In the worship world, there is ongoing discussion as to why congregations don’t seem to participate in the service as well today as in the past. Some say it’s because of the generation gap; others blame a change in musical style. Still others mention style issues, such as keying songs too high, singing “off the wall” (meaning from a screen), or dimming the lights in the congregation (to watch the show on stage).
I suppose all these factors may be true to some degree. However, there is one particular factor I’ve seen encourage congregational singing and worship: repetition.
I remember reading many years ago that the average Southern Baptist church sang less than 50 individual songs in one year. Our last three Baptist hymnals averaged 617 hymns, meaning that even with a vast repertoire of songs available, congregations focused on relatively few. If the average church included four congregational songs in each service—Sunday morning, evening, and Wednesday—for 52 weeks, every song would be sung about 12 times per year, or once a month.
But things started changing in the last quarter of the 20th century. The Jesus movement and Christian media began to influence music in corporate worship. Many new Christian songs were written and instantly delivered by way of the radio. Video and projection technology expanded the song list of the congregation.
In 1988, the launch of Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) permitted churches to print almost any Christian song in their bulletin or on a screen. All of a sudden, instead of choosing from 50 familiar hymns in the hymnal, the music leader now had hundreds of songs from which to choose.
With the advent of the internet, that number is well over 100,000 songs, many of which can be delivered instantly in both text and music. Now, a worship leader can hear a song on Monday, download it on Tuesday, rehearse it with the praise team on Wednesday, and sing it the following Sunday.
With great choice comes great responsibility—for the worship leader, that is. The challenge of introducing new songs every week is that worshipers don’t have an opportunity to really learn and internalize the lyrics. With a smaller repertoire, people in the pews memorized them and sang with gusto because they were familiar with what they were singing.
Am I advocating for going back to 50 songs per year, all sung from the hymnal? Not necessarily. For sure, there is a value in singing songs from the Baptist hymnal, whether from the book itself or on a screen. A committee of theologians and musicians has vetted every song in the hymnal. Each word of each verse has been carefully scrutinized. When a music director chooses a congregational song from the radio, there is no filter for theology or singability. Therefore, the responsibility of accurate doctrine rests solely on the one who chooses music.
Still, there are great new songs that did not make it into the current hymnal. Should we omit using them in worship? No, but take care to do several things with new songs:
1. Consider the theology. If you are not a theologian, before singing the song in worship, have the pastor evaluate it to see if it agrees with Baptist doctrine.
2. Evaluate its intention. Is the song to be sung by the congregation or a soloist? Not every good song is suitable for the average church-goer.
3. Make sure that your accompanists can play it in the appropriate style. If the song does not fit your instrumentation, you might be better served to find an accompaniment track.
4. Assess the key and range. The average singing range of the congregation is between an A below the treble clef and the D on the third line (or an octave below for men). Songs that fall far outside that range will discourage singing. I love those “octave jump” songs that are popular now, but they are challenging for the congregation.
5. Please do not sing a song once and shelf it. Develop a strategic plan to introduce, sing, and repeat a song enough times that the congregation can learn it. After it has become familiar, shelf it, then reintroduce it again in several months.
The adage is generally true: people know what they like and like what they know. Let us find a way to help our congregation learn, sing, repeat, and like great hymns and songs.
Steve Hamrick is IBSA’s director of worship and technology.