How to Help Your Congregation Sing
The goal of leading corporate song is to facilitate the joyful singing of God's people. Anything you do should tend toward their participation and full engagement. This means that your leading of the singing should be simple and predictable enough so that the congregation can jump on board, and also compelling enough that they want to jump on board.
I have had people give me feedback after a worship service that the music was so loud they didn’t bother singing because they couldn’t hear themselves, and then others give me feedback from the same worship service that the music wasn’t loud enough for them to have assurance that people around them couldn’t hear them sing, so they didn’t.
I think both of these extremes are unfortunate: on the one hand, congregational singing doesn’t have to be the loudest thing in the room to be worth doing; on the other hand, it’s sad that our culture has so shamed people for not singing like professionals that they hesitate to sing with the saints for fear of their voices being heard. There are ways, however, to build trust with a congregation as their song leader so that they feel confident to sing with you.
Holding an umbrella for you and a friend…
Think of it like holding an umbrella for you and a friend as you walk in the rain. You have the benefit of the control of the umbrella, and you want to use that control to make it as easy as possible for your friend to stay under it and not get wet. So you don't jerk the umbrella around in unpredictable ways, you don't walk too fast, and you don't hold it just over your head, allowing only a small space for your friend to occupy. Instead, you tilt the umbrella their way and walk with your friend in mind.
In the same way, your job as a song leader is not simply to sing the song correctly, but to create a certain degree of predictability and a certain degree of reliable covering. Pick keys that are in a reasonable range (C to shining C was the conventional wisdom I grew up with; now that has stretched to D or E). Even if on the studio album version the singer varies the vocal lines from one verse to the next (and honestly, would we want to listen to it if they didn’t?), you need to figure out how to make all the verses the same so that people who haven’t ever heard that studio album can figure it out. As you sing the lines, think about starting them slightly early and holding them out slightly longer than everyone else, providing ample space for them to fit in. They won't hold lines out any longer than you do, and if you cut lines short and leave their voices exposed, you’ll find it takes them a while to find their confidence again. It may even be helpful to take loud breaths to signal when you’re about to start a line. And, of course, you sing with passion, modeling the kind of emotional engagement you would like to see in your congregation.
…But put your umbrella away sometimes
But also sometimes you want to look for opportunities to fold up the umbrella and show them that it's actually not raining. I don’t think the congregational voice needs to at every moment be the loudest thing in the room, but I do go out of my way to build into every service multiple moments that I know the congregation can hear itself sing. I might have the band drop on on a chorus, or just accompany a verse very sparsely or with lots of space. Hearing the congregational voice is a powerful way for your congregation to encourage one another, “addressing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19).
Finally, a congregation will be more inclined to sing with you the more they know and trust your heart. The more you can actually get to know people, listen to their stories (and tell them yours), remember their names, and win their trust, the less they will feel like you’re a performer wanting their attention and accolades, and the more they will be inclined to follow your leadership.
Wes Crawford (@wescrawford) serves as Worship Pastor of Christ Church of Austin. He previously helped plant a church in Kansas City, Missouri, and before that served as a missionary in Monterrey, Mexico. He has been married to Melissa for 17 years, and they have four beautiful daughters. Find more articles, playlists, and music made by Wes at his website: wescrawfordmusic.com.