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Helping People Sing Their Hearts Out
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Helping People Sing Their Hearts Out
Our most important choir is made up of the men and women who sit in the pews.
By Howard Stevenson

Congregational singing gathers strength in numbers and unlocks a deeper dimension of our souls, lifting our entire selves to God. Music is one key to the "heart dimension" of worship, whether we are gathered in a stadium, large church, hundred-seat sanctuary, or home Bible study. Singing has the power to help us freely express our feeling for God.

That's why an important part of our task as worship leaders is to involve the entire congregation in the ministry of music. Although the chancel choir, the soloists, and the instrumentalists are all vital contributors to the music of worship, our most important choir is made up of the men and women with untrained voices who sit in the pews.

Obstacles to Effective Singing
Effective congregational singing doesn't happen automatically whenever people gather. Consider some obstacles we face.

A shrinking body of commonly accepted congregational songs. On occasion, when I have directed music at another church or conference, I have begun leading a hymn I assumed was a familiar song, expecting the audience to join in. Instead, I often have found that most of the group is unfamiliar with part or all of the song.

A spectator orientation. Singing, which can be such a joy, is fast becoming a spectator sport in our culture. Music has become something we listen to, not something we open our own mouths and participate in. Today is the age of Walkmans, concerts, videos and audiocassettes, compact discs, FM radio, and ever-present headphones and speakers.

Misunderstanding the role of music in worship. In churches, sometimes the power and efficacy of music are unconsciously belittled or underestimated. We've all seen music used as filler: "Let's sing a song while the latecomers are seated," or "We have a little more time; let's sing that last stanza again." Other times music is considered merely a warm-up act for the sermon.

When music is demeaned like this, worship is diminished and congregational participation undermined. People won't fully participate—heartfully, soulfully—if they see the leaders treat music as an appendage to worship.

We often don't ask or expect enough of the art of music. It can reach, touch, and move people in countless ways. Underestimating it is like using a genie, with nearly limitless power, merely to do a few household chores for us.

Lack of time. If a good sermon needs time to develop and drive home a point, so does authentic worship. Worship needs at least 15 to 20 minutes to build. In our church, we normally devote 30 minutes to worship—congregational singing, special music, and Scripture readings.

In order to devote that kind of time, we strive to eliminate as many nonessentials as possible. We want to give maximum time to worship and congregational singing. We know sermonettes produce Christianettes, and we don't want to find out what shortened worship produces.

Poor acoustics. Strong congregational singing requires the support and encouragement of the room itself. Ideally, the room should capture and blend voices when people sing. Unfortunately, many sanctuaries are lacking in one way or another. There are ways to compensate for various acoustical problems, but the technical dimension of acoustics is too complicated to go into here. Suffice it to say that it's an issue not to be ignored.

Creating a Comfort Zone
In music, as in most endeavors, there is strength in numbers. The average person in the pews is reluctant to project his or her own voice unless surrounded by a host of other voices. Most people don't think of themselves as singers, and they tend to be afraid of their voices. This can be a handicap in smaller churches. But with the right leadership, even this difficulty can be overcome.

One key is to create a comfort zone for the congregation, an atmosphere devoid of tension, where a spirit of warmth and friendliness pervades, where people are not embarrassed to "make a joyful noise to the Lord."

How do you create this kind of comfort zone?

By your own personality. If you are friendly, warm, accessible, and confident, your congregation is more likely to respond in kind. I find that smiling often and speaking in pleasant, personal terms break down many barriers.

By having proper accompaniment. People sing more confidently when surrounded and upheld by a full sound; they won't feel they stick out. When strong accompaniment provides an introduction that clearly establishes the tempo, intensity, and key, people sing the first lines more boldly.

Choosing the right instrument to accompany also helps. It would be difficult to render the strength and majesty of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" with a guitar, or even two or three. On the other hand, a meditative response like "He Is Lord" would go well with the more intimate sound produced by guitar strings.

By selecting songs, at least in the beginning, that are easy to sing and well-known by the congregation. A good hymn doesn't need much direction. Examine a great piece like "Holy, Holy, Holy," and you'll find a straightforward succession of quarter notes, a simple rhythmic construction. But within that disarming simplicity are the beauty, strength, and majesty of the piece.

By putting some songs in a lower key. I find many songs in our hymnals are written a step too high. When I select a hymn, I scan it for high notes. I try never to force a congregation to sing any note higher than D or E-flat, or an octave plus one above middle C. If a song is written higher than that, I ask my accompanist to transpose accordingly.

By giving people permission not to participate. For various reasons, some people hesitate to join in. Often, when I'm introducing a new song or chorus, I'll say, "You may not know all the words yet, but feel free to join in and hum along. If you don't know the phrases, just listen to the words, because that's part of worship, too." Then we'll sing it two or three more times. When we give people permission simply to listen, they often gain the confidence to join in, and by the third set, most of the congregation is singing.

By lightening the spirit of the group. This may mean injecting a little humor. However, humor can be tricky, even deadly, if it falls flat or is misunderstood. We've all seen music leaders try to perk up a lackluster hymn by good-naturedly chiding the congregation: "That was really lousy, folks! Let's try it again." Or, "Let's smile when we sing, okay?" Or, "Think about the words." We walk a fine line whenever we scold or lecture the congregation, even in good fun. Some people can pull it off, and some can't. Those who can't usually only dampen a congregation's desire to sing.

