait to sing. Better to have a small repertoire of great songs (that you will sing well) than a catalog full of songs recycled for sentimental reasons or chased after because they are the “latest” thing.

Writing or selecting great songs is not an exercise in lyrical propaganda or marketing. It is not merely laying scriptural truth alongside any melody. It is an art form that arrests our emotions and intellect in mysterious ways. Just as a master chef selects ingredients that are at the same time nutritious, aromatic, and flavorful, the selection of songs for congregational singing must excite at a number of levels.

Great songs have stood the test of time. They have been passed on to us from our fathers, and we should pass them along to our children. Assemble any Christian group, and practically everyone can join you in singing “Amazing Grace” confidently and passionately. We’re drawn to sing great music, much like we’re drawn to stand in awe of a beautiful painting.

There are great new songs—they breathe fresh air into our singing and help connect age-old truth with modern sounds. These are appropriate, too, though harder to find.

Recently I invited two unbelieving friends to a Christian event. The artists on stage played songs with interesting lyrics but awful melodies. I asked my friends what they thought about the concert. “These people obviously don’t take their subject matter very seriously,” one friend replied. Now, I know for a fact this is not true. But art ultimately expresses life, and low-quality songs do not reflect spirited, serious believers.

3. Cultivate a congregation-centered priority in those who lead.

From the individual who leads music, to the worship teams standing up front, to those of us who follow as members of the congregation, it’s vital to build a culture where everyone realizes our corporate responsibility before God and to each other is to sing together. Throughout Scripture, the command to sing is given to God’s people more than 400 times. Ephesians 5:19 instructs believers to address one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Week after week, we are spiritually renewed, realigned, and sanctified by singing to the Lord and singing to each other as the body of Christ.

Sadly, some of the churches with the newest facilities and most forward-thinking pastors are weakened substantially by lackluster congregational singing. It is an awful witness for outsiders to watch believers so disinterested in singing to their Creator and Redeemer.

Many of our common challenges—the overly exuberant drummer, the diva-like background vocalist, the subversive choir member, or an unhealthy priority on performance—can be corrected when we teach and encourage those involved in our music to be excited about using their many rich and colorful gifts for the purpose of supporting the congregation. Every singer, instrumentalist, and choir member should share in facilitating the high calling of congregational singing.

4. Serve the congregation through musical excellence.

Scripture often commands us to make music that is both good and excellent. For example, Psalm 33 tells to both “shout for joy in the Lord” and also play our instruments “skillfully” (verse 3). This instruction is consistent with our calling as believers to work heartily at whatever we do, as for the Lord and not men (Colossians 3:23). The music need not be complex or style-specific, but we must take seriously our role in such holy activity. This leadership requires people who are trained and well-prepared. As with all work that involves creativity (whether preaching, mothering, or running a business), we should constantly seek to be fresh, interesting, and connected with our congregations. Listen to new music, arrangements, and sounds. Examine our heritage of liturgies for insight to ordering the song service. Reach across the aisle, meeting with leaders from different churches and denominations to learn about their music selections.

In scoring for films, the composer and performers use all of their musical excellence in service of the story. In similar fashion, the singers and musicians should bring to bear their musical excellence in service of the congregation. There is no dichotomy between musical excellence and congregational worship provided the excellence is given in service of the congregation.

5. Manage the congregation’s repertoire intentionally.

Having progressed in each of the areas above and putting them into regular practice in services, be intentional about what is sung and when. Don’t treat your library of congregational choices like selecting “shuffle” on you iPod. Instead, be intentional in ordering the service, heeding Eric Alexander’s caution that congregational praise begins with God and his glory, not man and his need. Ask why you are singing at a given point in the service, and be sure that the selection for that moment is appropriate. Also, learn from the rich heritage of liturgy and how it provides a pathway of ordering songs for a service.

And finally . . .

Why not in 2014 begin the Monday morning review by asking, “How did the congregation sing?” and, “How can we help them do it better?” Starting here, we may find that the other questions begin to resolve themselves.”

-Keith & Kristyn Getty, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgcworship/2014/02/18/five-ways-to-improve-congregational-singing/

Annoying Things in Worship Songs

A classic from Jeremy Pierce:

Here are some of the things I really hate in a worship song.

1. Too simplistic, banal, lacking in depth, shallow, doctrineless: Consider that one that just talks about unity among brothers that only mentions God in passing at the very end.

2. It’s so repetitive. I mean, come on, how many times can you repeat “His steadfast love endures forever” before you start thinking the song is going to go on forever? Examples: here and here.

3. For some songs, the focus is too much on instruments, and the sheer volume leads to its seeming more like a performance than worship and prevents quiet contemplation.

