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Sunday, March 28, 2010

What Makes a Song “Congregational?”

Practical Helps for Worship Leaders

    In any given worship service, some songs “sing” for lack of a better term, while others never seem to get off the ground. Why? There are a host of answers, but one many times overlooked is analyzing the song to see if it is congregational. What makes a song “congregational?”  I’m sure there are more factors than these, but here are some considerations that might help answer the question:

     1. Is the text biblical? The text must be consistent with biblical truth. Today there has been a re-awakening of paraphrased biblical texts and older traditional texts to fresh melodies and “troped”songs like “O the Wonderful Cross”, which adds amplifies Mason’s “When I Survey” and “My Chains Are Gone” which modifies “Amazing Grace.” [Tropes were melodic and textual additions to well-know chant melodies that took on a life of their own during the Middle Ages.] The word of caution here is the need of a “theological filter.” Denominational hymnals are required to go through a committee well prepared to filter theological weaknesses and errors. Some of the songs in the CCM {Contemporary Christian Music} are based on biblical themes, but have not been analyzed for theological content. 
    The music industry itself is partly to blame for this. Record companies contract album deadlines, push tours, and sometimes songs are hastily put together to comply, so if it “sounds ok,” then they go with it. In addition, many albums are designed with a few lead songs that are pushed for air play and the rest are filler. The radio stations depend on market share of listeners, that is, maintaining their nich market of listeners and feeding their wants through the airwaves. Most of the time their emphasis is the “latest and greatest,” not being a theological filter; since that’s how they stay in business.
    With the advancement in home recording systems and the internet, the need for theological filters is even more necessary, since virtually anyone with access to the equipment can put a song on YouTube without any doctrinal accountability. Many of the artists are sincere believers, but have no formal theological training. There are some contemporary artists that are more careful than others. The emphasis here is that before a song in used in a congregational setting, it needs to be checked to see if the theology expressed is consistent with what Scripture teaches. [Another thing to remember is the simple fact that the Bible mentions something, doesn't necessarily mean that it teaches it. The Bible says that Judas hung himself, but that doesn't mean we need to go out an follow his example.]                                                       
    2. Does the text speak to experiences common to believers? The joy of conversion, the greatness and majesty of God are common experiences to those who name Christ as Lord and Savior because they are ones in which the congregation may identify. Songs that tell of a personal experience that are unique to a particular person, or just a small group may serve well as songs of testimony, but may not be the most appropriate for the congregation. We must remember that worship is not entertainment, but the response we give to the greatness of God as He reveals Himself. Congregational song, regardless of style, is that opportunity of the people of God to respond to God in worship and adoration, surrender and praise. It is that expression that reflects the unity of the Body of Christ and is best done through the identity of common experience.
        3. Is the melody of the tune really singable? At first, this may sound somewhat elementary, but in a day when a large portion of worship songs are taken from group or solo recordings, it is a great question to ask. Just because a group records a particular song, does not automatically make it a viable option for the congregation. Some songs were designed to be “listened to,” more than “sung with.” As long as they do not fall into the trap of becoming entertainment rather than worship, they definitely have a place as a testimony of those believers. In evaluating whether the melody of a song is really singable, consider the following:
        A.  Many artists are tenors, and the recordings are done in a range that is comfortable for them, not for the average vocally untrained person in the pew. A quick check is to see how many people are really singing. If a song is too high or too low the majority of the congregation will just not participate.  When in doubt, the leader can make arrangements ahead of time to lower or adjust the key to make it more accessible for the congregation. It may be harder for the leader, but it’s not about the leader, it’s about the majority of the body of Christ being able to express itself corporately.
        B. Sometimes the rhythm and melodic line of the song is so much like recitative, or like spoken text and almost defies everyone singing together.  There again, soloists, or small groups pull it off, but only after hours of practice. In a large group, the textual intelligibility vaporizes as far as understanding the text, and frustration can set in trying to stay together. This type of song is difficult for the congregation, and may not be the best choice if the focus is facilitating congregational participation.
        C. Good melodies are memorable; they have “hooks” that keep pulling the singers back into the song and have some sense of internal repetition that helps the ear in learning the melody. They have a recognizable structure. They have melodies that are sung in the hearts of the congregation during the week when no one else is around. Songs that change structure with each verse or line and unpredictable melodic jumps are much more difficult to learn. [For further study in this area see John Wilson's Looking at Hymn Tunes: The Objective Factors]

