No, I’m not talking about making your church sound like a trained chorus, though that is a blessing wherever it’s found! I’m talking about getting them singing—getting 100% participation, and getting each singer to give a little (or a lot) more.
Before we get there, it’s important to talk about why we would even need to do that to begin with. Some of you may be asking why that is a need and not a want. I don’t think anybody would wonder why we would want to improve singing, because we all enjoy good singing. But do we need good singing? In a word, “unquestionably”.
God doesn’t need good singing. Paul taught in Acts 17.24-25 that God doesn’t need our worship at all. He wants it. It is the sacrifice of the Christian (Hebrews 13.15), and we learned a thing or two about God’s expectation for sacrifice through the early Genesis narrative of Cain and Abel, the Israelite narrative throughout the Old Testament, and note specifically Malachi 1 to see what God thinks about careless and half-hearted worship. The God who loves us, who became one of us, who bore our sin and died for us….he wants and deserves our thoughtful best.
Our congregational worship doesn’t only work vertically, from worshiper to Creator, but also horizontally, from heart to heart. Spirited singing to one another teaches, exhorts, and stirs the brethren up to go out in the world and represent Jesus through charity and love (Hebrews 10.24-25, Colossians 3.16). This means that our singing has to be convincing enough to help the brethren actually change. It’s not optional. It means that singing needs to be the best it can be, and it doesn’t happen by accident, but through intentionality and a desire to offer God and the brethren something beautiful and heartfelt.
With that in mind, here are 5 easy ways to dramatically improve worship. In my travels across the US, many churches are doing some of these things, but a shocking amount of them were doing none of the above. None of these things take much skill or training, but rather, a little forethought. They will make a BIG difference in the singing!
- Use a pitching device to get the song in a comfortable range
- Very few things kill beautiful singing like the wrong key, especially too low a key (and we usually err flat, not sharp)
- Our goal is for the brethren to feel compelled to join in and sing, and uncomfortable pitch is a discouragement and a distraction
- Pitch pipes are cheap. Use a C to C, and you can find them on Amazon, at Guitar Center (and just about any band supply), and there are even free cell phone apps! Song leaders have no excuse not to use a pitch pipe or pitch device! (With the exception of Christians in 3rd world countries)
- I personally prefer the Farley’s Pocket Tones as it has a power switch and a volume adjustment, so you can make pitching very subtle
- By the way, congregational song can often get a little muddy. If the sopranos and/or tenors are not already hitting E anywhere in the piece, consider pitching the song a half step or even a step high. This makes the singers work just a little harder, which GREATLY reduces flatting and brightens the sound.
- If a song is in Eb, pitch it in E natural!
- It is amazing how well this works. I raise the pitch on numerous songs. Unless you’re leading at a nursing home or congregation of all older voices, never EVER lower a song pitch. Not ever
- Sing familiar, accessible songs at the right time
- Don’t begin and end on unfamiliar songs. Just the opposite!
- Accessible songs are usually lighter in content, informal, light-hearted, and easily enjoyed by everybody
- I prefer opening and closing hymns to be very accessible
- On a midweek assembly, keep the material lighter and more accessible. People’s minds are on work, school, etc. They will not plug in on Wednesday quite like they will on Sunday, so keep that in mind with song selection
- On a Wednesday, long, wordy 2-page hymns should be kept to a minimum. Opt for only a couple of verses and maybe squeezing in a short and sweet piece, perhaps even as a medley
- Sundays afford more time to go deeper with worship, so heavier, thicker (theologically) material works better on these days, but “bookend” these sets with lighter material
- Note what songs get your church really singing and use at least 1-2 of those songs every Sunday
- If you haven’t already paid attention to this, do so now. It’s a really neat and remarkable thing to observe a congregation really get into a song
- These are the kinds of songs that start at a low energy and have a powerful climax, or are high energy all the way through
- See which songs double in volume, about halfway through, without any verbal instructions or music notation asking them to do it. This marks an emotional peak, and these peaks mean the congregation is engaged.
