Under the guidance of our present worship minister, our worship services have gotten pretty good. I know this is true because —
* No one is complaining much about the worship,
* The numbers are up, and
* Some people wish the service was longer!
Anyway, since we’re on the subject of worship, and since I really think churches can do a lot better with their a cappella singing, I thought I’d address the topic of how to make things better– without buying a guitar.
Get a great worship leader. This is, of course, easier said than done. I’m not aware that any of our colleges is seriously training worship leaders (although they may be).
If you don’t have one, train one. Send him to one of the Zoe conferences held around the country each year, for starters.
If you know someone who is an excellent worship leader, ask if he’ll spend some time coaching your leader. And, if you can, offer to pay for his time. “The worker is worthy of his hire.”
You see, excellent leadership is the most important key to excellent a cappella singing.
Singing during the Lord’s Supper is an excellent move. We should do more of it. I know some people oppose this, but it’s just not a Biblical issue.
My church sings sometimes, and we don’t other times — it’s a Romans 14 kind of thing, you know. And variety is nice. And those who think it’s wrong are welcome to sit silently. They don’t have to sing.
Nothing in the Bible requires that communion time be meditation time. Nothing in the Gospels suggests that the apostles meditated quietly while they ate and drank at the first communion meal.
And the reality is that most unchurched people and most young people do not like that much enforced quiet — especially not every week.
Stamps Baxter has to go! I grew up on this music. I actually enjoy it. Now, it doesn’t move me and help me feel God’s presence, but I enjoy it. For me, it’s nostalgic.
But no one who grew up outside the Churches of Christ likes it. In fact, many young people consider it so bad as to be hilarious. I’ve seen visiting college students struggle to avoid laughing out loud!
It might be a good idea to have the occasional nostalgia Sunday (once a year, maybe). For the sake of the older members, we could have a true country singing, with an outdoor, covered dish dinner with homemade ice cream (nothing store-bought allowed). Maybe even do a little fasolla or Sacred Harp singing. A lot of kids have never experienced anything like this. This would be enjoyed by those who love the Stamps Baxter songs without messing with the other services.
But, please, PLEASE don’t sing these any other time. It really ought to be a firing offense, you know — even if the words fit the sermon just ever so perfectly.
Praise teams. I used to think this idea was silly — sort of a worship minister affectation. Just a bit of fashion among the ministerial class that would go away if I ignored it. I was wrong. Nothing improves a congregation’s singing more than an excellent praise team.
Now, some get bent out of shape thinking there’s sin of some sort in this. But it really should satisfy even the most conservative interpretation of the scriptures. I mean, a female alto is leading the female altos. I think it’s really okay.
And the old argument about this being entertainment is just so wrong.
My church is quite conservative. We have our team sit at the front of the auditorium, give them microphones, and they just sing — like everyone else, but better.
Here’s the thing — we live in a world where the college students, young marrieds, and most of the lost think of music as being a concert, rather than congregational singing. People enjoy congregational singing, but many cannot read music and have no ear for improvising harmonies. Part of the solution is an audible praise team. (There’s no contradiction between “concert” and “congregational singing.” People sing at popular-music concerts. But they expect to be well led.)
By “audible” I mean a praise team loud enough so that in the back corner of the auditorium a bass can hear the bass singing and follow along (all four parts, of course). Some churches mic the team too low because they’re afraid of criticism for even having the team. But the congregation isn’t stupid. They know the team has microphones. But they’ll wonder why if they can’t hear them.
I also think you need at least 8 members. I can’t explain it. We’ve tried it with 4, and 8 is better.
I should add that, while it’s not sin, it seems pointless and distracting to have them stand. Some churches do. Some don’t. But I really find it easier to focus on the music and the words if the team sits or stands with the congregation. But maybe that’s just me.
Song selection. There are some simple, easy-to-learn rules to enforce–
1. Don’t pick out songs too hard to sight read on the very first try. Some song leaders keep singing songs that even trained sight singers struggle to sing. Some have difficult rhythms. Some have really hard harmonies. This means that those of us trying to sing the harmonies are so busy focusing on the notes that we don’t have a prayer of being touched by the words.
Here’s the test: if the praise team can’t get it right on the first try, neither can the congregation.
2. Pick only pretty melodies. Boring music with pretty words isn’t music; it’s poetry at best — suitable for dramatic readings or bulletin inserts. Music only accomplishes its purpose if the music is beautiful as well as the words. Thinking that the words matter to the near exclusion of the quality of the music is very Enlightenment thinking and guaranteed not to reach today’s Post-modern world.
