What the Bible Has to Say About Singing, Part 4

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Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. - Colossians 3:16 (NASB)

Colossians 3:16 instructs us about congregational singing in at least 7 ways.

  1. The CAUSE and COROLLARY of our singing is God’s Word

  2. God’s Word should be the CONTENT of our singing

  3. Singing is a COMMUNITY activity

  4. » Singing is a COMMAND

  5. There are a variety of CATEGORIES of congregational songs

  6. The CORE of singing is the heart attitude behind it

  7. The CULMINATION of singing must be God’s glory

Singing Is a Command

"singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God"

Notice that Paul doesn't simply instruct leaders to sing to the people, nor does he only instruct those who have exceptional musical gifting to sing; he instructs all believers to sing. Since singing is a community activity, the entire community should participate. When a group of people who are united in the celebration of some shared ideology or pleasure, they often sing about it. Consider how many nations, including America, sing a national anthem at all kinds of events. When the crowd stands to place their hands on their heart and sing together, people from all classes, backgrounds, and musical abilities sing. I doubt that many people refuse to sing simply because they are not very good at singing, for patriotism rather than performance drives their participation. Isaac Watts describes what a refusal to sing to the Lord amounts to in his famous hymn "Come, We that Love the Lord":
Let those refuse to sing,
Who never knew our God;
But children of the heav'nly King
May speak their joys abroad.

Christians, more than any other group, should be known for their passion in singing about what they treasure most - Jesus. Why then are so many congregations plagued by a lack of enthusiastic participation in singing? Let me suggest eight common barriers to public singing.

1) The volume of church musicians or "the band."
Let me suggest that the volume level of our live worship music is often influenced more by what is done at performances rather than to serve the goal of congregational singing. I have found it hard to sing when I can't even hear myself, let alone the others around me, sing - and that goes for various styles of music. I remember being at a church where the music was largely "traditional" with a gigantic choir and orchestra, and the volume of music was so loud that I felt like an insignificant piece of what was happening. I noticed that many others around me weren't participating either, even though the songs were probably very familiar.

There is something extremely encouraging about hearing us sing to one another... which is precisely why the Lord instructs us to do it! This past Sunday I spoke briefly with a family who chose to sit closer to the front because they enjoyed hearing all of the people behind them singing so much. Let's do everything we can to help our people hear one another - from lowering the volume of the band to designing acoustically live rooms or even using microphones to capture and amplify the sound of the congregation.

2) The worship musicians often cover all of the acoustical space
By this I mean that musicians tend both to play too much and to play too much in the range of the human voice. When musicians don't leave enough space for the people's voices it can discourage participation in singing and distract the people from thinking deeply about the lyrics. Conversely, when there are musical rests or stanzas where the accompaniment dwindles, people will be spurred on to fill those gaps with their voices and be freed from the distraction of constant musical busyness. A particularly helpful technique is to sing one or more stanzas of our songs "a cappella" (without accompaniment). I find that this keeps the musical arrangements fresh and helps the people think about a particular stanza more deeply or more intimately.

3) The acoustic properties of our rooms often work against congregational singing.
I already hinted at this in #1 above because this is often the result of designing rooms solely for PA systems. Let's put thought into how our rooms are designed so that our people might better hear themselves sing. That might mean installing acoustically reflective (or alternatively dampening) panels in strategic locations, or having a sound consultant come in to strategically locate your existing speakers.

4) Using too many unfamiliar songs.
Whether or not they are music readers, it takes most people several stanzas before they can participate and engage with a completely unknown song. For those who grew up listening to syncopated, rhythmic styles of music, traditional hymn melodies are often very difficult to learn. On the other hand, for those who grew up surrounded with more traditional or classical music, melody is easy but picking up syncopated rhythms is not. It's not just about generation, it's about musical exposure. To help your people overcome this barrier, let me make several suggestions.

First, know your people and their church and musical backgrounds. Try to choose a variety of songs that newcomers might know at least some of the songs. For us, that means choosing at least one Christian "radio hit" along with one or more traditional hymns, and often a "praise chorus" or "Scripture song" from several decades ago. Second, include sheet music for songs that might be unfamiliar or more difficult in some kind of bulletin or handout. We have a separate handout available from the ushers that includes lead sheets (melody and lyrics) for 3-4 songs each Sunday that might be unfamiliar or not be in our hymnals. This will greatly help your music readers to participate in songs that are unfamiliar. Third, share the list of songs that will be sung with your congregation before Sunday and recommend recordings they can purchase that might help them become more familiar with the songs. In today's digital age, it is a huge blessing that we can purchase recordings of songs so easily for under a dollar.

