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Helping Your Congregation Sing

There is a lot of talk these days about why congregations have stopped singing. I agree that this has become a problem in many churches, and I do believe that we as worship leaders are partially to blame.

Some of the top reasons listed are: 

1. Songs are difficult to sing because of the melody or rhythm being difficult or unpredictable. 

2. Songs are pitched too high. More on this later. 

3. “Performance mentality” that is given off by the singers on the “stage”. Worship is for the professionals, so don’t try this at home (or church). The lights on the stage, the audience left in the dark, and the professional “polish” can be off-putting to many. 

4. Too many new songs. While we are commanded to sing a new song to the Lord, too many new songs will only frustrate your congregation. 

5. Too many songs in your congregational repertoire. Having too many songs where many of your songs are only partially familiar can be a problem.

The good news: all of these are fixable problems!  

We can pick songs that are singable.  We can find well-crafted melodies that are accessible to our congregations.  We can avoid songs with awkward rhythms and poor syllable placement. 

We can pitch songs in keys that are congregational keys.  Normally, artists record songs that sound great in their voice range, that is usually a third too high.  There is also a trend where we have “guy songs” and “girl songs” normally based on who recorded the song.  I believe this is a dangerous trend and here is why.

If we sing “guys songs” they are often pitched too high for your average congregation. Women (and many men) will often sing down an octave when it gets too high, but then sometimes the melody will be too low and they will have to jump up an octave. If we sing “girl songs” this is often too low for some, or the tenors will try to sing actual pitch which can be too high.  The reason these are girl keys are often because contemporary female singers often love to sing in their chest voices only.

The solution is to examine the melody and try to live from C to shining C (for ladies middle C to an octave above that, for the guys an octave lower).  Most singers can sing a third on either side of those pitches, but that is about it for your average singer. Good worship leaders will make sure that their melodies fall in this range.  If we are singing a “girl song”, do we only want the girls to sing?  I think not.

To avoid the trap of performance-driven worship that discourages congregational participation, worship leaders can make sure that they communicate to the expectation that they want everyone to participate. A newer trend is to not have the congregation well-lit–thus taking emphasis off the stage, and allowing the congregation to see each other worship. Being less “slick” and more authentic in the platform can also help connect you to your congregants.

Being careful about the introduction of, teaching of, and amount of new songs is very important.  Jon Nicol of has a great book on Amazon called “The SongCycle: How to Simplify Worship Planning and Re-engage Your Church”.  Jon gives a great system for managing song lists.

My next post will be about one thing that we can’t fix about our congregation’s worship.

19 comments to Helping Your Congregation Sing

  • Jason Carnegis

    I definitely agree that this is a problem that I have tried to deal with and that I have seen while participating in worship. I really think that if we change our attitude while worshiping from “this is a performance” to “this is a communal act of worship” then our congregations will be encouraged to participate in worship more. If our attitude changes as worship leaders, then we shouldn’t be picking songs based on how well they fit our range or if we can sing the awesome high note at the end. If our attitude is more along the lines of including our congregation, then our ‘worship sets’ should not be viewed as a concert, but rather as the church as a whole worshiping God together in community through music, prayer, and Scripture. I think that introducing new music is a good and healthy thing for a church, but that we should try to include new music with the music they are familiar with. Worship leaders should not have the mindset that the songs they sing are reflective of their tastes, but should be the songs that their church as a whole can identify with. I think that staying in the range of C to C is very smart because then the most people will not have the key of the song be something that is keeping them from singing. Our job as the worship leader is to lead others to the throne of God in worship and we should get rid of anything in our music or appearance onstage that could get in the way of our congregation having genuine worship.

  • Christopher Gauthier

    In regards to worship as a performance, I think certain churches may feel the need to put on more of a performance because there are the big churches who have such a high quality of music that in order for a smaller church to keep up, it needs to be more modern, which in turn calls for more of a performance aspect. In addition, another factor that I believe might contribute to this is the idea of dimming main lights and instituting “mood lighting” with different colors or spotlights. I have never been a large proponent for these kinds of lights in the first place, first because I think they can be distracting, but then also because it enforces all around the idea that this is a concert or performance. I think in our times of worship we should attempt to emulate as closely as possible the kind of worship that will be happening in Heaven, and I envision that as being clearly and brightly lit, because Jesus will be the center of our worship and He will be the source of light. I believe that if we strive to eliminate the performance environment, it will at least contribute to reducing the pressure on worship leaders to perform for their congregations.

