mgyQ4k4This week’s question comes from a small church pastor. Can those of us who have enjoyed serving small congregations relate to this challenge?

Dear Matriarchs,

I am a few months into a new call to another small congregation. They are delightful and I am happy to say that we are getting off to a great start!

One thing I miss from my previous small congregation is enthusiastic congregational singing in worship services. Even on Easter, with the congregation size doubled to about 100, I could barely hear anyone singing the joyous Easter hymns along with the piano. The room was full, so it’s not like the sound was getting lost in a cavernous space.

We have no choir, of course, and the pianist has no interest in worship leadership. I am not a musician, so I am not the likely one to encourage more robust singing. This seems like an opportunity, but I have no idea what to do. Any ideas?

Yes, our Matriarchs do have ideas. Read on!

Jennifer Burns Lewis
It’s hard to answer this question without knowing more about the congregation members and what their familiar hymns are, whether the accompaniment is loud enough and strong enough to follow confidently, etc.

It sounds like you might be missing vocal leadership. One suggestion might be to lean into your newness, invite them to adopt something new (a sung response, perhaps?) that could serve as an opportunity to share the hope that you will learn it together and offer it each week as a robust, joyful, confident, musical expression of their faith.

Sharon Temple
What a great approach, Jennifer, for a newly-called pastor to “lean into your newness.” I can imagine that a congregation could buy into a new tradition with renewed enthusiasm. And perhaps a non-musical pastor – ahem — might not know that a louder accompaniment would support louder singing.

Jennifer Burns Lewis
What about a pick-up choir for the summer that offers support for congregational singing? A survey monkey to see who’s hiding their musical gifts under a bushel might be in order, with a simple, no-fuss opportunity for folks who enjoy singing to sit together and serve as musical strength in the congregation.

Anne Andert
On occasion I have had the congregation stand and face one another across the aisle to sing a favorite hymn a cappella. I have the organist start us and fade out. People have to sing out or the music is lost. It has worked beautifully for me. I also introduce it with the idea, “Don’t jump immediately to whether or not you LIKE this, but consider what you learn from this.”

Kelley Wehmeyer Shinn
Maybe an all-church hymn sing in a different setting would help to get their singing juices going. Or a hymn study on the background and meaning of hymns, followed by a “listen and learn” hymn sing led by the pianist and you.’’

Thank you, Matriarchs! Wise and wonderful, as always.

What would you add to these great ideas? Offer your robust congregational singing strategies in the comments below.

Are you a small church pastor facing a big challenge? Or are you a large church pastor dealing with a small but persistent unresolved issues? Ask our Matriarchs and get some support. Send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com and let us help.


Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.


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12 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: Toward More Robust Congregational Singing

  1. I always remember a wonderful priest telling the congregation, “You need to join us in singing! Don’t just stand there! Maybe you don’t think you can sing, but you can! And even if you aren’t going to sing, open the hymnal to the page and follow the words. It’s part of participating in worship.” I swear more people were at least trying after that… (signed, a loud singer!)

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  2. I love Anne’s suggestion.
    In one church I served, we hired a new, young choir director who was finishing a degree in Voice and Choral Conducting. Soon after he started, a member of the congregation came to me and asked if we could have the choir director face the congregation and sing during hymns, literally becoming a vocal leader, instead of standing and facing away from them. My initial reaction was, well, reactive! I had never served or worshiped in a church with someone singing toward the congregation to specifically lead their singing, and I worried that it would bug people and end up being a problem for me. Yet it was not a congregation that sang out, and so I agreed to give it a try if the choir director was willing. We employed this method, and it was a game-changer. I realize that doesn’t meet the need of the questioner, but it might be a suggestion that helps another congregation.

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  3. The acoustics in your small church may prevent people from hearing each other and cause them to feel exposed and, thus, more self-conscious. Sitting closer together might help. Plus the ideas of facing each other across the aisle, at least while they learn something new. Your pianist is key here. Not just in playing louder but in the introduction and the beginnings and ends of verses. Accompanying congregational singing is an art, but it can be learned.

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  4. Congregational singing can be affected by the smallest thing. My congregation is quite small too. Usually around the 45/50 mark. When we have piano accompaniment they sing quieter because the music is quieter, when it’s the organ belting the music out the voices raise too!
    Are the hymns outside their repertoire? The best tool I received when I arrived in this charge was a list of hymns and when they’d last been sung complied by the organist for me. Immediately I was able to see what hymn were repeated, which had been sung once never to be tried again.
    After a couple of years I invited people to put slips of paper in the offering with their favourites, so about once a year we have a favourite hymns Sunday. Often this will introduce something new and then when we sing it we remember whose it was.
    Blessings as you go with these!

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  5. I grew up Southern Baptist and have fond memories of great congregational singing. Even after over twenty-five years in the UCC, I still miss it. I think one of the biggest, and perhaps easiest, changes to make is to have a song leader–someone to signal for everyone to stand together and then direct them hymn as though the congregation were the service choir, if you will.