4. There might be too much emphasis on too intimate a relationship with God, using first-person singular pronouns like “me” and “I” or second-person pronouns like “you” instead of words like “we” and “God.” This fosters a spirit of individualism, and it generates an atmosphere of religious euphoria rather than actual worship of God. Worship should be about God, not about us. Or what about the ones that use physical language to describe God and our relationship with him? Can you really stomach the idea of tasting God?

5. Some songs have way too many words for anyone to learn.

6. It patterns its worship on experiences that not everyone in the congregation will be able to identify with. If you’re not in the frame of mind or don’t have the emotional state in question (e.g., a desperate longing for God), then what are you doing lying and singing it? Worship leaders who encourage that sort of thing are making their congregations sing falsehoods.

7. Then there’s that song with the line asking God not to take the Holy Spirit away, as if God would ever do that to a genuine believer.

8. Then there’s that song that basically says nothing except expressing negative emotions.

9. Finally, there are those songs that have like four or five lines that people just either have to repeat over and over again or just sing briefly and never get a chance to digest.

At this point I’m so outraged that people would pass this sort of thing off as worship that I’m almost inclined to give in to the people who think we shouldn’t sing anything but the psalms.

Oh, wait. . . .

-Jeremy Pierce, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2014/02/11/annoying-things-in-worship-songs/

An Open Letter to Praise Bands

Great article by James K. A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, http://forsclavigera.blogspot.com/2012/02/open-letter-to-praise-bands.html

Dear Praise Band,

I so appreciate your willingness and desire to offer up your gifts to God in worship. I appreciate your devotion and celebrate your faithfulness–schlepping to church early, Sunday after Sunday, making time for practice mid-week, learning and writing new songs, and so much more. Like those skilled artists and artisans that God used to create the tabernacle (Exodus 36), you are willing to put your artistic gifts in service to the Triune God.

So please receive this little missive in the spirit it is meant: as an encouragement to reflect on the practice of “leading worship.” It seems to me that you are often simply co-opted into a practice without being encouraged to reflect on its rationale, its “reason why.” In other words, it seems to me that you are often recruited to “lead worship” without much opportunity to pause and reflect on the nature of “worship” and what it would mean to “lead.”

In particular, my concern is that we, the church, have unwittingly encouraged you to simply import musical practices into Christian worship that–while they might be appropriate elsewhere–are detrimental to congregational worship. More pointedly, using language I first employed in Desiring the Kingdom, I sometimes worry that we’ve unwittingly encouraged you to import certain forms of performance that are, in effect, “secular liturgies” and not just neutral “methods.” Without us realizing it, the dominant practices of performance train us to relate to music (and musicians) in a certain way: as something for our pleasure, as entertainment, as a largely passive experience. The function and goal of music in these “secular liturgies” is quite different from the function and goal of music in Christian worship.

So let me offer just a few brief axioms with the hope of encouraging new reflection on the practice of “leading worship”:

1. If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship.

Christian worship is not a concert. In a concert (a particular “form of performance”), we often expect to be overwhelmed by sound, particularly in certain styles of music. In a concert, we come to expect that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload, when the pounding of the bass on our chest and the wash of music over the crowd leaves us with the rush of a certain aural vertigo. And there’s nothing wrong with concerts! It’s just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice–and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of “performing” the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can’t hear ourselves sing–so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become “private,” passive worshipers.

2. If we, the congregation, can’t sing along, it’s not worship.

In other forms of musical performance, musicians and bands will want to improvise and “be creative,” offering new renditions and exhibiting their virtuosity with all sorts of different trills and pauses and improvisations on the received tune. Again, that can be a delightful aspect of a concert, but in Christian worship it just means that we, the congregation, can’t sing along. And so your virtuosity gives rise to our passivity; your creativity simply encourages our silence. And whileyou may be worshiping with your creativity, the same creativity actually shuts down congregational song.

3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship.

I know it’s generally not your fault that we’ve put you at the front of the church. And I know you want to model worship for us to imitate. But because we’ve encouraged you to basically import forms of performance from the concert venue into the sanctuary, we might not realize that we’ve also unwittingly encouraged a sense that you are the center of attention. And when your performance becomes a display of your virtuosity–even with the best of intentions–it’s difficult to counter the temptation to make the praise band the focus of our attention. When the praise band goes into long riffs that you might intend as “offerings to God,” we the congregation become utterly passive, and because we’ve adopted habits of relating to music from the Grammys and the concert venue, we unwittingly make you the center of attention. I wonder if there might be some intentional reflection on placement (to the side? leading from behind?) and performance that might help us counter these habits we bring with us to worship.

Please consider these points carefully and recognize what I am not saying. This isn’t just some plea for “traditional” worship and a critique of “contemporary” worship. Don’t mistake this as a defense of pipe organs and a critique of guitars and drums (or banjos and mandolins). My concern isn’t with style, but with form: What are we trying to do when we “lead worship?” If we are intentional about worship as a communal, congregational practice that brings us into a dialogical encounter with the living God–that worship is not merely expressive but also formative–then we can do that with cellos or steel guitars, pipe organs or African drums.