  • Bree Trapp

    Congregational keys is something that I think is crucial when picking songs. I think it helps encourage singing. Having a “girl key” and a “guy key” can give a more performance aspect to the songs, and are definitely harder for people to sing who are not usually as musical as the band. Making the notes easier to reach, while still maintaining a dynamics in a song is a very doable thing. I think raising the lights over the congregational, even just a little, helps. I’d agree that a pitch dark room except for the stage most definitely feels like a concert. Being able to see those around you is so encouraging. I think it’s also healthy for believers to see other believers worshipping. New songs are great and really refreshing, but I agree that too many can be overwhelming and discouraging to a congregation. Familiar things are comfortable, but as worship leaders, we can have a responsibility to teach our congregation about worship. I think having congregational keys, a helpful environment, and teaching biblical truths about worship can all help make a way for a very involved congregation.

  • Brittney Mitchell

    In regards to the performance aspect of worship, I know this is where I have struggled the most. Not so much on the glorifying of myself but the lack of glorifying God even when mistakes are made or something goes wrong. This is so true to our human nature and the number one reason why I feel it is dangerous making worship more and more like a concert. By all means we should use our resources to help create an atmosphere that prompts people for worship. However, as worship leaders, we must be aware that there can be negative connotations to such devices. We must be careful not to idolize our image, whether in the stage design or in our instruments and remember where the praise truly must go. This way if mistakes do arise or problems occur they are not a distraction in our heart from giving glory to the father!

  • Great article, Roger! All too often the music in churches is performance oriented, as opposed to leading people into the presence of God. John 4:22 says we must worship God in Spirit and in truth. Spiritual worship is rare and must be accomplished in God’s way. We are triune beings: body, soul, and spirit. I believe this triune nature corresponds with the Old Testament tabernacle–outer court, our bodies; Holy Place, our soul; and Holy of Holies, our spirit. To attain spiritual worship we must enter in through the the outer court of our bodies, then through our soul (intellect, emotions, etc.) before we can commune with God in the Holy of Holies (Ex. 25:22). This subject is treated in more detail in a blog post I made. Some worship leaders are unaware of the pathway to take to lead their congregations into God’s presence and just plan a list of popular songs that they and their churches like. But the worship service must be planned with the goal of spiritual worship specifically in mind. Love in Him.

  • Brandon Hatch

    Excellent article and great discussion posts friends. I would like to add to the discussion that while congregational keys are a very important and often neglected aspect of our song selection is selecting congregational lyrics. As an artist and songwriter, this is something I have wrestled with. I connect to both God and the world around me often through metaphors and figurative language. However, our congregations are not all filled with 100% artistically-minded people (we can all breathe a sigh of gratitude at this). We need to not only choose songs that artists can connect with, but also the “construction workers” and “accountants” can understand lyrically. We are called to worship “in spirit and truth” and if we do not understand the lyrics we are singing, how can we as a congregation know we are singing truth. Also realizing the difference in collective pronouns “we” “us” from “I” and “me” is helpful to not err too far on the side of personal worship in a congregational setting.

  • Mitchell McIntyre

    All these posts have been very insightful to me! Many times we can have the tenancy to introduce too many new songs. New songs are not bad at all. As said in Psalm 96 “Sing to the Lord a new song” we are supposed to be creative and worship creatively. When the congregation knows only 1 of the 4 songs you have planned you probably should cut back on new songs. As a worship team we can feel tired of playing some songs(My home Church worship band has re-named 10,000 reasons 10,000 Sundays because of the frequency with which we play it) and many times we assume that the congregation feels the same. But sometimes the songs you may consider tired and old are some of the best songs of worship. I believe finding a “congregational key” is important,because we want people to be focused on the On True King during our worship not desperately tiring to be able to produce the right sound and feeling out of place because they cant sing along. As for the performance aspect of worship, it is a delicate balance as is much within the worship realm. We should never let appearance take the place of what worship truly is. I would encourage all of you, if you have not already, to read John Pipers prayer for professionalism in “Brothers, We Are Not Professionals”.

