I don’t know about you, but the more we return to normal in the American Church, the more I realize how much I’ve missed congregational singing. God bless technology–it helped us immensely during the pandemic, keeping us at least somewhat in touch with our local fellowships during quarantines–but singing at home to a TV screen’s audio accompaniment doesn’t compare to being in a sanctuary with others and lifting our praises together as one body in Christ. Hence, there’s no time like the present for worship leaders to put even more thought into the important ministry of putting songs on the lips of God’s people.
Because congregational song is a passion of mine–it was the focus of my doctoral thesis at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies–many of my periodic blog posts focus on the subject. (Anyone who reads this blog frequently will be familiar with the theme of inclusivity that runs through the posts.) I was reminded of the importance of song selection a few weeks ago when the worship team at the church my wife and I attended began the service with two newer tunes but finished the set with “Holy, Holy, Holy”–sung like a straight-ahead hymn of my youth (no superfluous bridge, no simplified chord structure), only with praise-band accompaniment instead of organ. The quality of the people’s response was overwhelming; where their collective vocal efforts had been pretty tentative on the first two, lesser-known songs (I looked around me and saw most folks simply standing in place looking bored), the place erupted when the band launched into the more familiar and older song.
(I’m not anti-new songs, quite the contrary. The specific focus of my thesis had to do with the incorporation of new songs in the Church, for which I dove into, among other Scripture passages, four of the Psalms’ invitations to “sing a new song to the Lord.” Any beef I have with this aspect of contemporary worship stems not from using new songs but rather using them without regard for numerous filters with which worship leaders should be operating when choosing material for congregational singing.)
Rather than stew in my frustration during those first two songs that were unfamiliar to me, I used the time to jot down some strategies I’ve heard others recount, and that I’ve used myself in the past, to help redeem times in the midst of congregational singing when you don’t know the songs and can’t sing along meaningfully. If you find yourself in a similar situation in the weeks and months ahead, I commend these responses to you:
Close your eyes and let the music wash over you. Scripture clearly attests to the sheer power of music, and, like Saul in the presence of David’s harp, I found myself soothed by the music, unfamiliar though it was, which helped put me in a better frame of mind.
Pray for the worship leader and the praise band members. In so many areas of life, when I channel angst in the direction of prayer, I come out ahead, emotionally speaking. It’s hard to nurse frustration with others when you’re praying for them. Pray knowing the enemy hates corporate worship, above any other thing Christians do, and that those who plan the worship are on the font lines of spiritual warfare. And pray knowing the worship team members have sacrificed much in order to serve.
Focus on the living, breathing praise band members, not their lifeless screen images. There’s way too much to explore on this topic, and I’m looking forward to reading interesting theologies of images to be written by Screeners in the years ahead, but your prayers will feel more real if you’re praying for humans you can see in the flesh, not their pixilated representations on a big screen.
Latch onto Scriptural truths when you hear them. Sure, the occasional worship song these days has some suspect theology, but even those that get dissected the most (“Reckless Love,” anyone?) have plenty of opportunities to affirm Truth. Give those sections of any given song your best energy as you contemplate the lyrics.
And when you finally CAN participate, make up for lost time and really dig in. My fellow believers a few weeks back raised the roof with “Holy, Holy, Holy” after enduring two songs for which the majority in attendance couldn’t fully participate. When you are able, always try to follow John Wesley’s advice to sing “lustily and with good cheer.”
There are other times when it’s OK not to sing in corporate worship, and I detailed them in a previous post. But I hope with a return to normal (Lord willing and Virus Creek don’t rise), worship leaders take the time to rethink some strategies for congregational singing. I hope to reflect on a recent service that did this well next week.
The Lord be with you!