The Congregation Sings

Rev. Allan C. Groen, M.Div., S.T.M.
Some congregations are known for their wonderful congregational singing. They value singing together as profoundly important for their spiritual life, often as important as a sermon, possibly even more so. People who cannot themselves sing, often appreciate being in the presence of a singing congregation.
When people express frustration with the singing, they are talking about something that matters greatly to them, they should be heard, not dismissed out of hand. Chosing music and leading the singing are tasks with profound pastoral dimensions. Do the songs we sing in church give voice to the hopes and dream, the joys and sorrows of the congregation? Perhaps pastors and musicians could ask the members of their congregation about that from time to time. Or you could ask people to suggest songs they would love to sing from time to time.
People can receive the message by different means. For many, the spoken word through preaching works well. For others, private conversations work better, and for still others, they hear the message most powerfully through choirs and singing.
Those who chose the music will sing during our services do so with good intent, if not always so wisely. Someone decides that this particular song is good to sing during this service. It may be a new song, or an old one. I have made mistakes in the songs I have chosen for worship. My fondness for new hymns sometimes got in the way of the familiar which the congregation would have preferred to sing. And from leading worship for nearly 50 years, I have learned that others make that kind of mistake, too. 
There are, as far as I can see, three different categories of religious music that are helpful to bear in mind.
  • There is Christian music written for the concert hall. Concert halls have not been around for so long, perhaps 200 or so years. There has been a good deal of Christian music written for performances that requires resources most congregations do not have. You can listen to a great deal of that music on youtube. Here are a few 20th century composers you might look for: James McMillan, M. Tippet, Sofia Gubaidulina, Galina Ustvoskaya.
  • There is music that is written for church use, but mostly for choirs to sing. There is a mountain of music that the average church choir can tackle, but it would be tough for the congregation. Some hymn concertatos have a verse set for the congregation to join the choir, but a good deal of it is for the choir/worship team to sing to the congregation.
  • And then there are the psalms and hymns of the church. In English alone, there are legions of them. In addition, there are numerous hymns in other languages, sometimes in musical styles that fit a particular culture, but just would not work in English language churches in North America. Think of Coptic hymnody, or the song of the Greek and Eastern Orthodox churches, or the chant of the Anglican tradition. 
    • Within the category of congregational song, there are two basic categories. Most hymns are in some regular meter, and a small number in the average hymnal will be noted as irregular. The index of hymnals will show us that there are many different meters. Not all hymns in regular meter are easy to sing, but in general, hymns in regular meters are the easiest. Another advantage of regular meter hymns is they can be led by one keyboard player, and in fact they can often be sung without accompaniment.
    • Hymns that have an irregular meter are usually not listed in the index of your hymnal; there wouldn’t be any point, since they all differ from each other. Many of them are easy enough to sing and play, too, but the more irregular they are, the more difficult they are for a congregation to learn. Many hymns in the praise and worship style fall into this category. These work best if you have several musicians providing support, and they really work best if in addition you have a good director or animator of congregational song.
Some congregations have stronger music resources and leadership than others These can obviously tackle more difficult music than others. However, it is far preferable to do easier music well, than to do struggle with more difficult music. 
So here are a few areas where problems arise.
The first mistake is when we ask congregations to sing music that is better sung by a choir than by the congregation. It seems to me that quite a few contemporary songs work OK when a group sings them, but not when the congregation is asked to sing them. Sometimes the last syllable of each line will be very long; sometimes 8 beats, or more. Then there are long rests, where the guitars and keyboard do their thing for several bars. In one song the rests can vary greatly; after one phrase there might be a quaver rest. After the next phrase there might a rest of several bars, with the sing resuming on the off-beat. Since usually the congregation does not have the music, to sing such songs is tough going, and the congregations will sing them hesitantly. Question: is this really a song that can be sung well in our congregation?
Here are a few problem areas, at least so it seems to me. Congregations are sometimes also asked to learn more new songs than they can reasonably be expected to learn. Often we receive only the words, but no music. And we are asked to sing songs that do not have a strong melody lines. Question: are we discouraging congregational singing by asking them to learn too many new songs?
Examine the accompaniment in your congregation. Is the volume loud enough to support the singing? When all is said and done, it is not about the musicians, but about the congregation’s song.  The playing should be loud enough to be heard, but it should not overwhelm.  Question: do you check your sound levels? You could ask some members of the congregation whether they think it is too loud, too soft, just right.
Take a listen to the instruments. If your piano or organ sounds out of tune 30 minutes before the time the worship starts, there is nothing you can do about that. But stringed instruments can easily be tuned in a few minutes. Question: is your instrument as well-tuned as can be reasonably expected?
I offer these few thoughts because congregational singing matters so much to me, and as pastor and as amateur musician, I know what a challenge it can be to participate as accompanist, and how satisfying it is when the music goes really well. And does not our God deserve the best we can bring?
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