The songs are selected, rehearsal is done, and everyone is ready to go. The clock strikes, the band kicks up, and you get ready to pour your heart into the next twenty minutes. Everything is going great until about four minutes in, when you look out into the congregation and see that there are only about eight other people singing with you. Some are staring, others are texting, and a couple seem to still be sleeping. All you can think is, “What is going on here?! C’mon guys!”
Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar scene on Sunday mornings. And we have all been there and experienced it. It’s discouraging. It’s frustrating. It leaves you feeling inadequate and disappointed. Getting the congregation to sing with you is one of the most difficult tasks of the worship leader. Sometimes, it involves moving people beyond their cares to magnifying the Lord. Other times, it’s battling personal preferences. We even have to deal with how the weather affects people’s attitudes. However, sometimes the silence is simply a result of some very practical problems. The good news is that these problems have very simple solutions!
If you find this is happening to you regularly, here are six things you can do to begin to break the code of silence:
1. Check your keys.
There’s a current trend in worship music right now that involves keying songs really high. That’s great for solo stuff, and it even works for many churches. However, at our church, we’ve found that our best scenario is when men and women can split between their choice of two different octaves, as opposed to what I call true unison (which is everyone on the exact same pitch). We have defined our “congregational range” as keys where the melody does not drop below a low A and doesn’t rise above C or D, an octave higher. Of course, we have times where we go outside of this, but the goal is not to spend too much time at either end. Otherwise, you alienate those that aren’t skilled at singing because they can’t reach the high highs or the low lows. Remember, you don’t have to sing the song in the same key they do on the original recording, and you might have to sing it in a key that’s not necessarily the most comfortable for you! If you’re having a problem with people not singing along, the first step is to check your keys.
2. Make sure the melody is clear and strong.
Once you’re sure your songs are in singable keys, you have to make sure that the melody rings through nice and clear. The vast majority are going to sing during worship like they sing when they listen to the radio — they’re going to match what they hear. If they can’t hear the melody, then they don’t know what to sing. Make sure that your team knows and sings the same melody (this includes phrasing and timing), and that your sound team is focusing in on the people carrying the melody of a song. Another point on this is that every worship leader needs to learn how to be content singing the melody of a song. People don’t need an ad-lib every five seconds, nor do they need a display of your vocal abilities. You’re a worship leader, not a soloist. They need you to be their guide. Keep the melody strong and default to singing it. You’ll be amazed at what happens.
3. Take the time to teach them the song.
People sing the most confidently when they are sure of how a song goes. A tool that we utilized and had great success with is the “mini-choir rehearsal” when introducing a new song. The goal is to create a worship learning environment with minimal pressure. I take about two or three minutes during the set with the piano and run through all of the main parts (a verse, chorus, bridge, etc.) of a song. I play and sing the melody to them and have them sing it back to me, while our vocalists sing with them. I even use my hand to guide them up and down the melody like I would our choir. Then we start the song from the beginning with the full band, and I continue to use the hand motions through the first round of the verse and chorus or any of the more difficult parts throughout the song. And in case you’re wondering, yes, the Holy Spirit still sticks around while you’re learning songs. The results to this “call and response” time have been great, and our song learning curve has drastically changed. (Also, you may find that doing a new song two weeks in a row helps increase retainment.)
4. Simplify and build.
Sometimes, the issue is that there are too many things going on in a song. Maybe there are too many different verses or melody changes. Maybe the chord progressions don’t clarify the route of the melody. Many things contribute to a song not working well during a worship time. A key to remember when selecting songs is that the majority of your members are not musical. What you or I can pick up in one or two listens takes them significantly longer. Choose songs that are intuitive. If you really want to do a complex song, don’t be afraid to simplify it some to make it more digestible. You can change the rhythm of the lyrics to make them more consistent. You can alter the melody line to keep it within the appropriate range. Tailor the songs to your congregation.
Also, don’t feel like you have to do the entire song at once. Remove parts like “Ohh’s” and “Whoa’s,” until the congregation is more comfortable with the basics of the song. If a song has a lot of parts, first teach the verse and the chorus. Then in a couple weeks, after you’ve done the song a couple times, teach the bridge or other parts. Build on the foundation you’ve established and continue to facilitate a no-pressure learning environment.
5. Make sure that your entire team is engaged.
One of the most important keys to congregational engagement is making sure that everyone on the platform is engaged. You will lead best when you are leading by example. People are not just looking at the worship leader; they’re looking at everyone that’s on the platform. They’re watching to see if our entire teams are sincere and focused. If you’re able to, record video of your service, and see what the worship team looks like. Are they full of life and passionate about what they’re doing? Or do they look like they’d rather be doing something else? Regularly remind them of the importance of their function.
Another tip is that anytime you want the congregation to sing, have the worship team sing. During times when you want to hear the congregation, just have the vocalists pull their microphones down. When the congregation sees mouths moving, it’s an indication that theirs should be, too. This is especially important for the start of songs, to avoid the impression that it’s a solo.
6. Check your connections.
Your connection as a leader with the congregation will either produce a spectator or a participator mindset. You don’t have a to preach a sermon, but you always want to incorporate connecting points with the congregation. Saying things like “Good morning,” “Let’s sing this together…” and giving a few clear verbal cues throughout a song will go a long way. When people feel connected to you, they’ll begin to trust you, and as such, they’ll follow you more readily. Without the connection, you become a performer on a stage. Pray about things you can say and ways you can cue them that it’s their time to worship, too.
7. Start strong and end clearly.
Make sure that there is clear definition in the starting and endings of songs. This doesn’t mean that you have to put the awkward music break between every song. However, people should be able to tell when you’re moving from one song to the next. Make sure that the band knows when they’re coming in and how they’re ending songs. Adding a ritard to the final phrase is generally enough to give that signal that a song is ending. This will help you stay connected to the congregation, once you’ve built the bridge. When people get confused, they stop singing. Light the way ahead, and they’ll stay on the journey with you!
This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it an instant cure. As you begin to address these and other issues one by one, the wall of silence will begin to crack. Don’t give up and don’t be discouraged! There will come a day when that wall will come tumbling down, and you will look out to see a congregation that is joyfully singing God’s praises!
Brian Taylor and his wife Lauren serve as worship leaders at Church of the Redeemer, a growing, multi-campus congregation based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, under the leadership of Pastor Dale O’Shields. Read more from Brian at LeadingSkillfully.com.