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On Leading Congregational Singing


I recently attended a Reformation celebration at my old Bible school. All the congregational hymns were by Martin Luther. Most were unfamiliar, and long (up to 18 verses).

There was no “worship team” or PowerPoint. The leader announced the hymn and sat down, the organist played an introduction, and the congregation came in on cue and sang.

It was easy, and it was beautiful.

This is how I grew up, except the leader usually stood and sang (sans microphone). Call me a Luddite or old-fashioned, but I have never seen “worship teams” as anything but a distraction. Congregations sing better without them. (There are exceptions, I know. A musical ensemble, properly restrained, can enhance congregational singing.)

Likewise, congregations sing hymns—whether old or new—better than pop-style “praise & worship” songs.* They sing them better because they are, generally, easier. Everything about the hymn form is conducive to quick learning, easy singing, and memorization. The same cannot be said for pop songs composed more for practiced performance than spontaneous singing.

Speaking of form: When you read a hymn from the hymnbook, you can see, at a glance—whether or not you can read music—the flow of the song. Each line is distinguishable from the others. Before the music starts, you have a general idea of how it goes. Without knowing the tune, you could read it as a poem. If you must use PowerPoint, keep this in mind. A song is a poem, and form matters. When you center the text on the screen with the lines broken up according to no particular logic and mess with the proper punctuation (Ellipses? Are you kidding?), you destroy the poetry. You make the meter impossible to discern. The meanings of phrases are often changed or obscured. I know, it looks pretty and artsy centered up on the screen with a distracting (and often irrelevant) background image, but poetry is properly aligned left, and not without reason. The line breaks and punctuation matter.†

With all that said, I don’t mean to criticize worship teams personally. I know they work hard to lead the congregational singing, and with the best intentions. I appreciate that, but it’s worth considering whether the method actually produces the intended result, or stifles it.

* Speaking of which, can we stop separating hymns from “praise & worship,” as if shallow emotional ditties are more worshipful and praise-filled than doctrinally rich songs such as Holy, Holy, Holy or Immortal, Invisible? Can we stop designating the musical portion of our service as “worship,” and do away with the “worship leader” title, as though the reading, preaching, and hearing of the Word was something other than, or even less than, worship?

† For an example of how line breaks are properly done, see here.

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Posted 2017·12·01 by David Kjos
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