Every worship leader has asked the question—“Why aren’t they singing?” You put in the work of planning and rehearsal. The service has been bathed in prayer. The stage personalities are modeling expressiveness in worship. But for some reason, the congregation just isn’t singing. Let’s be honest—when they’re not singing along, it’s discouraging. It doesn’t take a PhD in worship studies to know the whole idea of congregational singing is that those who congregate would actually sing—out loud.
God loves it when his people sing to him together. Joining our voices in corporate praise and worship is a tangible expression of the joining of our hearts in praise and worship. We sing together in church not only to worship together, but because we worship together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together wrote, “It is the voice of the Church that is heard in singing together. It is not you that sings, it is the Church that is singing, and you, as a member of the Church, may share in its song.”
But what if the church just won’t sing?
Certainly, there could be many reasons. The volume of the music, the setting of the atmosphere, the distance between worshippers, the prayer and devotional lives of the worship team members, the spiritual condition of those gathered and much more all impact the degree to which worshippers sing out loud, but song selection is the factor I would like to address in this short article. Here are four suggestions to think through when selecting songs for worship services if you want your people to sing along.
- Select songs that are theologically rich and doctrinally sound. It is incumbent upon you in your role as the worship leader to choose songs that are doctrinally sound. Doctrinal error, no matter how small it may seem, has no place in congregational worship. You should also choose songs that express the depth of your congregation’s most cherished theological convictions. In this way, worship invites church members into reflection on and recitation of their common confession of faith. But this suggestion is not merely positional or philosophical; it carries with it a practical element as well. The saints in the congregation who can sniff out weak emotionalism or doctrinal error simply will not sing if the song is not doctrinally sound or is theologically anemic. Their refusal to participate will be noted by others in the congregation. If you are selecting theologically weak or doctrinally unsound songs, don’t expect mature Christ followers to sing along. And do expect others in the congregation to take notice.
- Select songs that highlight or enhance the sermon text/series. When the sermon and the song selection are aimed at the same target, both benefit from the other’s bullseye. If your song selection highlights key biblical themes of the sermon for the day or reiterates overall biblical themes of the current sermon series, the congregation’s voices are tuned into what their hearts become ready to receive. If your congregation knows they can come every week expecting the song selection to line up with the biblical exposition, they will be much more open to participatory expressions of worship. Work with your pastor to get a list of upcoming biblical texts or sermon topics/series and ask if he has any suggestions for song selection. Don’t hesitate to run the set list by him before you settle on it. When it is obvious that the worship leader and the preacher are on the same page, the congregation will be more apt to join them and sing along.
- Select songs that are singable. Much of the time, your people are not singing because the songs are not easily singable. The average vocal range of your worshippers is about one and a half octaves, the safe zone landing somewhere between A3-F5 for women (A2-F4 for men). If the song is too low, they may be singing, but you just don’t hear them. If it is too high, they may vacillate between octaves or they may not sing at all. Melodies should be simple and easy to follow. Complicated melodic structures are often beautiful for musical expression but may not be conducive to congregational participation. The rhythms should not be overly jagged or syncopated, and the rate of note-change should be simple, not requiring vocal training to sing. I’m not advocating a dry, quarter-note melody on a five-note scale for every congregational song. But I am saying that some songs out there—good songs—are just not easily singable for a congregation because of their rhythm, range or melodic structure. There are opportunities to give full expression to your giftedness as a vocal musician who loves Jesus. But congregational singing in the weekly worship service is not that opportunity. Simple and singable for the win.
- Select songs that are familiar. Scripture teaches us to sing new songs to the Lord (Psalm 96:1). And we should. But Scripture also bears witness to the beauty and value of singing familiar songs as well (Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19). Indeed, the book of Psalms is organized as a hymn book for God’s people. The goal of the worship service is not to sing the best new songs. The goal is to get the people lifting their voices together to God. If you are constantly putting new songs in front of them, they will never have the confidence they need to sing out in the gathering. Use the offertory or prelude and postlude times to introduce new songs to the congregation. After a few reps hearing a new song in these spots, people may be ready for you to add them to the worship set. If a song is put in the congregational set list, it should be one they know. They will sing louder and better when they know the song. Predictability and repetition in congregational worship is not a bad thing. If you want them to sing along, they need to know the song and have confidence in your leadership of it.
Many factors could lead to a lack of congregational participation in the worship service. But I pray these four simple suggestions with regard to song selection may help get you pointed in the right direction. I leave you with another quote from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together: “The more we sing, the more joy we derive from it. But, above all, the more devotion and discipline and joy we put into our singing, the richer will be the blessing that will come to the whole life of the fellowship from singing together.”