Getty's Live Album

My wife, Kristyn, and I recently returned from a tour where we had the privilege of sharing our music in cities across North America. As we do on our tours, we partnered with most of our concert sponsors to host a lunch and time of discussion with local pastors, worship leaders, and other church musicians.

In each of those leadership events, I posed the question, “What are the things you ask yourself on Monday morning, in reviewing Sunday’s services?” Generally, the responses centered around production values, stylistic issues, people management, pleasing the pastor, or finishing the service on time. I do not recall that any one asked, “How did the congregation sing?”

It seems curious that in a generation that has produced innumerable conferences, articles, blogs, and even university degree programs on “worship,” the topic of congregational singing hasn’t been raised more often.  But even if we had been discussing congregational participation, would we know what goal we’re aiming to hit each week?

I do not pretend to be qualified to write a theological treatise on this particular subject. Congregational singing is a holy act, and as I organize my thoughts, I hear my old pastor, Alistair Begg, reminding me that in our song worship, we have to be spiritually alive (dead people don’t sing), spiritually assisted (through the enabling of the Holy Spirit), and spiritually active (committed to daily walking with the Lord).

I offer here some practical advice on strengthening our congregational singing, drawn from both our experience as musicians and also what we have seen and learned in our travels.

1. Begin with the pastor.

Look at any congregation not engaged in worship through singing and the most consistent correlation is a senior pastor equally as disengaged. Ultimately the buck stops with him in congregational worship.

Every pastor must be intimately involved in the language being placed in the congregation’s mouth, for that singing ultimately affects how they think, how they feel, how they pray, and how they live. The congregation should be treated as those who have been invited to a feast at the table of the King; don’t hand them junk food! C. S. Lewis believed singing completes our faith, explaining in his book Reflections on the Psalms, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” This is why I believe many of our pastoral heroes such as Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, J.C. Ryle, and Philip Schaaf produced hymn books in addition to preaching and teaching. Other leaders such as Horatius Bonar, Richard Baxter, and John Calvin wrote hymns themselves.

Pastors not only have a duty to be involved in preparing for the time of congregational singing, they also have a responsibility to personally model and demonstrate the importance of it. We need pastors who constantly delight in their congregation’s singing and the musicians who serve them and who also joyfully and authentically participate themselves.

Pastors, take up your duty in this act of worship called congregational singing. Worship leaders, pray for your pastor faithfully and do your part to develop a thriving relationship with him. The most influential worship leaders in history have almost always had close (though often tense) relationships with their pastors.

2. Sing great songs.

If congregational singing is a holy act, and if we are what we sing, then we can’t be lazy in selecting songs. We must sing great songs—songs that artfully exult Christ with deeply meaningful lyrics and melodies we can’t wait to sing. Better to have a small repertoire of great songs (that you will sing well) than a catalog full of songs recycled for sentimental reasons or chased after because they are the “latest” thing.

Writing or selecting great songs is not an exercise in lyrical propaganda or marketing. It is not merely laying scriptural truth alongside any melody. It is an art form that arrests our emotions and intellect in mysterious ways. Just as a master chef selects ingredients that are at the same time nutritious, aromatic, and flavorful, the selection of songs for congregational singing must excite at a number of levels.

Great songs have stood the test of time. They have been passed on to us from our fathers, and we should pass them along to our children. Assemble any Christian group, and practically everyone can join you in singing “Amazing Grace” confidently and passionately. We’re drawn to sing great music, much like we’re drawn to stand in awe of a beautiful painting.

There are great new songs—they breathe fresh air into our singing and help connect age-old truth with modern sounds. These are appropriate, too, though harder to find.

Recently I invited two unbelieving friends to a Christian event. The artists on stage played songs with interesting lyrics but awful melodies. I asked my friends what they thought about the concert. “These people obviously don’t take their subject matter very seriously,” one friend replied. Now, I know for a fact this is not true. But art ultimately expresses life, and low-quality songs do not reflect spirited, serious believers.

3. Cultivate a congregation-centered priority in those who lead.

From the individual who leads music, to the worship teams standing up front, to those of us who follow as members of the congregation, it’s vital to build a culture where everyone realizes our corporate responsibility before God and to each other is to sing together. Throughout Scripture, the command to sing is given to God’s people more than 400 times. Ephesians 5:19 instructs believers to address one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Week after week, we are spiritually renewed, realigned, and sanctified by singing to the Lord and singing to each other as the body of Christ.

Sadly, some of the churches with the newest facilities and most forward-thinking pastors are weakened substantially by lackluster congregational singing. It is an awful witness for outsiders to watch believers so disinterested in singing to their Creator and Redeemer.

Many of our common challenges—the overly exuberant drummer, the diva-like background vocalist, the subversive choir member, or an unhealthy priority on performance—can be corrected when we teach and encourage those involved in our music to be excited about using their many rich and colorful gifts for the purpose of supporting the congregation. Every singer, instrumentalist, and choir member should share in facilitating the high calling of congregational singing.