        4.  Is the song of lasting character, or is it more of a temporal filler? Songs that are based on cultural fads or are “ear candy” are probably not the best choice as a vehicle for corporate worship. Many times our choices of worship music are driven more by personal taste than service design. Instead of asking, “What is the best and most appropriate song for this service and message from God’s Word?” --we just look for ways of including our favorites. A related point is song association. Some songs become associated with certain movements and take on a life of their own. Many times this has been a great help to congregational worship, but there does exist the danger of using melodies or styles that are so associated with some thing or someone that it is difficult to bypass the association. [For example, for those that remember the television show “Gilligan’s Island,” the melody fits great with the text for “Amazing Grace,” but to use it with those individuals, almost always causes a grin, because in the minds they are thinking about the program as they sing the text.]
        5. Can the congregation follow? When a song is new, the congregation must learn both new text and melody. Obviously the words may be on some screen or printed text, but rarely any more is there any written music. Even when hymnals were in use, the majority of the congregation really couldn’t read the notes. This means that the congregation is dependent on learning the melody from hearing it sung and played. In guitar-driven worship, the learning of the melody is limited to the ability of the singer to lead with the voice, since chordal accompaniments lack melodic support. A great aid in correcting this deficiency is to use the piano, keyboard, or organ, which can help carry the congregation’s melodic line. The less familiar the song, the more important melodic support for the congregation is necessary. Sure it can be done without it, but melodic support makes it more effective.

    Now What? Corporate worship is different than gathering a group of individuals together just to sing. Corporate worship is dependent on a group of believers focusing on the worship and adoration of Almighty God. Something very special happens when that group comes together to express praise as the Body of Christ. Effective corporate worship is not dependent of a set of steps that guarantee success. There are no magic buttons to press that results in the corporate focus on God and His nature and character. Corporate worship means that the Body of Christ is participating. It the congregation is not participating, it is not corporate worship.
    As far as the leader is concerned, personal preparation is indispensable; we cannot take people where we have not been. Corporate preparation is indispensable; congregations don’t just flip a switch and transform into a body of worshipers without conscious action. There are some things we can do to facilitate corporate worship, one thing is to make sure that what we use in worship is “congregational.”  A wise worship leader is aware and continually evaluates each song of each service with these things in mind.



  1. just stumbled across your blog and I love what you have to say about worship. I blog at and have added you to my blogroll

  2. Thanks for the note! I'll check out your blog as well!

  3. Well said. This is truly divinely inspired. Thank so much for writing and sharing this.

  4. I enjoyed the reading. I’m not sure how this goes for the class, but I’p m going to sectionalize my response for the blog.

    1) Is the text biblical? I heard a composer once say that there are two things that inspire him the most with composing… a deadline and a paycheck. I do believe that with that mentality and the pressure of writing what’s “hot” can take away from the time and prayer it takes to make theologically sound songs. When we fail to take the time to completely and theologically learn and see the whole picture of these things, our misguided thoughts can lead to us missing something (e.g. the prodigal son and his disgrace towards a father who loved him deeply). In some cases our thoughts can be disastrously wrong. Scripture is taken way out of context too often. I’ve read blogs and debated with those who try to use scriptures for the acceptance of “gay marriage”. One debate I have had involved the other person taking snippets of notes from our founding fathers that made them out to be atheists. When read in full context, the notes of our founding fathers showed their Christian beliefs.

    2) Common believers? This was very well written. Certainly, all of us coming together as a church and singing “Jesus Take the Wheel” would be rather inappropriate and bizarre. I am curious on another position, though. Where is the line between churches who use guitar, drums, media, etc. for sheer entertainment and those who use it for worship alone? Are we not to some level entertaining the congregation with the addition of these (or even the other side of this situation with organ and/or orchestration)? I am a worship leader, guitarist, pianist, drummer, and fan of contemporary, blended, and tradition services. How do I justify one way or the other? I believe one of the main reasons I am attending seminary is to increase my ministry through equipping myself for the constructing of a truly blended service that is pure worship for the entire church family. With earning the interest and keeping the attendance of all, yet not entertaining, how does this happen? I believe that this is a major issue that I will be challenged with for the next few years, but that I will certainly enjoy.

    3) Singable Melody. This is quite often a problem. As a fan of artist such as Chris Tomlin and Phil Wickham, I thoroughly enjoy singing their music. However, it is fairly high and most guys in worship will either not sing or try to sing down the octave. As far as the rhythm, contemporary songs really can challenge even the greatest of syncopated rhythm masters—much more the untrained congregation. The idea behind this reading of singable melodies reminds me of the Classical Era where melodies were delightfully predictable within a effortless, harmonic and rhythmic structure. When the congregation is free from these worries, they are able to focus on actual worship.

    4) Lasting Character. Well, now I have “Amazing Grace” to the melody of “Gilligan’s Island” in my head. I’ve had this discussion with a mentor of mine in the ministry. This does make an interesting topic. Are there any contemporary songs now that will stand the test of time? What songs will you have at your funeral? The latest hit, a hymn, or something that was a hit 5 years ago?

    5) Congregation following. I think a full band with piano and additional singers is needed for the learning of new songs. I will say, though, that many new songs to me are already known to most kids due to their savvy ability with YouTube and ITunes.

