Home Worship Planning Music Resources Fifty Ways to Guarantee Poor Congregational Singing

Fifty Ways to Guarantee Poor Congregational Singing

I spend a lot of time thinking, reading, writing about, observing and leading congregational singing. In a recent conversation a district superintendent said to me, "Singing and worship in many UMC congregations today are dead and sterile and we don't know how to fix it." We went on in that conversation to explore his assertion further and began to come up with things churches do and don't do that result in poor singing. See if you recognize any of them.

  1. Sing the same repertoire of songs (50 or so) year after year.
  2. Don't ever learn new songs.
  3. Don't ever sing traditional, historical, liturgical, or Wesleyan hymns.
  4. Don't sing contemporary or pop-sounding hymns and songs.
  5. Don't sing gospel or revival songs.
  6. Don't sing anything unknown or challenging to the congregation.
  7. Don't sing any songs in a different language or from a different cultural group than your own.
  8. Avoid texts that are theological, contain dense language, or difficult images, symbols, and metaphors.
  9. Never sing praise choruses or songs that repeatedly use the same words or phrases.
  10. Sing everything at approximately the same tempo and volume.
  11. Sing too fast, too slow, too loud, too soft.
  12. Never attempt to match volume or tempo according to text; and always sing all the stanzas of a hymn in the same manner, despite text changes.
  13. Always accompany the hymns on the same instrument: organ, piano, guitar, or band.
  14. Never let the congregation sing a capella.
  15. Never alter the accompaniment harmony or modulate between stanzas.
  16. Alter the accompaniment harmony or modulate too often.
  17. Have the accompanist always play too loudly or too softly.
  18. Allow accompanist(s) and song leader to disagree on tempo and volume while the people are singing.
  19. The song leader should always look into the hymnal and never look at or visually engage the people.
  20. The song leader should make motions and gestures that are meaningless and don't help the people's singing at all.
  21. Place a song leader in front of the people who is not allowed or able to lead because the organist controls tempo and volume.
  22. Select hymns only because of the words, never being concerned with the difficulty or unfamiliarity of the music.
  23. Select hymns only because of the music, never paying attention to the words and how they might support the Scripture, sermon, or calendar.
  24. Have congregational singing led by a praise team that sings difficult music and that works hard in rehearsals to be able to sing it well.
  25. Have the song leader(s) amplified so that they drown out the congregational voices.
  26. Have choir or praise team always sing in parts and never in unison so that they never reinforce the congregation's melody line.
  27. Sing from song sheets or screens that have words only.
  28. Select choir music that is frequently based on familiar congregational hymns, thus taking the opportunity to sing that hymn from the people and giving it to the choir.
  29. Never encourage the congregation in their singing. Never suggest they sing louder, slower, more expressively, or pay more attention to the words. Never affirm their singing.
  30. The pastor should never comment on the text of a hymn in a sermon or use it in a prayer.
  31. Encourage the people to scatter throughout the sanctuary, leaving lots of empty space between occupied pews, especially at the front.
  32. Limit hymn selections to those the pianist or organist can play or to those in guitar-friendly keys.
  33. Do select hymns that will showcase the talents of your accompanists.
  34. Never sing a hymn or song if it is by Bill Gaither, Johann Sebastian Bach, Fanny Crosby, Charles Wesley, or other specific names.
  35. Place cushions on all the pews, carpet throughout the sanctuary, lots of banners and hangings on the walls, and acoustical tile on the ceiling. Cover up as much of the bare walls and hard surfaces as possible.
  36. Make frequent use of dancers during the hymns to distract the congregation from singing.
  37. Install a sound system and have the operator monitor through headphones while seated in a sealed, closed room separate from the sanctuary.
  38. Sing all songs in the same style, regardless of the musical style, country, ethnicity, or generation of origin; and ignore how the writers may have intended for the songs to be sung.
  39. Always sing first, second, and last stanzas, regardless of the number and content of other stanzas.
  40. Never sing children's songs or songs that the children might know.
  41. Sing ONLY from the denominational hymnal.
  42. NEVER sing from the denominational hymnal.
  43. Never take time in worship to explain or point out something in the text of a hymn that may benefit the people.
  44. Never correct musical mistakes the people make in their singing.
  45. Never point out peculiar or difficult musical leaps or rhythms in the melody.
  46. Don't teach the children and youth in your church the songs and hymns you use in worship.
  47. Don't include hymns in your children's and youth choirs.
  48. Don't have your people sing hymns at potluck suppers, meetings, church picnics, or other gatherings.
  49. Allow bad congregational singing to go on week after week, year after year, without ever doing anything to improve it.
  50. Don't connect the congregational hymns to the liturgy of the day, the liturgical year, the lectionary, the Sunday school lesson, the sermon, current events in the nation and community, or your people's lives outside the church.

There they are -- fifty ways to kill off vital congregational singing. I would imagine that nearly every United Methodist church will be able to identify with one or more. If so, consider a change. Think about doing just the opposite or perhaps simply eliminating that technique.