4. Serve the congregation through musical excellence.

Scripture often commands us to make music that is both good and excellent. For example, Psalm 33 tells to both “shout for joy in the Lord” and also play our instruments “skillfully” (verse 3). This instruction is consistent with our calling as believers to work heartily at whatever we do, as for the Lord and not men (Colossians 3:23). The music need not be complex or style-specific, but we must take seriously our role in such holy activity. This leadership requires people who are trained and well-prepared. As with all work that involves creativity (whether preaching, mothering, or running a business), we should constantly seek to be fresh, interesting, and connected with our congregations. Listen to new music, arrangements, and sounds. Examine our heritage of liturgies for insight to ordering the song service. Reach across the aisle, meeting with leaders from different churches and denominations to learn about their music selections.

In scoring for films, the composer and performers use all of their musical excellence in service of the story. In similar fashion, the singers and musicians should bring to bear their musical excellence in service of the congregation. There is no dichotomy between musical excellence and congregational worship provided the excellence is given in service of the congregation.

5. Manage the congregation’s repertoire intentionally.

Having progressed in each of the areas above and putting them into regular practice in services, be intentional about what is sung and when. Don’t treat your library of congregational choices like selecting “shuffle” on you iPod. Instead, be intentional in ordering the service, heeding Eric Alexander’s caution that congregational praise begins with God and his glory, not man and his need. Ask why you are singing at a given point in the service, and be sure that the selection for that moment is appropriate. Also, learn from the rich heritage of liturgy and how it provides a pathway of ordering songs for a service.

And finally . . . 

Why not in 2014 begin the Monday morning review by asking, “How did the congregation sing?” and, “How can we help them do it better?” Starting here, we may find that the other questions begin to resolve themselves.

* * * * *

Editors’ note: Keith and Kristyn Getty are modern-hymn writers with an acclaimed repertoire of 21st-century hymns revered both for their theologically astute lyrics and beloved melodies. Many such hymns are included on the Live at The Gospel Coalition album recorded at the TGC National Conference last April. You can also sing along with the Gettys and worship God together at The Gospel Coalition National Women’s Conference, June 27-29 in Orlando, Florida.

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81 thoughts on “Five Ways to Improve Congregational Singing”

  1. Barge Hauler says:

    At the risk of being overly pragmatic, perhaps worship leaders should sing in a key their congregation can cope with rather than works best for them or what the song was recorded in. This seems surprisingly rare in my experience and can easily lead to many sections of songs being too high or low for the majority of the congregation. I’m speaking as a church bass player with 20 years experience, and in that position you get to observe a lot.

    1. As a worship leader, I always tell other people when they ask this same question for their church: “the best key for you to do a song in, is the one that your worship leader is best at leading in.”
      Think about it, people who have Chris Tomlin or Kari Jobe leading worship for them don’t complain about this, they understand that that’s the key the song is in and they roll with it.

      1. Paul, I think we may agree on this see my blog response to this( I’m worship leader at Park Street Church in Boston.

      2. Andrew says:

        A good worship leader can sing in the same key as the congregation, it’s not a concert.

        1. Andrew, you’re missing the point.
          then why have a worship leader at all if it’s whatever the congretation sings? why not let the deacons pick the keys then?
          You’re right it’s not a concert, but as a baritone, I’m not going to lead well in some keys, so I let one of our female leads lead it. Maybe what you’re trying to say is that part of having a good worship leader is someone with a larger range?
          I agree with that. IF they have a super high range or super low that will be more difficult for the congregation.

          1. Barge Hauler says:

            I pitch at first bass, so the worship leaders who tend to be high tenors or sopranos (particularly if they have a desire to record songs) tend to leave me somewhere around the first chorus.

            As a result I’m with Andrew on this. We’re there to serve the congregation while leading it (Matt 20:25-28) so that means not setting any stumbling blocks in their way. Making it obvious to many that their voice is about to give up every time there’s a build-up really doesn’t help that. Then again, the fashion for setting volume levels so you can’t actually hear anyone stood next to you is one way around that. Perhaps the idea of four part harmony congregational singing has something going for it. As an aside, the four-part shape-note tradition has no actual worship leader. Someone stands up, leads a song, sits down and hands over to the next person. Seems like a good way of getting the congregation involved.

            Anyway I’m probably coming over like a grumpy curmudgeon, that’s really not the intention. Praying for all of us this weekend whatever our musical endeavours.

          2. David Duncan says:

            Paul, I’m not sure Andrew is missing the point BUT I also believe you make a good point. Some songs simply require a different vocalist to be the lead. What you are doing is very practical and very good for developing more leadership. I am still of the belief that the BEST way for this to be taken care of starts with the song writers. Maybe some baritones (or altos) like you and I should write more tunes/songs :)
            That’s why I have a LOT of respect for the Getty’s music. The texts and tunes are well matched and very singable by the rank and file. May their tribe increase!

      3. Allan says:

        You may lead people in worship, but you are doing it with music, so that means you are a music leader, not a worship leader.