    Peace,
    Milton

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    1. I had many of the same thoughts as Milton. When our choir doesn’t sing, I really miss the song leader from my Baptist youth–not the didactic parts (“please stand and turn to hymn number 372. We’ll be singing the 1st, 2nd, and 4th verses”), but the vocal lead. I wonder if there are a couple of people who might be willing to cantor the singing, to sing the melody line into a microphone (or just from in front of the group) so people can hear them and sing with them. Even in our Presbyterian church we will sometimes do this for healing services or other services that are small and intimate and the choir doesn’t sing. They don’t have to say anything, just sing to lead. –Wendy

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  6. I have had some amazing breakthroughs with “silent” congregations by singing “Jesus Loves Me”. It seems to bring out their inner 5 year old, who usually sings louder! Almost no one knows the verses past verse 1 or 2, but they probably know the refrain.

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  7. Similar to other suggestions (like facing one another), I have found when I give the congregation a specific “job” on a hymn, they take it seriously – it might be women song verse 1, then men verse 2, then altogether on verse 3, or even (gasp!) singing in Canon. I sometimes mention jokingly that this will only work if they actually sing….and they do!

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  8. I have done a variation of Julie’s idea. Usually when I begin at a new church, I ask the congregation members to give me a list of their favorite hymns. I provide paper (half or full size) for them to write the hymn numbers or title of the hymns. (In one church, the matriarch went through the hymnal and wrote hundreds of hymn names down. That was not helpful). Then I or someone else compiles the list, with number of people who chose each hymn. If I got enough responses, I would use a favorite hymn each Sunday, and mark it in the bulletin with a symbol denoting that “This is a favorite hymn of someone in our congregation.” I don’t know if the congregation folks pick up on it, but I always find it interesting that one person’s favorite hymn might be another person’s least-liked.

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  9. As a former church musician, now pastor, this jumped out at me from your question: “the pianist has no interest in worship leadership”. As long as this is true, you will have difficulty with singing. There is a great little book on how to get congregations to sing called “Melodious Accord” (out of print now) and the author says that the musician who believes the people will sing will make the people sing. Your musician doesn’t care. This is going to require a deep conversation with your musician to get them to care.

    These things help just about any church sing better. I hope some of them will help you:
    1. The leader(s) believe the people WILL sing. When you believe this, all the choices and decisions you make will support this belief. Believe it with all your heart!

    2. Choose music that is geared toward congregational singing. Some contemporary music is not meant for groups. Some older music has a huge range meant for professionals, not lay people. Choose songs that people can sing. Listen online if you can’t play them through for yourself when choosing hymns. Note that not all hymns in the hymnal are easily singable.

    3. The musician should play a clear introduction of the tune before the people start singing. No short little intro, no fancy improvisation–play the whole verse through. People need to hear the tune. There are few songs “everyone knows” any more.

    4. The accompaniment should be clear and supportive. People need a clear melody, but also a strong bass to keep the beat. Think “sing along” instead of fancy arrangement.

    5. If a hymn/song is new, there are several ways to teach it. Have the musicians play it as a prelude. Before worship, have a strong singer teach the people a line at a time, having the people sing it, the next line etc. Some songs benefit from 2 first verses–if you have a song leader or choir, let them sing verse one, then have everyone sing verse one. You can invite people to try verse one twice as well. The second time is always stronger and the words are not lost as people fumble with a melody.

    6. A song leader can help the congregation more than a choir. A song leader facing the congregation can use their arms in a welcoming gesture when it is time to sing. A song leader’s eye contact can give people courage to start. A song leader should be visual as much as audible–they should not be amplified too much or the people will be drowned out and will not sing. Song leaders should sing a simple melody, exactly what the people will sing. Save improvisation for another time.

    7. Listen to the congregation. Do they start out weak and get stronger as they sing a song? That says they have trouble learning one. Do more teaching of hymns and make sure introductions are solid. Does the congregation start out okay but kind of peter away as they sing? This means they don’t have the stamina to sing long songs with lots of verses, (Especially true of groups of older adults.) In this case, carefully edit the number of verses in a hymn to keep it shorter. And for the musician, a well done short interlude before the final verse can give people the ability to gather strength for the last verse.

    I hope and pray some of these help. I have used these principles in all styles of worship and they have always resulted in confident singing. Enjoy–and believe they WILL sing!

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  10. One of the things we did at Easter when the organist told me she didn’t know 2 of the hymns chosen for Good Friday was, instead of singing the hymns we spoke them. I divided the congregation into parts and we rotated the verses through the parts and spoke the words. I had several people afterwards saying they hadn’t realised how emotional the words were and they were looking forward to the opportunity to sing the words next time.

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  11. I agree with what everyone has said, and I’m sorry about Easter! Some congregations just aren’t singers, but they can be encouraged.

    I have a very tiny congregation, although I do have a robust choir. When they aren’t leading, my keyboardist backs away from complicated arrangements and just plays the four voices of the hymn, with the soprano/melody line louder than the rest. If you have a sound system, that’s relatively easy to do.

    That goes along with making sure the accompaniment is the right volume — too loud overpowers voices, too soft doesn’t empower singers. Getting that right may require you to walk around the sanctuary during an informal service and hear what worshippers are hearing.

    Also, is the register right? Older voices cannot sing as high, quiet voices can’t sing as high, and if there aren’t many singers, few people are comfortable belting out the high notes and potentially missing. “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” is pretty high!

    Finally, pick fun songs for a while, and sing them with a smile so that people know that joyful noise is as welcome as perfect harmony. And don’t assume that people don’t like a song just because they aren’t singing out; they actually may be listening and pondering.

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