Joy is close to every other strong emotion, and once we've unleashed joy through our singing, we can move quickly as a group to any other emotion on the spectrum. We can be laughing one moment and deeply moved to compassion or touched with grief the next. If we've done our job in creating a comfort zone for joyful expression in song, the Holy Spirit has greater freedom to move among us, speak to us, and change our lives.

These are seemingly mundane concerns, yet they are crucial for powerful congregational singing. I see hymns as sacred folk music. Hymn leading is not a place for technical artistry, but for simplicity, for enthusiasm, for involving everyone in the worship experience.

Capturing and Focusing the Mood
Many people live emotionless lives, at least on the surface. In the routine of life, few of us are touched at the deepest point of our spiritual selves. Music is an emotional art form, communicating much more than the message of the words. Sacred music, especially, taps our deepest spiritual and emotional levels.

As a worship leader, I'm privileged to bring inspiration to people. My job is to take people to emotional and spiritual heights, to show them the vistas and ranges of their faith, to lead them beyond the merely cerebral level of Christianity.

I need to remember that people bring to worship a wide range of experiences, tensions, needs, and moods. One woman carries a heavy load of sorrow, the man next to her a burden of guilt. The family in the next pew had a shattering argument on the way to church. Behind them are a man thinking about a business deal that went sour, his wife, who is planning next week's dinner party, and their teenage daughter, who is daydreaming about her boyfriend. Worship leaders must find some way to focus the minds and hearts of these individuals so that, with true unity, they may lift their praise to God.

Congregational singing is one of our best tools for doing that. And visualizing worship as a funnel helps me channel that singing to a unified end.

The opening of the service is like the wide mouth of the funnel, wide enough to include the emotions and experiences of everyone in the congregation, whatever they are. So we begin with broad themes, with songs that deal with unassailable truths such as the power, sovereignty, immortality, and unchangeableness of God.

With each successive selection, as we move down the funnel, we narrow our focus more tightly to the theme or desired response of that service.

The selection of hymns has a powerful influence on the overall mood and worship experience. I like to think of the array of congregational songs as my toolbox. As a craftsman selects a hammer to drive a nail, and a screwdriver to set a screw, I use certain songs for certain tasks.

Some hymns fill us with religious awe: "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." Other hymns touch us with the love of God: "Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?" Yet other hymns quiet our hearts and call us to prayer: "Take from our souls the strain and stress / And may our ordered lives confess / The beauty of thy peace." And still other hymns soften our hearts and make us receptive to God's Spirit: "Just as I am, I come, I come."

By the time we get to the narrow end of the funnel, we can insert deeply personal songs—songs that call for an individual response or make some deep subjective impact. This would be the place for "Have Thine Own Way, Lord," "Open My Eyes That I May See," or "May the Mind of Christ, My Savior." Or we might choose two or three brief praise choruses that focus on our love for God— "Father, I Adore You" or "I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice"—simple, expressive, personal songs that people can offer to God without opening a hymnal.

Congregational singing, even though it's done with hundreds of other people, can be a powerful personal expression.

The funnel directs the emotional flow of the worship experience, prepares us for the ministry of the Word, and allows us to express response to God.

A Checklist for Congregational Singing
Music ministry and juggling have this in common: you have to keep a lot of things in the air at the same time. Spiritual sensitivity, personal preparation, attention to group dynamics, thoughtful song selection, and full-bodied accompaniment are just a few of the ingredients that contribute to powerful congregational singing. Here's a mental checklist I use to keep our congregational singing effective.

Are the songs meaningful? Every worship leader needs to have the gentle and engaging sense of an educator. When I occasionally introduce a song by briefly describing its history or giving a new perspective on the theme, singing becomes more meaningful for the congregation.

Am I enthusiastic? I want to let people know worship is enjoyable. Excitement is infectious.

Am I cultivating eclectic tastes? I try to vary my choice of music. Since people speak different musical languages, we give people a variety of ways to express their worship. We avoid an either/or approach to traditional and contemporary music. We try to be both/and. The simple and spontaneous praise songs can find a powerful counterpoint in the strength and steel of hymnody.

Am I avoiding the routine? I want to keep worship fresh and alive. I'll use the metrical index to discover what familiar tunes will fit a new set of words (or vice versa). That's a great way to introduce new material and yet still have enough familiarity that people will participate.

Am I explaining enough but not too much? The essence of every art is understatement. I don't want to draw the congregation's attention to every clever seam in our program; we want it to appear seamless. Likewise, we don't explain the significance of every song, even though there is one. We let our congregation discover many of the nuances of our worship.

Am I alert to the emotional energy of the congregation? I continually monitor how well I'm doing at creating that all-important comfort zone, capturing and conveying the mood of the music, funneling our congregation, and drawing all of our people into a unified experience of worship.

I dearly love choral singing; nothing challenges me more. Nonetheless, over the years I've been convinced again and again that our most important choir is the one in the pews.

From the book Changing Lives Through Preaching and Worship. Copyright 1995 by Leadership/Christianity Today International.

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