By the way, lots of song leaders pick songs based on what’s popular on Christian radio. That’s fine if you have a guitar and drum kit. But there are lots of radio tunes that don’t work without the instruments. Even though the song leaders can imagine how great the music would be with a bass guitar, the congregation hasn’t heard it on the radio and they’re wondering why the leader picked such a pitiful tune.
3. Project the notes on a really large screen. This escapes two extremes. Some want to use only hymn books. But this forces people to look down (reducing the sound) and means each song is preceded by a minute of page turning. And it makes it hard to introduce new songs.
A big screen allows the church to move immediately from song to song. You get more singing done!
Now, it has to be really big so the back row can read the notes. Don’t scrimp on size or lumens. If your projector is old, buy new. The quality of projectors has dramatically improved in just the last few years (and prices are coming down).
However, there are those who want to eliminate the sheet music altogether, arguing that most people can’t read the notes anyway. But this only means that your best singers won’t be able to harmonize. Why dumb away the most attractive part of the worship?
Besides, even among the unchurched, there are lots of people who know how to read music. Many will catch on quickly and will enjoy being able to harmonize with the regulars.
4. Don’t add contemporary sections to old hymns unless the arrangement is truly excellent. They keep introducing these contemporary tunes to be sung as part of a traditional hymn, kind of like an extra chorus. I don’t know why. To me, it’s new wine in old wineskins.
Don’t get me wrong. Many of our older hymns are beautiful and work just fine even today. But most of these hybridized songs are a bad match. The new section does not mix well with the old.
Maybe it sounded great with the full instrumental arrangement. But rarely does it sound great in congregational singing. The only exception I can think of is Aaron Shust’s “My Savior, My God,” which actually works quite nicely a cappella. But most of these mongrel tunes only serve to degrade the original version.
Don’t let the song leader talk. No one wants to hear how this tune is so meaningful to him because of his great aunt’s funeral. No one wants a sermonette between songs. Rather, the flow of song to song, melody to melody is part of the joy of singing. Don’t interrupt it!
Clap. I know this bothers some people. I personally prefer not to clap. But it’s wrong to deny people the joy of expressing themselves this way. And modern worshipers are just used to having a rhythm section on upbeat tunes.
And the song leader needs to lead the clapping. Lots us us have no rhythm.
By the way, in the recent debate over instrumental music at Freed Hardeman University, the spokesman for the Church of Christ position, an FHU professor, argued that clapping does not constitute instrumental music, being merely an aid.
Carefully introduce new songs. Here are the rules:
* Don’t introduce the song unless it’s good enough to sing several times. If you’re going to ask the church to learn it, give them a chance to enjoy it. The first few times through, they won’t really benefit from it as they’ll still be learning the melody and harmonies.
* Don’t introduce more than one song per service — regardless of how much the music fits the sermon or whatever. People need familiar songs so they can truly worship. Remember: only the song leader and praise team have had time to practice.
* If the song turns out to be too hard or just not that good, don’t try to save face by singing it again and again anyway. Apologize, drop it, and move on.
Lyrics. I suppose there are times that a song really has lyrics that are theologically awful. In that case, you might want to change the words. But the vast majority of the times when we do that, we are showing our ignorance of the Bible much more than the author’s!
I mean, what on earth is wrong with “be of sin the double cure, save from wrath and make me pure”? What’s wrong with “such a worm as I”? And does anyone really think that “When we all get to heaven” should be replaced by “When the saved get to heaven”? Sometimes, I just want to SCREAM!
Break with tradition. It’s a struggle for an a cappella church to appeal to modern listeners. Many of our children have never heard a cappella singing except at church. Therefore, to sound halfway decent to their ears, we need to get out of our rut and be a little artistic.
Put an excellent soprano or tenor on the praise team to improvise a countermelody or descant over the lead. Some hymns have these written. If so, have someone sing them and mic up the singer. It’s not a solo. It’s really okay.
Sometimes, have the praise team sing while the congregation listens. (See the link to the post on the entertainment question above.) This is called a “meditation.” If the preacher or some college kid can talk before communion while everyone else listens, why can’t we sing the meditation while everyone else listens?
This technique will also allow you to introduce some beautiful music that’s too difficult for congregational singing.
And let’s have some solos and duets — if you have the voices. There is absolutely nothing unscriptural about these forms so long as you don’t eliminate congregational singing. We need to stop being scared of our shadows and have the courage to enjoy the freedom Jesus died for us to have.
(Gal. 5:1a) It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
Be creative! Let the solo illustrate the sermon right in the middle of it. Sing a duet before or during communion.
If God has given your people the gifts, use them. That’s why he gave them to you.