  • Sarah Ingram

    There have been so many great insights already! I am most unsure concerning the lighting over the congregation. I very much agree with Chris and that worship in heaven will inevitably be bright and well-lit. It could also seem to focus more attention on the worship team when the rest of the room is darkened. However, visiting churches with dimmer lighting during worship has encouraged me to focus on what and Who I am singing about, rather than on those around me or what they think of how I worship. I can see the lighting going either way, with neither being right or wrong.

  • Stuart Leach

    I can definitely relate to the congregation not singing. Many churches use the actual artist recording with lyric videos, but often those are just too high for the regular singer and can become awkward. The introduction of new songs is a delicate balance. When the audience is mumbling because they do not know the melody and words that’s a distraction to worship which is not part of our mission as worship leaders. I honestly do not like the raising of lights on the congregation. I can understand the sentiment that lowering the lights everywhere except the stage can give a “slick performance” atmosphere and that’s what what we want, but raising the lights also raises moods. I’ve found that when the lights are raised, I’m more likely to get distracted with that person over there raising their hands, or that little kid in the front fidgeting, etc. When the lights are lowered, it can add to the idea of losing yourself in the greatness of God’s presence and the focus is pulled away from yourself and those around you to a focal point up front where the worship leader can lead you to your worship place. Worship should have the least to do with self as possible, and I don’t find that raised lights help with that atmosphere.

    The “performance” mentality can be fixed simply be examining the heart. If the band leader asks you to drop out for this upcoming song, what is your reaction? If your reaction is disappointment that you can’t play that cool riff you were working on, maybe your focus is in the wrong place. When we stop playing, we should still be worship God in our conduct and not just waiting for our next “big entrance”. God wants our best, both during and after our playing!

  • Jules Schieferstein

    Songs being pitched to high is definitely something I can relate to. Often times I want to sing a song a bit higher, in a more comfortable place for my range, rather than what will be the best for the congregation (C to shining C). Even something small like that can be a good reminder though; that I am not up there for myself.
    Also I agree with Sarah on the lighting issue. I believe that the use of lighting can be a bit more situational. While yes, lighting can communicate that the people on stage are the professionals and that the congregation should just let them sing, I also I believe dark lighting in the congregation can be used to great effect as. Last night, during the Encounter, most of the room was dark, with just the stage being basked in light. This sort of lighting, I felt, actually helped me focus better. I knew where to look (both literally and figuratively). It provided at atmosphere of simply focusing God, and discouraged looking anywhere else; it was attention grabbing, and it allowed my attention to be focused on Christ.

  • Kevin Maillefer

    I agree that our actions and the sing-ability of songs plays a major factor in whether or not a congregation sings. However, I am not sure about the lighting argument. Like Sarah, I find it easier to worship when the lights are dimmed. The dimmed lights helps to focus my attention and, as someone who is easily distracted, that can be a valuable tool. As for the “c to shining c” I think that a more accurate approach would be to do a turn and greet at the end of the worship service. If there is a lot of talking then you hit the sweet spot, but if it is generally quite, you may have given the congregation Laryngitis! Seriously though, in my opinion, I would say that c to c as a general rule of thumb may already pushing it. Perhaps it would be better to stay as close to middle c as possible than than going to the limit f the average human range.

  • Hayden W Bradley

    All of these comments are very well thought out and also very insightful. I do agree that the key is a huge “key” (hahahah see what I did there) in helping your congregation to sing, but this is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the performance mentality that has struck the church. People are now entering churches and are expecting to be dazzled with bright lights, good music and an even better performance and this is a problem. I do think that worship is a performance in a sense, but where is the line drawn between performing and worshiping? I think this is the question that should be answered.

