Every week a pastor or worship leader chooses the songs his church will sing the following Sunday. Every week he combs through the possibilities to select the five or six that will best fit within the service he is planning. How can he choose well? How can he best serve his congregation in their singing?
I have traveled a fair bit through the first half of this year, and just about everywhere I’ve gone I’ve had the privilege of attending church services. I’ve worshipped with little congregations in isolated places and I’ve worshipped with great big congregations in the heart of major cities. I’ve experienced worship at home and abroad, I’ve sung music accapella and with the accompaniment of top-quality bands, I’ve sung in English and done my best to follow along in foreign languages. And through it all, I have been quietly but deliberately observing. I have been thinking about how we worship best.
The service planner faces a few tough challenges. The first is the challenge of choice. The song possibilities are almost endless, and we have tens of thousands available to us. We have hymns that have endured the ages, we have modern worship written to suit our times, we have the trusty old Psalms, and we have a whole lot more besides. The second is the challenge of popularity. Through radio and Internet, Christians have immediate access to the latest and greatest songs and many people want to sing on Sunday what they first hear on Wednesday. Rare is the leader who can withstand the pressure of the CCLI top 100! The third is the challenge of ability. We are not a singing culture. We do not sing in public and rarely sing in private. Most have no sense of how to sing in a group and only the rarest few have any notion of parts and harmonies.
With those challenges in mind, here is my observation: The most successful worship leaders are the ones who want to hear their congregations sing—to really sing. The most successful worship leaders are the ones most attuned to the musical ability of their congregations and the ones most committed to choosing songs their people can sing. They prioritize these factors over a host of others.
The simple fact is, there are many songs that have solid content and catchy tunes, but are poorly suited to congregational singing. There are many songs that are a joy to sing along to in the car, but difficult to sing with a congregation. There are many songs that are written first for radio and only secondarily for corporate singing. “Forever” by Kari Jobe sure sounds nice when she sings it, but it isn’t going to sound so nice when your church tries. “Lead Me To the Cross” may have an inspiring message, but let’s hear your church attempt and master that bridge. Sometimes songs are pitched too high or too low, or they go in unexpected directions, or they demand too much vocal range, or the bridge is just too different from the rest of the song. Sometimes they just aren’t suited to a crowd of amateur singers. And that’s the thing about us—we are amateurs.
I’m convinced what’s happening in so many congregations is that the worship leader chooses songs that are either poorly-suited to congregational singing or beyond the skill of his church. He hears a new song, falls in love with it, and for the best of motives wants to sing it with the people he loves and leads. He practices and masters it, he rehearses it with the band, and it sounds great. But when he brings it to the service on Sunday, it’s well beyond the ability of his people. The church tries, but sings it poorly, sings it softly, or otherwise barely sings it at all. Because the singing is so poor, the sound guy cranks up the volume of the instruments and the lead vocalists. Congregational singing has morphed into performance. And it could all be fixed if the worship leader set as his goal to really hear his people sing.
Let me draw an analogy. I think of a dad who buys his six-year-old young son his first Lego kit. Dad’s excited that his son finally wants to play with Lego, so he splurges and buys one of those amazing kits with hundreds and hundreds of pieces. It’s an amazing toy that will look great when it’s done, but it’s well beyond his son’s ability. So dad steps in to “help.” He helps by doing pretty much all the work—he reads the manual, he snaps the pieces together, he takes it to completion while his son sits by and watches. At the end of it all the boy takes the finished kit to mom and says, “Look what I built!” But he hasn’t really built it at all, has he? I’m convinced this is what happens at many churches today. The band has a great time on stage. They sing well and worship freely. But the congregation doesn’t. It can’t. The music is beyond them and, to be frank, wasn’t truly prepared for them in the first place.
A worship leader serves his congregation best when he chooses songs they can sing and sing well. He is highly attuned to their ability. He prioritizes the singability of songs over their newness or oldness or author or theological density. He gauges his success not by his own worship, but by theirs. His question is not “how did the band feel?” but “how did the congregation sing?” When he steps back and hears his church singing—really singing—, his joy is complete.