    Now What? This was so well written and a blessing to me. Congregational participation is corporate worship. And, that part is up to the worship leader and his analysis of the music and the congregation. Thanks for these words.

  5. Benjamin:
    In reference to your comments on #2, Search my blog for one entitled, "Worship and Entertainment." I attempted to deal with that issue there.
    In reference to your comments on #4: I really believe that many of the Getty/Townend songs will be around because of the rich theological text which are well set to singable melodies. Isaac Watts' texts aided greatly toward the solution of the hymn/psalm controversy.

  6. The "Worship and Entertainment" article is dated 3/1/10.


  8. Wow. Thanks so much for you comments and your other blog. Real worship and entertantain explained in those words gives me understanding and something that I can explain to others. With the Getty/Townend songs, I only knew "In Christ Alone". I looked up some of their songs on and loved them. Also to my surprise, I looked up Getty in the 2008 hymnal and found several songs that our church has never sung. I do think they are great hymns. Another "new" hymn introduced to me not too long ago was "Before the Through of God Above" by Selah. I do believe this hymn and the Getty hymns possess the characteristics of a congregational hymn that will also stand the test of time. Thanks, again.

  9. My first post was apparently 50 words too long so this is part 1:

    I can actually relate to some of this article. In my days in our youth group, I played in a band with 2 of my friends and so I do have some knowledge about the singability and the "original" music side of things.

    In a congregational setting, I do agree with you: Part of the duty of the church is to lead their congregation in biblical-centered worship. (I hesitate to say that anything that is not 100% biblical is without merit but the question here is for congregational, so I'll stick with that)

    It's interesting to me as I read through this list, how many songs apply to some lists and not others. For instance, there are many praise songs that are written about common experience but may not have a strong biblical root. The one that comes to mind is Breathe ("This is the air I breathe...") I believe it does talk about common experience, referring to our hopelessness to survive without a savior and how he's all that we need...but theologically speaking, I don't really see much in terms of strong biblical roots (There is one reference to "daily bread"). It does sound like something a camp counselor might say. But this one is also extremely singable (it has a medium range, moves very slowly, the text is repeated many times so learning it is not an issue).

    On the flip side of this, there are many hymns that have made their way into church hymnals that are not singable or, musically speaking, not of lasting character. I am thinking primarily about the Presbyterian Hymnal (though I know that the Baptist hymnal has its share): there are many of the mass settings (Gloria, Kyrie, etc.) that have very unnatural melodies and cause congregations to sit back and scratch their heads (I even have trouble with some of them as a trained musician!).

    I definitely think there needs to be a balance between singability and sound theology (as your article implies). We can't forsake theology in the pursuit of good music but at the same time, neither can we forsake music in the pursuit of theology. There needs to be a balance, and I agree with you, I wish more musicians were conscious of their work (I've been studying classical composition for the past 6 years, so I feel like I can say that with more certainty than most!). Our songwriters need more theology and our theologians who write songs need to have more musical backgrounds.

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  11. ...And Part 2

    On the topic of teaching songs. I have been in churches that have an entire praise team (vocals, guitars, bass, piano, etc.), I have been in churches where the organ plays, and I have been in churches where the choir takes on the role of teaching. The only thing that I think needs to be mentioned here is that there is a tendency when a praise band leads a new song that it will erupt into a concert instead of a congregational leading. I have actually had several people make this very same comment to me. Praise bands, from my experience, have a tendency to focus inward on themselves and aren't always aware of whether or not the congregation is with them. Their focus shifts the performance and it becomes a concert. Leading from the organ is great, because the organist is going to plow ahead and is often playing so loud that the congregation is awash with sound and can't help but follow. But again, letting the organist go can tend to be a bit impersonal. The congregation may feel like their just sitting there singing along with a recording if there is no involvement from the leaders. I personally like it when the choir leads. When other people sing (and those other people are often looking out and facing the congregation), it gives a sense of community that these other methods don't really quite accomplish.

    I do agree that the good news about teaching a praise song or popular song to a younger congregation is a much easier task. Although, switch to a hymn, and it's almost as bad as teaching a praise song to an older congregation. I have heard of some enormous success through the use of hymn tunes set to the "praise band" style. The theology of the hymn is still there along with many of the well-written melodies but we now have that "hook" of popular flavor that doesn't make it sound like we're singing "Grandma's favorite song."

    As a footnote:

    I had another praise song come to mind as I was reading this, so I'll include this as a kind of footnote: "I could sing of your love forever" The chorus is very singable (low range, no crazy rhythms). The verses on the other hand are almost entirely syncopated (I think every note falls on an upbeat). I think it's really funny listening to a congregation trying to stay together in this part.

  12. Chris:

    Good comments and observations. Balance is a key in most every part of our walk with Christ. I believe that our worship leaders need to be aware of these issues to begin to be sensitive enough to adjust.