  • Josiah Kenniv

    I think that one of the most important parts of helping our congregations sing again is definitely to back off of the performance aspect of worship. This doesn’t mean to sacrifice quality, but being more authentic and down to earth on stage will help the congregation to connect and hopefully encourage them to sing. Also, being smart about what song choices you make is definitely key. While there are a lot of beautiful Christian songs, not all are meant to be sung congregationally.

  • Kelsey Gentille

    I completely agree with this post and I love that this subject was brought up! I totally side with all of the issues that were brought up, I know that many times after I have led or after I have come off of stage on a Sunday morning that I hear comments about how the music was “lame” today or how people really loved how much more upbeat it was this week than the last. A big problem too I believe is just the world we are living in today and how everyone has their own taste and wants things to happen their way, they do not like adjusting. I think that one thing worship leaders and bands in churches wrestle with is trying to please the congregation rather than focusing in on pleasing God. This post is very insightful and relatable to those involved in the worship ministry, even churches overall!

  • Seth Brummer

    Looking at this list, I totally agree–particularly when it comes to new vs. familiar songs. While I do enjoy learning a new song or two every once in a while, learning a brand-new song every single week is a “worship barrier” I’ve personally experienced.
    The same goes for pitching things too high, which I agree is another very common worship barrier. Even when I would be trying to lead songs, there were some that I just couldn’t do because the range was too wide. ‘Come To Me’ by Jenn Johnson comes to mind, along with ‘Great I Am’ by Jared Anderson. We can’t expect to engage the congregation in music worship if they aren’t able to actually sing.
    Very insightful, but I want more! 🙂

  • Alex Holcomb

    I love what you said about picking songs that fit the range of the entire (or at least most of) the congregation. Even though I am very conscious of what I use in congregational worship music, I have found that I tend towards more tenor, guy-friendly keys because that’s my personal sweet spot. My congregation will try to sing along – they are very concerned and interested in seeking to worship God – but I wonder why some of them struggle. I have realized that it helps so much to have someone (or multiple people) of the opposite gender sing the song and make sure that it fits their range well. If not, I either need to compromise on the key of the song or I need to pick a new song.

  • Macie Turner

    I totally agree with this post. All of the problems are huge but so easy to solve! One of the biggest things that hinders my worship is not knowing the songs. I’ve been visiting a lot of new churches lately, and I have noticed that churches like to use obscure songs that people outside the normal congregation don’t know. This causes me to become distracted, focusing on trying to figure out the melody or the harmony part instead of focusing on the words. Now, I’m not saying that churches should never sing new songs, they should just limit the new songs to one or two a month, rather than smothering people with new music.

  • I would offer this thoughts if I may… yes, I agree with what I am reading however, what about the atmosphere of the space in which we are worshipping? For instance, this past semester I was a research assistant for a book speaking directly on this issue and we offered these points.

    One: Congregations are more apt. to sing if they can see others worshipping. What do we do with lighting?

    Two: The volume of what is being projected. People will not sing if they can not hear themselves and those around them singing.

    Three: From a worship leader perspective should we be wearing in-ears all the time? Or should we not be leading and hearing the people that we are leading? Not saying that I am against these just something to think about.

    Just some things to continually be thinking about as we lead the people of God.

  • Roger

    Eric-I would say that there are different schools of thought on all three questions.

    1. Some say we lower lighting so we are more free to worship. Others would say we raise lighting so that we see the community of worshipers. The recent trend is that we raise lighting, but historically we have dimmed lighting to set a mood or create an atmosphere.

    2. I understand your volume question and there is balance here too. Some would say I want to be able to hear myself sing. Others would say that they like it loud so that they can vocally take a risk and sing out without worry of being heard. I think we can find a compromise of a volume level where it “feels” good, but allow the congregation to hear themselves. This can also be done by having the band play with various combinations of instruments and at different dynamic levels.

    3. If you are using in-ears well, you will have congregation mics in your in-ears so that you can hear them sing. If not, you should add mics to get the ambient noise of the room in your earbuds.

    Great questions.