This is post number 19 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry. These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance. I welcome discussion on any of them.
Reflection #19: There are lessons to be learned about congregational singing from typical churches’ Advent worship.
I had not planned to write about this subject until yesterday, but the power of the congregational singing–the best I have heard in a long time–compelled me to reflection. We visited a church we attend frequently, a large-but-not-huge megachurch in the northwest Chicago suburbs. Though I generally prefer a more intimate setting for worship, the leaders here do an excellent job of maintaining aspects of church life more usually found in smaller congregations. For example, they are employing an Advent wreath in worship this year (and did so last year, as well), they typically sing at least one hymn in their sets, they use the call-and-response “The Word of the Lord”/”Thanks be to God” after the public reading of Scripture, and they occasionally ask congregants to hit their knees for corporate prayer. In other words, while they certainly are seeker-sensitive, they are not seeker-driven (and I would argue, and have in this article on churches’ quest for cultural relevance, that utilizing these vestiges of “traditional worship” in no way discourages most unbelievers and, in fact, often piques the curiosity of true seekers).
The above notwithstanding, I simply wasn’t prepared for the exuberance of the congregational singing yesterday morning. The whole room resounded in song. I could actually hear other voices with unusual clarity (for contemporary worship). I even asked the production team members afterward if they were piping the congregation through the house mix (they weren’t). If, as Aaron Niequist is fond of reminding worship leaders, the purpose of congregational singing is . . . wait for it . . . congregational singing, why don’t most congregations sound as robust as did those assembled yesterday morning? Here are three congregational-singing lessons for the other 11 months of the year to be learned from my Advent-worship experience yesterday.
Lesson 1: Use familiar songs that have been sung for generations. Yesterday we sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” in the primary worship set. Notice the adjective is familiar, not simplistic. There’s nothing simplistic about the chromatic harmonies (full of notes outside the key signature) of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” or the chord pattern of “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” with its use of a III chord and secondary dominants, structure hardly ever employed in contemporary worship music (cwm). (Contemporary worship songwriters, take note: You can have wonderfully singable songs that break out of the I-IV-vi-V mold.) What are the non-seasonal equivalents of the above? Hymns, of course, but when’s the last time you sang a song from the dawn of cwm as know it–something like “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” or “Mighty Is Our God” or “Forever” or “Beautiful One”? Or a popular song from the Jesus Movement like “Seek Ye First” or “Easter Song”? There’s nothing wrong with singing the latest and greatest from Hillsong United, Bethel, or whatever song-producing community is hip right now, but if you want to facilitate congregational singing that will raise the roof, you have to go back to songs of shared experience (across the generations) with much greater frequency than currently occurs in contemporary American worship services.
Lesson 2: Strip back the accompaniment. The service yesterday (see picture) featured the worship leader on guitar and lead vocals and a pianist (with a real piano–not just a keyboard encased in the shell of an upright for cool visual effect). No driving drums. No booming bass. No shredding electric guitar. No background vocals. Just the unadorned sound of two acoustic instruments and one voice. For ears accustomed to worship services featuring loud noise and frenetic musical activity with precious few lulls in between, such sonic minimalism was a welcome relief, to be sure, but the greater good was that without the extra barrage of sound, the congregation was compelled to fill in the gap, and fill it in they did! Of course, you can’t lead contemporary worship these days with just a piano, guitar, and solo voice on a regular basis (can you?), but how about one week every other month? Or be bold and schedule a service for a cappella singing, without accompaniment, and be prepared to be shocked by the sound of human voices as you’ve never heard in contemporary worship before. (Use SATB vocals with your strongest singers. I used to do this once or twice a year in the churches I served, and the results were always incredible. Yes, it works for both cwm and hymns with a little bit of planning.)
Lesson 3: Remove other distractions. Kill the fog machine for a week. Keep the light cues bare bones. Avoid ADHD video edits. Keep the stage set simple. The fewer distractions your congregation members have to avoid in order to focus on their primary task in corporate worship, the better they will sound. It works during Advent. Why not try it, at least occasionally, during other times of the year?
The Lord be with you as you facilitate the people’s song in worship!
Coming next week (Lord willing): Grace for the worshiper.