Posted by Craig Borlase on 29 September 2015

About a year ago Graham Kendrick posted a video that asked a simple, but perhaps provocative question; Why Aren’t We Singing? If you’ve ever looked out across the congregation and seen blank faces and closed mouths, perhaps it’s time for you to ask why too.

Refusing to lay the blame on the congregation, Graham wondered whether part of the responsibility for a lack of participation in worship should rest with the person who selects the songs. By choosing too many songs that are not well known, that are too hard to sing or that simply don’t sound anywhere near as good in a church of 100 as they do on the YouTube video recorded in front of thousands, we risk setting ourselves - and our congregation - up to fail.

“We have a culture of sourcing worship songs from YouTube, where many of them have been filmed at big events, in front of thousands of people, with great lights and a concert setting. There’s nothing wrong with these songs, and the settings in which they are recorded. But we have to understand about context; we can enjoy watching those videos but we have to learn how to determine whether they will work in our local context with our numbers, our mixed age group and our resources. The truth is that quite a few will work brilliantly in those settings. But a lot will not.”

So how do you work out whether a song that makes our heart beat faster when we see it on our screen will not turn our local church to stone when we unload it on a Sunday morning?

“We need to be looking out for an accessible melody and key that an average bunch of men and women of mixed age groups can grab a hold of. Melodies need to be strong and memorable. Many contemporary songs depend for their emotional release an octave leap, i.e. starting with the chorus pitched low, then returning to it later an octave higher. This can work well when there’s enough volume from confident singers through a good PA system to sweep the others along, but it’s worth thinking hard about them because the reality often is that the vocal range is just too wide for the congregation. Maybe you’re the kind of guy who can get to those Fsharps and Gs, but your congregation won’t necessarily be able to do it. Also, men and women’s vocal ranges differ so unless a good number of us are competent at moving effortlessly into harmony parts many people are going to drop out at that point.”

“Do the dynamics of the song hang on the arrangements and structure? There are a lot of songs where the dynamics are less in the melody and more in the journey of the instrumental arrangement, in the light and shade, the intensity of the music. The chords can be straightforward but if you don’t have a skilled rhythm section that understands how to produce the drama of that journey then it’s going to be hard to pull off.”

“One of the signs of a good congregational song is that it can be stripped down to a very basic accompaniment, say a single acoustic guitar, or even to just unaccompanied voices, and still work really well."

“Our church is very blessed with musicians but a lot of Sundays we don’t have an electric guitarist. So many of these arrangements are hard to replicate without an electric guitar. Some time back we were short of drummers which created another challenge when choosing songs. You can substitute a different instrument if you’re skilled, but if it doesn’t work the arrangement can fall apart.”

“It’s such a skill to be able look at your little church and say ‘what have we got and how can we put it together?’ In many places it’s going to be a hotchpot, not something you would see on YouTube. After all, being forced to make it work with an oboe, an acoustic guitar and a set of bongos is going to get you thinking. And that’s fine. The more our sung worship can be an authentic expression of our unique local worshipping community the better. Maybe not musically better, but better from the point of view of bringing what we have and offering it to God.

“It’s not about putting on a professional show, or sounding like so and so, but asking yourselves what do WE as a church sound like? What do WE have to bring?”

Simple enough questions, but significant enough to make a potentially dramatic change.

And if you liked that one, try this other gem from Graham: “don’t come to church to worship. Come worshipping.”

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