        1. David Duncan says:

          Allan, Let’s not split hairs. That Andrew was addressing a worship leader’s need to adapt to his/her congregants tells me he has a heart for worship. The last thing churches need is a music leader who thinks only of doing the music. It has been my experience – over the past 30 years – that this can lead to an unhealthy relationship within the worship leaders. My best experiences have been when my Pastor and I sat down and hammered out a worship plan that spoke to the needs of the congregation and any potential seekers.

          1. Allan says:

            Worship is whole life stewardship. We do our people a disservice when we emphasize music as worship to the extend we currently do. Stewardship is another word we need to recapture the fullness of its meaning. It is often used to only describe managing and giving money. Today, people can go to church to song a few songs and give some money and walk away believing they are the steward and worshipper God calls them to be. I expect that pastors emphasize their proper meanings in their messages, but then we use the words in a way that does not reinforce their full meanings.

    2. Scott Burdett says:

      Bob Kauflin ( has some practical recommendations in choosing songs for congregational singing, and one is the range of the song. His recommended range is about A below middle C (A4) to octave and a half above that to D5. If my goal is to encourage our church to sing of the riches of Christ, than it would be wise to arrange the song in a key that is suitable for most in our congregation.

      This was an excellent article, Keith. Thanks for sharing.

    3. richard says:

      Use a key that keeps the majority of the notes being sung between the lines is a general rule for key choice.

  2. Dan Kreider says:

    Keith, thanks for your post. That’s precisely the question we ask after every service! It’s also the first thing I listen for when I’m visiting another church. I don’t care so much about the polish of the production… but I want to hear how fervently the people sing. It’s one indication of their spiritual temperature! (not the only one, of course)


  3. Robert says:

    Live Church music is often not very well executed, sometimes the song sounds like it is actually being executed, but it is the best that worship teams can produce with available musicians. In such instances is it better to use commercial recordings in place of poor though willing and, faithful musicians?

  4. Thanks for sharing. I really like point 2 about singing great songs. Songs with theological truths.

    And about having musical excellence.

    Combine the two and it will be awesome!


  5. Jo says:

    Here’s my suggestion: select songs with strong melodies. I think one of the reasons that so many in the congregation just stand there (while the worship team sings) is that the song has no easily recognizable, much less memorable tune. When the service is over, can I hum the melody? Sadly, for many songs in churches today, the answer is no.

    1. Carly says:

      Jo, I agree strongly with you. Many of the contemporary songs have melodies that kind of slide into other notes, there’s not a strong, memorable melody, and I can hear the congregation backing off of singing because they’re not totally sure which note to hit. And part of that is because of the ‘new style’ of playing that some churches want that is just playing chords and expecting the congregation to “jump in” where they’re supposed to. I’m sorry, most of the people in a congregation are not trained musically, and they need to know when to come in.

  6. Janet Shenoy says:

    Thank you for your thoughts on corporate singing (worship). At my church we have rotating song leaders. One man is amazing he stops us and makes us think about what we are really doing. Exhorts us to praise and worship The Lord. He excels in music and has a Ph.D in music and a heart to match his skill.Then we have others that play music and sing into the mic songs that the body cannot join in. We just stand there disengaged and plugging our ears because it’s blasting in volume.

  7. Mary says:

    Excellent! We have enjoyed your music and these thoughts are helpful as well. Thank you!

  8. JCH says:

    This is so helpful. The last paragraph that says “how can we help our congregation sing?” and then states that answering this question may take care of a lot of the other issues is spot on. One of my previous pastors used to say that in corporate worship we (the pastors and song leaders) want the dominant sound to be the voices of God’s people singing. Alas, if more churches would heed this advice.

  9. Sandy Hess says:

    Great article. Over the years we have gone to “congregation only” singing, except for special occasions like Christmas, etc. The article sounds as though our music director could have written it. Your article is affirming.

    One thing we started many years ago is “Song of the Month” (perhaps this could be point 6?). We usually start playing the song as prelude, postlude, or offertory music so the congregation begins to become familiar with it. Then we sing it each week for a month (maybe more if the song is more difficult), until the congregation can sing it well. We have learned more than 150 songs this way — including many “Getty songs”, which we love to sing. We appreciate both the profound theology and the beautiful music of your songs.

    Recently, people have started wanting to sit in the front just to hear the piano and Roland, and all the voices coming from behind. God has been blessing our singing in a special way these last few months. Our hearts are moved as we express worship in song to our God, which is a great segue to our worship through hearing the Word.

    Thank you for your ministry. I want to make it to one of your concerts when you get back to the middle or southeast part of Virginia.

    In His Love,
    Sandy Hess

    1. Jennifer M. says:

      Yes, Sandy! I’ve been doing that too for quite some time. Our church is a small rural church in northern Vermont, and I play piano and sing to lead worship. I will occasionally play through the song the week before, and sometimes even the day we are singing the song, as a prelude or something.
      I will also often sing through the first verse once so people can “catch” the melody, then we sing the whole song together. I am a public school music educator as well and firmly believe that people will have an easier time singing once they are more familiar with the melody.
      When I was in college, my now-husband and I attended a small church in the suburbs, and our very wise pastor would have the congregation sing the same song for a whole month. Not only did it help to learn the melody, but the words and theology of the hymn were internalized and so much more meaningful.

