Michael Spencer (whom I quoted last week in my sermon) has brought to my attention an article that’s come out of the Australian Anglican church. See The Slow Death of Congregational Singing and Michael’s riff on that article, Riffs: The Briefing on “The Slow Death of Congregational Singing.”
Here’s a quote from his reflection on internetmonk.com:
[In the place of robust congregational singing,] we have a lot of songs that a lot of people don’t know, a lot of bad and unknown tunes, a lot of watching the worship team perform (especially if they are female of the right type and dress), a lot of forgettable, narcissistic lyrics, a lot of bad and inexperienced worship leaders, a lot of bone-headed thinking about congregational singing in relation to church growth, a lot of imitation of churches and methods that most congregations can’t imitate, a lot of lay people who simply don’t know how to sing at all, a lot of churches that don’t teach singing, a lot of turning congregations into audiences anyway and whatever else goes into the stew that does away with congregational singing.
It’s unfortunate that the discussion turns into old songs vs. new songs so often. Ultimately, when the songs were written, what kind of beat they have, what instrumentation one uses, etc. are secondary (and even tertiary) issues. The fundamental question that those of us who plan and lead music must wrestle with in terms of our role is “What does it mean to lead in song?” Does it mean that people are supposed to be inspired by the devotion and the passion of the person who sings at the front? Does it mean that we’re to model what the congregation should be ideally doing? Or is it different than that?
For me, leading in song involves a lot more behind the scenes work than overt, up-front action. Leading in song means that we pick keys that are the most comfortable for a congregation to sing in, no matter if they’re good keys for a lead vocalist to “shine” in or not.* (That’s why much, if not most, of the worship music coming out of places like Nashville and Atlanta has to be rekeyed before congregations can even attempt it. In CCM worship recordings, men are usually tenors and women are usually altos, while congregations are typically more oriented toward baritones and mezzo-sopranos. If you’ve been singing along with a worship leader until they reach a high note, at which point your voice cracks and you look around sheepishly to see if anyone noticed, you know what I’m talking about.) Leading in song means eliminating confusion from the musical arrangements so that the congregation feels confident of where to come in. Leading in song means picking accompaniments and arrangements that support the congregation’s singing, rather than allowing them to feel naked and left out to dry.
*Ideally, you shouldn’t need to turn up a lead vocalist’s volume so loud that anyone can hear if he or she is in their best key. And what does it say about our sales-oriented approach to worship that we would care if someone is in their best key or not?