- See which songs get the kids participating. Their voices are important too! We often talk about them being the future of the Church, but they’re also a critical part of the Church today, and we want to hear their voices
- Here are a few go-to titles we sing at the Downtown church of Christ in Granbury:
- In Christ Alone
- Speak, O Lord
- O Church, Arise
- Jesus, Draw Me Ever Nearer
- Before the Throne of God Above
- Teach Me, Lord, to Wait
- It Is Well
- Our God, He Is Alive
- Here We Are but Straying Pilgrims
- Jesus Paid It All
- I Surrender All
- God Is Love
- I Am Coming, Lord
- The Lord’s My Shepherd (ORLINGTON)
- Nothing But the Blood
- The Battle Belongs to the Lord
- Holy to the Lord
- I Will Wake the Dawn with Praises
- Lift Your Voice in Praise
- Dare to Stand Like Joshua
- Magnify, O Magnify
- Lord, I Lay My Life at Your Feet
- Soldiers of Christ, Arise
- The Solid Rock
- Just As I Am
- Whatever list you make up, just don’t wear them out. Try not to sing a song more than once every 6-8 weeks, if you can help it. Some churches have a broader repertoire than others, so tailor this to your group
- While you can plan a song set chock full of killer classic hymns, you can quickly use them up and run out of good material. Remember that planning worship also involves didactic song selections, which means sometimes compromising a little bit on song quality in favor of an important message you want to bring to the brethren
- Consider the mood when planning a song set
- Every song has a mood, and they are all different.
- Lead upbeat songs more often than slower, meditative songs.
- Part of getting them singing means getting them thinking about the words. The words to “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” practically demand a soft volume and a slower pace. The last verse is great for a louder, faster contrast (cut time). It is a natural response to the first 3 verses. By the way, this works wherever I’ve led it like this, and I’ve never given verbal instructions to do that. It just works….
- If you rated the energy level of all your songs on a scale of 1-10, 1 being low energy or meditative, and 10 being high energy, then drew a graph, what shape would you create? The shape of that chart is a solid representation of the worship experience.
- Varying up the mood is important, but try to transition from one song to the next smoothly, without a major contrast in tempo and dynamic, or else you’ll end up with what Bob Kauflin calls “The iPod Shuffle Effect”.
- Communion themed songs are naturally more meditative than traditional “invitation” hymns. Not all Communion songs are dark narratives of the Cross, and not all good invitation hymns are upbeat, resolute songs from the gospel era.
- Consider whether the mood of the songs will put people in the right frame of mind to participate in every aspect of worship.
- Get the church to stand
- Everybody breathes better when they stand. Good breathing is important for good singing. It makes it far more effortless, and we want singers to focus on the message, not on the difficulty of singing.
- Many churches have the tradition of standing before the sermon, which is effective (I wouldn’t make this the climax of the service though)
- I prefer for the high point on a Sunday to be the closer, which we do after the closing prayer. This touch, coupled with standing, leaves people on a super high note
- By the way, did you know it’s possible to ask the church to stand without saying “If you find it convenient….”? In fact, a simple smile, nod, and upward motion with both hands usually does the trick
If you haven’t tried one or more of these techniques, or haven’t used them consistently, I encourage you to give them a chance. You might be surprised how well they work! I pray your congregation is blessed by these tools and bid you Godspeed in your journey to facilitating God-pleasing and life-changing worship!
4 thoughts on “5 Steps to Better Singing”
Outstanding thoughts. I’m really liking what you’re writing. This page is going to be a super, comprehensive resource the more you add to it.
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Thanks, brother! I’ve been meditating on this stuff for a few years so it needed an outlet. 🙂
Thanks for such a timely article. Reading was enlightening and should be shared in our church bulletin. Thank you.
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All good thoughts. I would only add (and this is aimed mostly at the leaders) that there is a risk of placing the emphasis of the gathering on the wrong thing. The only place I’ve seen in Scripture where an emphasis was placed on the quality of the singing was really aimed at the skill of those who were assigned to lead it. “The Singers.” We all know 4-part harmony is a fairly recent development of no biblical relevance. While I love loud, polished a cappella singing, as a worship leader, I was always afraid it might become an idol–or a standard by which to judge others. It’s the same standard that is now avoided by the many churches that have stopped wearing suits and ties to church and who no longer worry so much about appearances. It presents an inward focus and a hindrance to welcoming unchurched visitors that don’t feel like they can live up to such a standard. A barrier that we need to protect against as leaders. I used to hold those Sunday afternoon singings that would give the church a chance to “polish up.” But people stopped coming because it really just isn’t that important. Nice tradition, but not important enough to take even more time away from family and other responsibilities. If people want to gather to sing for the sake of singing, I’m all for it. That’s pretty much what the tradition of Sacred Harp singing has evolved into. Nothing wrong with it in the least. Again, I love good a cappella singing of any genre, and have led what I would consider to be a “singing church.” Far be it from me to judge the heart or the motivation of anyone standing in the pews singing. But we need to be careful what we broadcast as important in worship. Just another side of the coin. God bless.
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