  10. David Felts says:

    For the20 odd years I have been associated with Chapel PCA in Beaver, Pa., we have ALWAYS sought the spirit of the song, the message, can we get the music right, can we all get the words in and right, practice numerous times until we make the song “ours”. Then present it. Oh! I almost forgot. We pay particular attention to the instruments so they fit together an do not confuse or overwhelm the singers and the words we are singing.

  11. Arthur J Fox says:

    As a pastor and Session we are in the midst of discussions as to how we might improve our worship, and as singing and music are not one of my gifts, I am weak in the area of choosing hymns. One of the elders I work with thanked me for sharing what turns out to be what we all have been trying to express. You nailed it.

    I would add that we are using a number of your hymns in worship and have been greatly edified. Thank you!

  12. Br. Christopher, AF says:

    Thank you so much for this helpful article!

    I’m an accompanist for a small Episcopal congregation, so I’m coming from a different tradition, but much of this resonates in my spiritual and professional experience,

    Our Vicar (senior and only clergy) sings out strongly, in an effort to lead our congregation… But our Vicar’s voice is warbly, “swoopy” and often changing octaves based on what’s comfortable for her. In short, the stronger her voice, the weaker the congregation sings. Do you have any advice on how to deal with this?

    1. Heather says:

      Br Christopher, have you identified anyone else who sings well in the congregation? Possibly you could enlist him or her to help lead the vocals. Too bad your vicar seems to feel like she has to do it all..and the extra “all” is in an area not in the area of strength for her.

      Also, to not denigrate the vicar’s lack of singing ability, in order to get her to back off on thinking she’s got to lead the vocals strongly in order to encourage congregational singing, you might approach her with the idea to enlist a leader for the vocals (or maybe two or three leaders depending on the song and vocal range in the song), in order to involve the members more and make it a part of their ministry. After all, you can remind her that in the Bible, it’s clear that the shepherd of a congregation is not there to perform all the church’s ministry. The pastor’s job is to EQUIP equip the flock to do the church ministry! (I’m not saying she’s there to teach them to sing — she’s there to encourage/exhort/teach them in order that they might be able to do the ministry, to be able to carry out whatever good works that has God put before the congregants to “walk in.”

  13. Brenda says:

    Thank you so much, while I was leading music this was my goal, but many part time music leaders struggle finding time and energy doing this. There are many, many churches out there that just have one of their own leading music because they are the only ones carrying a tune. Sadly some of these try bringing in the new praise songs but because the congregation are unfamiliar to these songs they don’t sing. Like you said “How can we help our congregation sing?”.

  14. Danny Madrid says:


    What are your favorite hymns of the faith to sing congregationally?

    Thank you for producing God-honoring music.


  15. Rebekah Lockart says:

    This was like reading my own thoughts from the past 4 years! I have now been part of 2 churches that have reduced their ‘repertoire’ in order to encourage good congregational singing – it helps both the congregation and the musicians to really know the songs and provides the opportunity to select songs that are good both theologically and musically. It also makes introducing new songs a whole lot easier! I also agree that the minister is crucial. I went to a workshop a few years ago with Bob Kauflin who argued that the minister is the best person to lead the singing – they don’t need a good singing voice (though it helps!) but need to lead the congregation in considering the lyrics and the right response to the God we are singing to. Our songs are such a great opportunity to present the gospel and compliment the other parts of the service (prayer, the sermon, bible readings, mission spotlights) that it is such a shame when the songs are randomly chosen or not linked in well. Songs written with biblical truths and great melodies are such a tool for teaching and encouraging!

  16. James G says:

    Thank you for bringing this up. Congregational singing is close to my heart, especially because there is literally no other time in a church’s gathering where literally everyone voice is (or at least can be) heard, and that is a tremendous blessing. I can hear a worship team or a band anywhere, but I can only hear my brothers and sisters lift their voices in praise when we gather, and God uses this in powerful ways.

  17. Charles Hodges says:

    It’s really more simple than than. There are two types of music: performance and participation. People generally will not join in performance songs, even when “encouraged” from the stage. But those same people will sing when the song is designed for participation.

  18. Great article and ideas we cultivate at New Song Network. The 6th one for us is great cake too – it works a treat.

  19. Wendy Williams says:

    I think that many worship songs today are better off being performed as a solo (or in unison), rather than sung by a congregation that sings SATB. As an alto, I get the feeling that most of the contemporary worship music was written as a solo and that the harmony is an afterthought. I find myself not being able to sing with the congregation because the harmony is almost unsingable.

    1. Lynne says:

      I agree with Wendy. I wonder how much musical training in SATB has been lost over the years because the use of a hymnal is almost nonexistant. As a child, I first learned to read music from the hymnal. I find it difficult to sing when the volume of those leading is so loud you cannot hear yourself. On the rare occasions when we sing a song accompanied only by the piano, it blesses me to actually hear the beautiful voices of the singers in the congregation around me.