Much, much more could be said. But let me stop here, and please receive this as the encouragement it’s meant to be. I would love to see you continue to offer your artistic gifts in worship to the Triune God who is teaching us a new song.

Most sincerely,

Jamie

Does Worship = Music?

“One of my pet peeves is to visit a church that labels the music portion of their service simply “worship.” Because before you know it, worship becomes opposed to the rest of the service. You worship then you give. You worship then you listen to a sermon. I hope the problem is apparent.

Worship should describe the entirety of a church service and one’s life. My goal is not to be the word police, but I want to provide some reasons why pastors and churches should refer to their music time as musical worship….”

-Josh Thiessen
More here:  http://thecripplegate.com/mislabeling-leads-to-misunderstanding/

4 Dysfunctions of Congregational Singing

There are times when sitting in a sanctuary or community center or reissued movie theater on a Sunday morning is nothing less than an affront to the ears. All around us our brothers and sisters mumble and slur their way through the songs, while everyone tries to keep from being distracted. There is a lack of quality singing in churches each week. So do we need to give our congregations singing lessons? That would be hilarious! By quality singing, I don’t mean vocal excellence. What they need is not singing lessons but rather the permission to sing. Just like in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “Happy Birthday,” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” If your church doesn’t sing it’s probably because of one of two things: either they haven’t been invited to sing or the obstacles to their singing have not been removed. I have identified four things that hinder congregational participation.

4 Dysfunctions of Congregational Singing:

1. Not realizing the congregation is present

Great communicators, actors, comedians, professional singers and yes, great pastors are aware that there are actually people in the room. As in any gathering the crowd must feel welcomed and comfortable. So is the case with congregational worship. An intentional, warm welcome is important. I am not saying that a “greeting” has to be the opening of the worship experience but a nice smile goes a long way, then clear direction as to who is singing and who isn’t. Though the trend is not to over direct people, clear direction as to sitting and standing is surprisingly important. Corporate reading of Scripture is also an important activity toward congregational participation.

Note: It’s my opinion that in an intergenerational congregational context, that 12 minutes is a good amount of time for people to stand. Standing longer than that will affect the concentration level for many people. In a crowd filled with younger age demographic this really doesn’t matter.

2. Vanilla song choices

The process of finding great songs is extremely important. Oh it’s easy to follow the normal path to find songs, but to find great songs that are congregational in their appeal is an entirely different story. I have a friend who is a photographer with National Geographic and he told me that to get 30 pictures for a National Geographic article, he took 14,000 pictures. Finding great songs requires a lot of time. The lesson here is, don’t settle on the easiest way to find good songs. Recruit people to help you and take the time to find great songs. As well, do not just depend on your own personal tastes in choosing songs. You will be fooled.

3. Bad key choices

Really? Why does this matter? Well it doesn’t matter at a rock concert or in an auditorium filled with 18 to 35 year olds, but church has wider age span. So the rule of thumb is that men sing higher than women and women sing lower than men. Crazy? Oh but it’s true. Just take note the next time a female is leading worship. The songs will, for the most part be in keys that are more singable for the intergenerational congregation. Most male worship leaders, in order to sing more comfortably put songs a higher range. When this happens, the congregation often is left behind. This rule does not apply for well-known worship artist concerts. In this case everybody in the room knows all the songs and can sing them in any key. Be intentional about key choices for your congregation.

4. Music that is too “busy”

In a contemporary worship band there is a tendency for everyone in the band to play too many notes at the same time. This can be helped by “thinning out” the arrangement. Change the parts that band member plays from verse to verse, chorus to chorus. Add things, take things out. Be creative with this. But most of all avoid the “sameness.” This takes a lot of thought and experimentation, so most of these ideas need to come prior to the rehearsal. But the congregation needs to hear themselves sing. And the congregation needs to be inspired by the music. Just like in the movies, music embellishes the moment. But playing “too busy” causes numbness, and boredom sets in. As the jazz legend said, “It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.”

Theologian, John Calvin says, “singing subdues the fallen heart and retrains wayward affections.St. Augustinesays, “Singing is praying. When one sings one prays twice. While singing in the front of the Lord, we are in touch with the deepest center of our heart.”

Col: 3:16 - Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.

-Stan Endicott
Complements of: http://worshipleadermedia.com/congregational-singing-lessons/

An Interview with Keith and Kristyn Getty: Part 2

Baptist Press: What distinguishes a hymn?

