This week I was asked to comment on an article that has found its way around the internet again. The article itself is a few years old, but like all hot-button topics on the web, it comes and goes in cycles. Having seen it pop up again recently on Facebook, it was already on my radar. It is one of many that question some of the practices and mindsets regarding contemporary worship in our churches, and seeking to explain why many aren’t joining in congregational singing.
Normally I stay away from discussions like this. I don’t jump in and make a lot of noise where others are already having too much fun doing it. But I don’t see anyone making the same observations I am. As a pastor and worship leader my perspective is different from the pew.
Not that the writer of the article is out to harm anyone. On the contrary, I have seen and listened to him teach in person. He genuinely wants to help Christians, specifically men, find and assume their Scriptural place as part of the Body of Christ. Still, there is always more to any situation than just one of us can see. So I’d like to offer some “real” reasons people are not joining in when the music starts at church.
To help us out I’d like to break these reasons into two categories. We will look at one in this post, and the other in a follow-up.
The first category is based on the practical execution of musical worship. Congregational singing is a wonderful gift in our church, but it must be offered in a way that it invites congregational participation in contrast to highlighting an individual or small set of individuals. If someone claims to be a worship leader, he should be focusing on connecting with a larger group and guiding them in worship, not just standing up and hoping that they will join in his performance. Making a few considerations in light of the group being led will help foster that connection and create a more inviting atmosphere for more to join in.
1) Choose a more comfortable key
When I was in choir throughout school and college, I was a high tenor. Very high. Those were the days of working my voice every day with the purpose of staying fit for performance. Those days are long gone. Because I don’t use my voice the same way, my range has lowered. Can I sing in the original key with Chris Tomlin and Hillsong? Sure, if I warm up first. But the average churchgoer doesn’t sing much outside of church services, and they aren’t following the voice rules that we learned so long ago.
Something as simple as lowering a key can make a song easier to sing. I worked with one worship leader/musician whose instrument was the guitar. He would sing songs with a capo to make the song easy to play while maintaining the original key. My primary instrument is the piano. I would simply lower the key to make it easier for everyone to sing along.
2) Consider the words of the song
A friend of mine used to travel and lead worship for youth events. One day a pastor asked him to stop singing a particular song because the imagery of the words painted a pornographic picture in his head. My friend and I were shocked that these words were so twisted in this man’s mind. But if we are honest, some of the lyrics we sing can be confusing, strange, and don’t really fit in a congregational setting.
3) Give the song time to settle in
Most worship leaders have taken the time to really know a song before they step on stage and deliver it to a congregation. There are some songs I have sang alone in my personal times of worship for years that I still want to teach the congregation. We know these songs really well. As a result, we forget that the congregation doesn’t know them.
We forget that we had to play that album for a week in our office before it began to sink in, and then five more times with our instrument to really know how to do it. Now we can do it with our eyes closed. That’s fine and good. It is going ahead and preparing ourselves as leaders to guide those who will follow. But the followers don’t have the prep work done. They need time to get the song in their heads before it can even touch their hearts.
4) Remember that your individual worship may not be the same as your group’s worship
This is a hard idea for many to grasp, but I have lived it for so long that it bears mentioning. Your personal taste and atmosphere for worship may not be the same as those of the congregation you are called to lead. While you may feel it is your job to mold those people to your flavor, it isn’t. Your job is to minister to them, which involves taking into consideration where they are in worship, where you are in worship, and the size of the gap in between.
Before all of the hymnbook-only people jump up and shout, Amen, another reminder should be thrown out there. The church and pastor have to be aware of the knowledge and experience of the worship leader. As an example, I have a very small repertoire of hymns in my knowledgebase. We just didn’t sing them in the church I grew up in. As a result I don’t go into the hymnbook. In fact, some of the hymns I do know are considered tainted by the hymn purists because they were modernized somewhere along the way and I didn’t even know it.
As worship leaders we are called to lead. That means, as we said before, striking into territory ahead of everyone else, going back and encouraging them along the trail to that new place. Sometimes you have to stop in a clearing a short distance from the path you blazed so that the group can get a rest and catch up. Your trail may go another few miles, band you may be excited to get everyone there with you. But you have to hang back and consider the whole.
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Like so many other aspects of our relationship with God, our worship starts at an individual level. Not every song that touches your heart will touch theirs. Not every style that plays in your office will be accepted in theirs. Worship leader, you have to be okay with that. You have to be willing to make the adjustments.
If you don’t consider the people you are called to lead, if you fail to make the adjustments that invite others on the journey, you’ll be walking that trail all alone, hoping someone will muster the group and follow behind. Don’t require everyone to be as prepared as you are. Don’t expect everyone to see and understand what you do. Allow some time for the songs you’re leading to grow and settle in. If a song doesn’t stick, drop it and go on to the next one. And take heart when those songs sink in and reach hearts. That is when the praise will flow.