  20. Ros Barrett says:

    Well that is actually the question I do ask each Sunday! If I’ve been leading I listen out for the congregational singing and later ask someone from the congregation: were people singing? Did they know the song? Did they join in? Immediately make mental or written notes of things you need to change so it works better for the congregation and you get as many people engaged as you can. Don’t wait til Monday to ask the question. People need to praise God. Great post by the way!!

  21. JMF says:

    Thank you for writing this thoughtful piece on worship – I just need to figure out how to send it to our worship pastor without appearing critical.

    1. Me says:

      JMF – if you have a good relationship with the worship pastor, bring it up in conversation or just email it to them with a note that you were stimulated by the piece and would like to discuss it with them. Are you part of the worship team?

  22. One other component to consider: if the sound amplification in the room is too loud, or if it is too strong in the bass register, people can’t hear themselves sing, much less the people around them. Worship services aren’t concerts and shouldn’t sound like them. A lighter audio mix can often make a surprising amount of difference in congregational participation.

    1. al mcewan says:

      Gee, I hope they are more like concerts – for an audience of 3, father, son, spirit.Musical genre is irrelevant.

  23. rtk says:

    Great article to read and reflect. I have a personal struggle in the sense that, very simply, I’m not musically inclined. Not that I would hinder the congregation by stifling the musical part of worship because, as stated here music, does have its role in helping people get “into” worship. The “pastor as the leader here” will give me food for thought for the next few days. Again, it’s not that I hate music but I just don’t love it either! I’ll allow my worship leader to take charge and I’ll sing along,that is, if sing along means (barely) moving my lips speaking the words very quietly with a stilted body posture, sometimes even with arms folded!

    How to make the congregation sing? Good article for reflection. John Wesley’s preface to the Methodist Hymnal calls the church to “sing lustily”. Thanks for this.

    1. Mary says:

      Sometimes singing is not required if the congregation can *see your worship. Some people find singing along distracting and would rather pray the lyrics of a song, or simply stand with arms raised in honor to God. Perhaps a loose posture with an upraised face is all that the congregation needs to see to know that their pastor is worshiping lustily!

    2. Dave Wagner says:

      RTK, Mary’s exactly right. A picture is worth a thousand words–sung or spoken! Your self-described posture is one that could foster a Congregational Staring Contest, if your folks were to imitate you. Don’t discount your own influence on their participation, even though you’re not a singer and you have a worship leader to do what you’re not gifted to do. You CAN adopt a God-ward posture vs. a stilted one tho. Unfold your arms, put on a joyful face (fed by a joyful heart), and visibly agree with those worshiping around you. You don’t have to sing lustily if your heart and body posture worships lustily! You can do this! You MAY find, after you’ve done it for a while, that you actually enjoy it too! Singing, after all, is a learned behavior.

  24. Victor McQuade says:

    You are right on with the comment regarding congregational singing. If the congregation is not singing than what are we doing? I have asked many worship leaders if they have ever asked members of the congregation if they were able to sing whatever was presented to them on any given Sunday morning. Not one worship leader has answered in the affirmative. If we are supposed to be there to minister to the congregation then why are we ignoring their input. This smacks of arrogance and elitism; neither of which is honoring to God.

  25. Gail says:

    One thing that encourages me to sing with meaning, is when I KNOW the meaning of the song, why it was wrote, and what it meant to the one who wrote it, and as I learn the song, it then gives meaning to my own heart also. I am also encouraged to sing if like others said the tune is easy to follow and pick up if you don’t know it. And one thing that means a lot to my heart is if the music is not so loud. For though I love the music, it is the hearts of love in song of God’s people the Lord really wants unless it is just music playing for those who play music alone from their hearts to the LORD!
    Having a good building acoustics, also helps, for I know in our place of Worship, many good singers are there who love the Lord, and the song does not go well as it sounds so dull. Everyone is different I know, and I so appreciate many songs you write, Thank you!

  26. MAG says:

    Several people in our congregation asked the new director of music & worship to provide written music for the many new songs that were being introduced. The response to the requests? “The people will learn them eventually without having music sheets to read.” This

    If the goal is corporate singing, why begin a service with a song so new that most or all of those in the congregation are standing silent while the singers on the platform sing the song?

  27. Autumn says:

    I grew up in a church that had only acapella congregational singing. Children sat with their parents for the entire service, so we all grew up singing along with the whole church. That particular church still does this- no instruments and it is beautiful! They also have regular “singings” on Friday evenings. They get together and just sing out of whatever songbook is chosen for that night.
    While I do not go to that church anymore, family still does and we love taking our children there to visit. They always comment on the loud, pretty singing! ( and no, not Amish)
    I love instruments and many people play them that go to church there. They simply chose voices over everything else. Keep it simple…best advice I think!

  28. Brenda Hultin says:

    Thank you–very helpful and thought provoking article! As a pianist, I’m hearing from several sources that each verse should be played differently to add interest. First, I’m not sure how to learn this skill, and secondly, I fear that making each verse different sounding discourages the congregation from singing parts (this is what I experience when I’m singing and not playing). Singing parts is becoming a lost art. I refer not only to the contemporary hymns as mentioned above but to the old favorites too.