5) Using songs that are too difficult
Not all Christian music is suitable for congregational singing. In an earlier post, I outlined some criteria by which we might judge whether songs were suitable for our people to sing together. Let's choose songs that have enough repetition that by the end of a verse of two people can pick up the rhythm and melody and join us.

6) Using songs in a key that is too difficult for the average, untrained singer.
Choose the key of your songs based on helping the average person participate. Your average congregant will not know how to read parts, so they will sing the melody. Their range is likely to be at most a low A to high D (sometimes an E, if briefly and by stepwise motion). All too often a key is chosen because it is good for the lead singers and not good for the people. Or the key is chosen simply from a hymnal arrangement, which is written for part singing. A good rule of thumb is to lower hymns by at least a whole step. I've had men tearfully thank me after services for lowering the keys of traditional hymn tunes for they were able to more fully participate in singing them for the first time.

7) A lack of instruction and explanation about complex lyrics
Let's be honest - traditional and modern hymns which are rich with lyrical truth are often grammatically complex and sport difficult vocabularies. The average person will have a hard time understanding song lyrics full of biblical references and complex multi-line thoughts, especially when they go by in a few seconds. I like how Donald Hustad puts this in "Jubilate II":
Frequently worship leaders underestimate the challenge faced by a congregation in trying to ‘sing with understanding.’ Untrained amateurs are expected to read a fairly-involved theological text in poetic form, to fit the consecutive syllables to a melody (or even more challenging, a harmony part), and , having completed the ymn, to comprehend exactly what they have sung. Little wonder that many congregations are happier to have the singing done for them by experts, or, if they must sing, to limit the repertoire to simple worship choruses.

Our worship leaders should take the time to explain complicated songs, summarizing the main theme, particular verses, or biblical allusions that might be outside of the average congregant's quick grasp. This doesn't mean a 5 minute "exposition" of each song, but rather a thoughtful sentence or two, or quick prayer before or after a song. Another way we can help our people understand songs is to repeat verses, leave time in between lines or verses, or even read the lyrics aloud together before or after singing.

8) Our people's insecurities about their own singing abilities
Singing is not a common activity in our culture anymore. Before the advent of recorded music many families or social clubs would often play live music and sing together for that was the only way they could make and enjoy music. Even though we are surrounded by more music than ever before we have a far less singing culture for singing is relegated to the most talented individuals who are worthy of recordings. When a person who is not very gifted at singing (and knows it) gathers with others they can feel embarrassed or wonder if the people around them will hear them and think poorly of them. As a worship leader I regularly make comments to the public assembly to help people take their fear and insecurity to the cross and remember the love and acceptance that God shows them regardless of their singing ability. I remind them that God is more interested in the disposition of their hearts than the excellence of their tunes. I encourage them to stand on the platform of that acceptance from God and sing heartily, regardless of how poorly they think they sing. No one can earn the favor of God by their musical excellence or skill, but solely by faith in Jesus as our mediator - we all must come humbly to the cross holding out our gifts simply as tokens of gratitude for what Jesus has done for us.

Next time we'll explore how Colossians 3:16 teaches us that there are a variety of categories of congregational songs.


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Volume is a tricky thing. While I agree with your notion in general. (hearing oneself & the assembled are important) I've been in situations where the band & leaders were held in check too much and *I* even felt uncomfortable singing out. And been in other situations where I couldn't hear myself but had no problem singing my heart out. [ although it probably sounded like I was singing with headphones on :-) ] In fact the church I just started attending has the volume so low I can hear someone all the way across the room *almost* like she's blended in with the mic'd singers.

So to my thinking the key is being able to find that sweet spot. There's a point where the non-musical will refuse to sing because they are aware that they're not good singers and don't really want to be a distraction to others. The volume has to be up enough that they feel they won't stick out yet low enough to be able to hear yourself enough and the rest of the gathered. IMHO :-D
» Scott Russell on April 28th, 2011