Keith Getty: There’s no scientific answer. If you go to England, they will tell you that hymns are songs in the English tradition of hymn writing, and something like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” or “I Come to the Garden” or “Because He Lives” are Gospel songs, and modern worship songs are worship songs. If you go to America, everything written before 1980, for the most part, is called a hymn, and everything written after about 1980 … suddenly is a worship song. So everybody has a different definition of it. Because they have an artistry that is slightly more timeless and slightly stronger, I kind of gravitate toward [hymns]. And I think there is something to be said about valuing the heritage that we have. I walk around Nashville, and there are all sorts of heritage sites — civil war battlefields, buildings, that represent something of our heritage. It seems a curious arrogance to me that musicians only want to sing songs that are contemporary; I say that to myself as well, because I’m a writer and I want to use my own songs. We need to have some understanding of the past that we can learn from, because each generation will be visited through the eyes of history as having its strengths and weaknesses.

Baptist Press: So you see that we lose something when we don’t sing hymns?

Keith Getty: I think when we don’t listen to those who have gone before us and we don’t have some sense of understanding from the past …

Kristyn Getty: And we don’t acknowledge that we’re part of something greater than ourselves. People have been creating music and art for generations. We can’t assume that we operate in a vacuum and are not connected to anything but ourselves. [Singing hymns and recognizing the past] helps us be better, it helps us not be arrogant in how we consider ourselves. And it helps us also be mindful of what it is we’re passing on to the next people.

Baptist Press: When you’re writing a hymn, what is the goal?

Keith Getty: To write a piece of art that somehow helps a congregation of people be illuminated by some character of God, and respond to it in a song. In congregational worship, you’re writing for an artist, and that artist is singing to an audience. In congregational worship, the artist is the congregation and the audience is God.

Interview by Michael Foust
Part 1 here: http://modernpuritan.com/2011/11/08/getty-1/
Part 3 here: http://modernpuritan.com/2011/11/11/getty-3/
Complements of: http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=36478

Engaging in Meaningful Worship

“I understand what’s it’s like to come to church first thing on a Sunday to be greeted by a guy up front with a guitar, smile, and ten cups of coffee streaming through his veins telling you it’s time to exercise your vocal chords for Jesus. I also understand that it’s not any easier to be the guy up there asking you to do it, with hundreds of blank faces staring back at you, eyes glazed over, and thoughts a million miles away. I understand what it’s like to sit in the pews while being led by a less than polished band, with out-of-tune instruments and pitchy vocalists, trying to engage in some sort of meaningful worship. I also understand what it’s like to be leading that same band, faced with the reality that all of those nagging elements are out of my control, and make it just as hard for me to engage in meaningful worship. Probably harder.

I think of passages in the Psalms where we’re admonished to “clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!” and wonder how that’s even possible some mornings, while in the same book we read “out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” I’m reminded that true worship is our response to God despite the condition we’re in when we do it. We are feeble, imperfect human beings only able to offer faint praises some mornings. But the presence of the Lord is like an umbrella over us, encouraging and building us up through the faith of our fellow believers, so that on other mornings we are able to do the same for them.

At the end of the day, regardless of what side of the microphone we’re on, we’re all suffering from varying degrees of misdirection, and in desperate need of re-direction. We all come to church on Sunday faced with the dilemma of who we’ve been worshiping and whose kingdom we’ve been building all week. It’s that humble truth that causes me to once again remember what I’m called to do this morning: magnify the name of Christ, confess our desperate need for him, and sing the truths of the gospel with people who are far too consumed with themselves. Like me.

And through it all, the glory of God will be revealed to us as a light penetrating the darkness of our souls, where we will be “satisfied with his likeness” when we “behold his face in righteousness” (Psalm 17:15).

That I would learn this every day.”

-Ronnie Martin,

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2011/10/06/view-from-the-other-side-of-the-mic/

Music as Pedagogy in the Church Part. 1

“Like it or not, today’s songwriters are teachers too. Many of the lyrics they are writing will soon be far more deeply and permanently ingrained in the minds of Christians than anthing they hear their pastors teach from the pulpit. How many songwriters are skilled enough in theology and Scripture to qualify for such a vital role in the catechesis of our people?”

–John MacArthur, Joni Eareckson Tada, Robert and Bobbie Wolgemuth, O Worship the King, pp. 12-13

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
.
He maketh me,
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me,
He leadeth me beside the still, still waters.
He restoreth my soul.
He leadeth me,
He leadeth me in the paths of righteous for his name sale.
.
Yea though I walk,
Yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death
I will fear no evil.
For Thou art with me,
Thy rod and Thy staff comfort me.
.
Thou preparest a table for me,
In the presence of my enemies.
Thou anointest my head with oil,
My cup, my cup runneth over.
Thou preparest a table for me.
In the presence of my enemies.
Thou anointest my head with oil.
My cup, my cup runneth over.
.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord.
The Lord is my shepherd,
The Lord is my shepherd.
The Lord is my shepherd
I shall not want.
The Lord is my shepherd,
Forever, Amen.
.
-Psalm 23, music by Paul Basler.