    Another question I have is to know how loud to play. Should I be able to hear the congregation singing as I play or do they sing louder when I play louder? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    Thank you again for broaching the subject. It’s a much needed discussion.

  29. Ian Day says:

    Thanks for the article. Ours is an independent baptist church in an immigrant area.

    We do not have a choir or band. I play my keyboard in chapel organ register, & rarely know all the words of the hymns well enough to lead the singing as well as play.

    Our congregation is largely south Asian, few know the “traditional” hymns or the modern ones.

    I choose the hymns & normally Pastor tells me the Scripture he will preach from, though I have to guess the application. The hymns are generally linked in thought with the Scripture.

    I restrict the tunes to easy to sing, or well known, & never go above a top D.

    We find the musical format for the Townend-Getty hymns works very well, with the AABA type of tune format. Choruses are very helpful.

    I prefer not to use new hymns in a service, but when I do, it is helpful to play a verse of the hymn as recorded before asking folk to sing it – with the recording or with me. I circulate youtube links beforehand so they hopefully they will listen & learn.

    A problem with many singer-song-writers is that they write the hymns to entertain, with opportunities between verses to show their guitar skills, & they will sing different verses differently – When do WE start singing again? That makes choices of popular hymns difficult as I can’t compete with the professional musicians.

  30. Sharon says:

    I have long been dismayed by the lack of printed music for the congregation. When we project only words, people who do not already know the song are prevented or discouraged from participating. (So are people who are standing behind someone very tall.) I have stood through many lengthy music sessions being unable to sing because I don’t know where the music is headed, or I can’t see it. I’ve heard worship leaders say that “no one reads music anyway.” First, this is not true. And second, doesn’t that mentality mimic the world’s tendency to just go along with whatever the “people” want? Projecting words without the score also greatly inhibits harmony singing unless the songs are so established in the congregation’s heads that they don’t need the notes. As a harmony singer, I am often discouraged when even familiar songs are “updated” with different chord structures making traditional harmonies impossible. I’ve experienced too many services in which the congregation stands, mostly silent, while the people onstage pour their hearts out. It changes dramatically when a familiar old hymn is sung. Suddenly people are singing. If we aren’t going to take the time to sufficiently teach new melodies and harmonies, we should at least be providing the score so that those who would like to participate in the potential richness of the music fully can do so rather than being frustrated. I love a lot of newer music, particularly yours, and much of it is now familiar enough for people to know it and sing wholeheartedly. But I feel that we do a disservice to the concept of corporate worship when we make it harder for the congregation to participate.

  31. Sigler Couch says:

    I am not a musician or a worship leader. I am your everyday church goer. I can’t read music but know in the hymnal if the notes go up and down the line you follow them like a road map only with your voice. Modern technology is not doing this part of the service any favors by eliminating the hymnal and putting the words on the screen. I tend not to sing when this is done especially songs that are not in the hymnal. I notice that older members of the congregation don’t sing at this time and the younger people follow the example.
    This is just my observation. I know there will be many people who disagree with this, and that is okay.

  32. David Goldman says:

    My wife and I were raised in a Christian home. We went to the same church. We know the great Gospel songs we were raised with. I know music evolves, but what good does it do to have the congregation sing a song it does not know and one that is not very good? My daughter and her husband go to a mega church in Dallas. The music is led by 6 or 7 young people, playing drums, guitars, keyboards, etc. and they murmur through three or four songs no one knows , repeating the same line over and over again. They always sing one “old church song” and it is evident that the congregation sings louder and better on these selections. Being a Christian is not about not shaving, wearing sandals, trying to be cool and closing your eyes when you sing to prove that you know the lyrics to even the most offbeat song. I write Christian music and I do so in hopes that some day my songs might be the “old” songs a congregation sings. But I would never write a song to exclude anyone – young people or older folks. These new churches cater only to the under 35 crowd which is a mistake. We have gotten away from WE to ME and that needs to change.

  33. R W Smith says:

    Thank you for your article. I would add that we, as music leaders should take better advantage of opportunities to observe and study the work of great song leaders, both sacred and secular. Group song leading is in somewhat equal parts craft and art. And, as with all like endeavors, success depends more on discipline and dedication than inspiration. It also takes a willingness to learn from those who have gone before us. There is a right way and a wrong way to lead group singing, and methods that work (key, tempo, length etc) are tried and true. With the advantages of modern communication, there is no need to try to “re-invent the wheel”. We can easily find out where we can go and see a master at work. A great place to start is with the work of one who recently left us: Pete Seeger–watch and learn.

  34. Keeder says:

    Please stop calling music leaders worship leaders!

    1. Elizabeth King says:

      I think it’s a worthy point, that music does not = worship. Nor does worship = music. Music may be used in worship, or worship may be done without music. Music is often not worshipful, too. The two do not equate, though they are used synonymously (and erroneously so) by much of the church today.

