How could we make the most of singing in church?
Twenty practical applications:
Here is an illustrative not exhaustive list of practical steps we could take to help our sung praise be focussed in the right place, engaging the whole person, and awakening the full array of our emotions to God.
1. Choose songs that primarily are about God and secondarily about our response to God. God always acts first. He created the world. He gave Prophets and Apostles to reveal himself through his Word. He sent his Son to die for us. He gave his Spirit to turn our hearts to him. The initiative is always God’s, and this should be reflected in our song choices. We begin and major on God. We end and minor on ourselves and our response, as important as that is.
2. Choose songs based on both content and melody. Many Christian songs have great words but unpleasant or old fashioned melody. Many have wonderful tunes but shallow words. We do not have to settle for one over the other. We can have both, and we should work hard to have both great words and great melody.
3. Saturate our sung praise with other truth-declaring mechanisms – poetry, silence, audio-visual, prayer and especially reading the Bible.
4. Consider using the main teaching passage of the day as the foundation and stimulus of our sung praise – reading it and perhaps using a simple sentence provided by the preacher that summaries it.
5. Choose songs that use clear and ordinary language comprehensible by all people, whatever their experience or knowledge of Christianity.
6. Develop an undistracting proficiency through the meeting so transitions, the use of technology, readings, words-projected, etc are done well enough that they go unnoticed in and of themselves. Having a clear order of service for those participating, and planning and communicating with everyone involved in plenty of time can all help.
7. Choose a variety of genres and styles to awaken different parts of our being, and different types of personality to God. Music has the power to affect us profoundly. Do we draw on the whole range of music styles? Do we use songs that, the tune alone, begin to fill us with fear of God, delight in God, the need to repent before God? Or do we select similar genres repeatedly and therefore fail to awaken this breadth of responses?
8. Re-discover the ‘church calendar’ or/and the ‘seasonal calendar’ and use it to bring forth truths of God that might others be forgotten or neglected. For example: add Ascension, Pentecost, Palm Sunday, All Saints Day to Easter and Christmas.
9. Different tunes and words flow more naturally from women’s mouths and from men’s mouths. Just as we might adjust our songs to engage children so think about songs that resonate for men particularly (as many modern songs in church are more ‘feminine’ in style and words).
10.Do a six month audit of the songs you are singing – do they cover a breadth of truths about God and our response in their words and styles?
11.Worry more about your heart than your voice. The reality of a public act like leading praise is we are prone to pride and feelings of entitlement and power. We need to protect and cultivate a heart that longs to declare God’s greatness above all things.
12. Practically arrange the room and the musicians in such a way that we make much of God and little of ourselves. This may include arranging the congregation to face each other so our eyes our draw to those we are singing to encourage and reach, and away from the musicians who facilitate but are not the focus of our worship. It may include the musicians being positioned on the peripheral not centre stage.
13.Encourage people to avoid becoming self-absorbed (such as by constantly having their eyes closed, or only choosing to sing songs they ‘like’) but to seek to serve God and others through how they choose to sing. Singing is first about God (declaring his greatness), and then about others (encouraging and awakening faith), and never focussed on ourselves, however subtly or subconsciously that might occur.
14. Seek to make the congregation’s voices the main instrument in sung praise so to engage as many as possible which also helps maintain a focus on God and not the individuals with instruments. Avoid it becoming unconsciously a ‘performance’ with most listening but not participating. This is not to say that there is not space for consciously performance songs as we meet. Use creative ways of engaging and encouraging people to join in such as the use of rounds, congregational harmonies, women and men singing alterative pieces, etc. Select songs that non-musicians can sing (many newer songs or older hymns have tunes or melodies that are difficult for the non-musical to be confident in singing). Do be frightened about ‘training’ the congregation to sing new songs, teaching them more difficult parts.
15. Turn the volume down! Play at a sound level that means people can hear and be encouraged by one another singing, not at a level which drowns out the congregation and discourages us from bothering!
16. Realise the responsibility that lies in preparing and leading congregational singing and give it the time, prayer, and thought it requires, and seek further training and development both as a theologian (so you choose good content) and musician (so you play good tunes).
17.Select songs that emphasis similar themes to create an aligned purpose, and allow this theme to be governed by the main teaching passage of the day.
18.Seek songs and adapt songs so they reference not the individual (I, me) but the community (we, us) so to remind ourselves that we gather together not for private devotional but corporate praise and edification. Many songs can easily be adapted to reflect this without losing their melody or meaning.
19.Teach about why we sing from the Bible. We can either make less of singing and musicians as a right corrective to an error (such as placing them in a clearly supportive role) or correct the error by making much more of them! As those who express ‘truth through personality’ (Phillip Brook’s definition of preaching) or who express ‘logic on fire’ (M Llyod-Jones definition of preaching) or who are in essence ‘Word-ministers’ setting preaching to melody and truth to song and response in poetry, awakening avenues of our being closed to preaching in prose but ignited and discovered through truth carried in music.
20. Try writing your own songs.