  35. Great suggestions. For so many worship music leaders these imply an entirely different way of thinking about music for worship. My experience is that such adjustments are desperately needed. Your reference in #3 to an unhealthy performance priority seems to me to be one of the greatest offenders in our day. How can a leader ever assess congregational singing unless the platform performers know when to get out of the way? Whether a church is led by a band or pipe organ, instrumentalists’ sensitivity is fostered by a clear understanding of the objective, participative engagement among the gathered worshipers. The question that you suggest for Monday morning, “How did the congregation sing?” can continue to echo into the worship service itself, such that leader and players are asking all along, “How are they singing?” If Sunday worship seems not the time for such assessment, perhaps it is time for a congregational worship singing rehearsal.

  36. Burl Becker says:

    Mat 15:7-9 “Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”

  37. Great points.
    As the music director for our camp, I have gone over some of these points with the musicians who lead our singing in chapel. Something I’d like to add is: turn it down. If, from the back or middle of the church, I can hear the song leader more loudly than I can hear the congregation around me, then his mike is too loud. This is not a performance. I teach my music team that an important part of their job is to make it clear to the campers when to start the song, and to sing loudly enough that the melody is caught. Singing more loudly than that, as a church song leader, leads the congregation to believe that this is all about self-gratifying performance, not worship.
    As well, we try to choose songs that are sung mostly on the beat. Those that are mostly off the beat are sung congregationally by those who’ve heard those songs on the radio often, but are hard to catch by the rest of us.
    As a side note, I always find it interesting to stand at the back of the church and watch how different songs make people move differently. Are we feeding the flesh or the spirit by our music?

  38. Coby Ingram says:

    I’ve been reflecting on Stuart Townend’s recent article on singing quality songs in worship. It occurred to me, even though I agree with him, that the quality of our music, and especially the depth of its theological message, is overrated.

    It’s hard to explain, but I hope what I do manage to say is helpful. One thing I realized is that there are Christians at all levels of maturity. John calls us “children, young men, and fathers.” And I think childlike Christians, those who “still need milk,” actually benefit from some of the sing-songy, repetitious music we sing. Full disclosure, I’ve been reading Brian McLaren’s “Naked Spirituality” where he makes this point better than I can. It’s a matter of asking the right questions. What do people need to focus on at the stage of growth where they are right now? Though I’m not suggesting that all repetitious music is good. As Psalty said, you have to sing it — and write it — from the heart.

    The other thing I noticed is that all songs have theology. And for the most part, they are theologically correct. Think with me, here. Music is one way that the gift of prophecy functions. Think David. So if a worship leader is writing prayerfully, humbly, and from a holy heart, their song will be prophetic. And is the Spirit of God going to contradict the Word of God? Far from it. I’ve learned a lot from songs.

    What I’ve learned hasn’t always fit the Calvinist mold. And I think that’s what some of us are trying to do with the yardstick “a song must be theologically deep.” What are we actually saying with that idea? That we must write in lines of four or five accented syllables, because three isn’t enough for all the big words we want to use? That we must stress Reformed theology with every song, e.g. “The wrath of God was satisfied”? I think it’s overkill.

    I’m glad to see the resurgence of the Reformed churches in recent years. It’s part of the perfection of the Bride. But I hope we emphasize the things that make us unique and special, rather than the things that make us clash with other churches. I hope we don’t squelch things like exuberance and childish joy “for the sake of our traditions.”

    Love ya guys,


    1. Laurel says:

      So, Coby, could you send me a list of a few of your favorite songs. I liked what you said. I’m grasping for ideas. In our church, it seems like most can’t grasp complicated melodies, but I’m also not a fan for simplistic boring melodies either. I love lyrics that have some meat to them. Although, I think you can mix and match- some deep, some shallow, etc. We’ve gotten in trouble with a few of the Sovereign Grace melodies- some are pretty complicated. Some are great! Anyway, just looking for some ideas! Laurel

  39. David Duncan says:

    Thank you for this article, and thank you for the new body of quality, singable hymns/songs. I especially like the “intentional” and “excellence” parts of the article. I still think churches adding contemporary services is a byproduct of not being intentional in the way we bring in new material. Both the traditional and contemporary suffer from this byproduct. Our talent pool is stretched too thin to do either very well; we lose much of our historic footings; we fail to experience the freshness and relevance of new songs. And when our intent is excellence, we call out the very best in who we are, regardless of age, experience, or taste.

  40. Ian Crook says:

    I disagree with the statement…”Better to have a small repertoire of great songs (that you will sing well) than a catalog full of songs recycled for sentimental reasons or chased after because they are the “latest” thing”. Two points in response: The local music leader should not be permitted to promote his own original works in place of quality and time tested “inspired” songs and hymns. Secondly, having a limited range of songs is a stumbling block to the regular worshippers for whom endless repetition of songs becomes no longer edifying. (1 Cor 14.26(b))

  41. Cecil Van Houten says:

    Keith and Kristyn,

    Thanks for an excellent article and posing these very necessary questions. I’ve had the privilege of serving through music for over forty years. I started playing piano for a small evangelical church when I was still in high school. Through the years I’ve played, arranged, conducted and been music director in congregations large and small of just about every denomination. Traditional, contemporary, blended…been there, done that. About nine years ago I returned to my Episcopal roots, preferring the depth and richness of the liturgical approach to the generally shallow waters of the typical evangelical church.

    From my observation and participation it seems that many of the problems the church faces today – from music to teaching and preaching styles to growth and evangelism methods – share common root causes. In the past most churches had a choir that led the congregational singing. It was the norm until the influence of contemporary music and changing cultural values (such as the Calvary Chapel movement) came into play. I don’t remember it becoming widespread through the 80’s but by the mid-90’s the debate about music and worship styles became an issue for many churches and denominations. It still is today.

    As others have already posted, music is not worship and worship is not music. Many believers have never learned that distinction, largely because of poor teaching on the subject. Interestingly, whenever I’ve posed the question in a post-mortem the responses vary – “We should use more PowerPoint” or “People don’t know the songs” or “People are tired of the same old songs.” I’ve gotten blank stares and one board member in an AG church questioned me, “What does it matter?” It matters because this is a heart issue, genius. Until the congregation understands the purpose of music in worship and sings “heartily as unto the Lord”, these quick fixes are meaningless. When people are taught to be passive participants, the balance shifts from Christ-centric congregational singing to a self-oriented mindset.

    In terms of content the lyric should be focused on the cross, not us. There are lousy hymns in every hymnal but for the most part the writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries were not market-driven. Today money is what fuels the business and it’s big business. Chris Tomlin (just as an example) takes in several million dollars every year just in CCLI royalties, let alone publishing, concerts and merch. Publishers and record labels do everything they can to exploit the copyrights they own (which, after all, is their business). But in doing so they contribute to the growth of theological illiteracy by promoting mindless drivel. It might feel good (if you have a tolerance for insipid lyrics and boring melodies) but at the same time it’s a subtle form of idolatry.

    Another root cause is the impact of technology on the church. It improves our efficiency and productivity but when we rely on it to produce a Broadway style production, it is not in its rightful place. I’m not anti-technology; there’s nothing inherently wrong in having a quarter-million dollar sound and light system but if it gains equal footing with the Message; if our abiility to preach and teach becomes dependent on it, our priorities are out of place.

    Congregational singing should engage our hearts, our minds and our spirit. Like the Eucharist, it is a holy communion with God. Or at least it should be. Today we brag on how cool our churches are – relevant, tuned into the culture, requiring little personal sacrifice. But our bent toward easy-believeism is an insult to the work of Christ on the cross. It affects not only congregational singing but our teaching, our view of the Sacraments and the seriousness required to understand and appreciate them. Simply put, the church isn’t meant to be cool or have mass appeal. The gospel is an offense to those who don’t know God. And there’s good reason – because in order to live we have to die. Put that truth to a happy little melody and see what reaction you get.

    The greatest love required the greatest sacrifice. The church needs to earnestly pray for the Holy Spirit to convict us of our sin and truly repent. That’s how we can improve congregational singing. That’s how we can please the Lord. And really…what’s more important than that?

    The Lord be with you.

  42. Rose Anne Thornburg says:

    This is definitely one of the most powerful statements on church worship that I have read in years. Thank you so much!

  43. Frank Breeden says:

    If you are in a position to influence what happens in any gathering of God’s people where one of the purposes is unified worship of the Creator God through the modality of congregational singing, whether your position be on the platform, production and/or planning, I hope that you will have an understanding of the role congregational SINGING plays in the corporate worship setting. And, amidst all the wonderful posts herein about this subject, may you never overlook the simple definition of what success looks like as found in the phrase, CONGREGATIONAL SINGING. If the people you “lead” are not SINGING, then you are not LEADING them. From a truly missional perspective, this equals failure.

    It makes no difference if your CCLI bill is current, your $750k pipe organ is well maintained, the Bosendorfer is freshly tuned, your state-of-the-art lighting system is synchronized to the beat map of your click track, the PowerPoint is error free, you’ve got the best musicians and vocalists on your “worship team” and that five-thousand dollar Takemine hanging around your neck sounds almost as good as your hairstyle looks. The congregation before you wants -NEEDS- to sing. And, if the CONGREGATION is not SINGING during the CONGREGATIONAL SINGING, then the WORSHIP LEADER is NOT LEADING WORSHIP.

  44. Karen wilber says:

    What would aid in congregational singing? Turn the volume down. The singing portion of our worship service is so loud that you can’t hear anything but the worship leader and a few instruments. It doesn’t seem to matter if anyone else sings. Very frustrating.

    1. David Duncan says:

      Sounds like your folks use the increasingly popular dynamic of “Earsplittenloudenboomer” :-)
      I fear we are seeing history repeating itself. The up-front, skilled musicians are doing more and more and the congregation less and less. Sounds like one of the factors leading to the Protestant Reformation. Luther wanted his congregations to sing with fervor. Again, another reason I am loving the modern songs of the Gettys. Quality theology well paired with widely singable tunes.

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Keith Getty and his wife, Kristyn, have been at the forefront of the modern hymn movement over the past decade, bridging the gap between the traditional and the contemporary.