By ED STEELE, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
In any given worship service, some songs “sing” for lack of a better term, while others never seem to get off the ground.
There are hosts of answers, but one many times overlooked is analyzing the song to see if it is congregational. What makes a song “congregational?” I’m sure there are more factors than these, but here are some considerations that might help answer the question:
Is the text biblical?
The text must be consistent with biblical truth. Today there has been a re-awakening of paraphrased biblical texts and older traditional texts to fresh melodies and “troped” songs like “O the Wonderful Cross,” which adds to – amplifies – Mason’s “When I Survey,” and “My Chains Are Gone” which modifies “Amazing Grace.” [Tropes were melodic and textual additions to well-known chant melodies that took on a life of their own during the Middle Ages.]
The word of caution here is the need of a “theological filter.” Denominational hymnals are required to go through a committee well prepared to filter theological weaknesses and errors. Some of the songs in the CCM [Contemporary Christian Music] are based on biblical themes, but have not been analyzed for theological content.
The music industry itself is partly to blame for this. Record companies contract album deadlines, push tours, and sometimes songs are hastily put together to comply, so if it “sounds ok,” then they go with it.
In addition, many albums are designed with a few lead songs that are pushed for airplay and the rest are filler. The radio stations depend on market share of listeners, that is, maintaining their niche market of listeners and feeding their wants through the airwaves.
Most of the time their emphasis is the “latest and greatest” – rather than serving as a theological filter – since that’s how they stay in business.
With the advancement in home recording systems and the internet, the need for theological filters is even more necessary, since virtually anyone with access to the equipment can put a song on YouTube without any doctrinal accountability. Many of the artists are sincere believers, but have no formal theological training. There are some contemporary artists that are more careful than others.
The emphasis here is that before a song is used in a congregational setting, it needs to be checked to see if the theology expressed is consistent with what Scripture teaches. [Another thing to remember is the simple fact that even when the Bible mentions something, the mention doesn’t necessarily mean the Bible teaches it. The Bible says Judas hung himself, but that doesn’t mean we need to follow his example.]
Does text speak to experiences common to believers?
The joy of conversion, the greatness and majesty of God are common experiences to those who name Christ as Lord and Savior, because they are ones in which the congregation may identify. Songs that tell of a personal experience that are unique to a particular person, or just a small group may serve well as songs of testimony, but may not be the most appropriate for the congregation. We must remember that worship is not entertainment, but it is the response we give to the greatness of God as He reveals Himself. Congregational song, regardless of style, is that opportunity of the people of God to respond to God in worship and adoration, surrender and praise. It is that expression that reflects the unity of the Body of Christ and is best done through the identity of common experience.
Is the melody of the tune really singable?
At first, this may sound somewhat elementary, but in a day when large portions of worship songs are taken from group or solo recordings, it is a great question to ask. Just because a group records a particular song, does not automatically make it a viable option for the congregation. Some songs were designed to be “listened to,” more than “sung with.” As long as they do not fall into the trap of becoming entertainment rather than worship, they definitely have a place as a testimony of those believers. In evaluating whether the melody of a song is really singable, consider the following:
A. Many artists are tenors, and the recordings are done in a range that is comfortable for them, not for the average vocally untrained person in the pew. A quick check is to see how many people are really singing. If a song is too high or too low, the majority of the congregation will just not participate. When in doubt, the leader can make arrangements ahead of time to lower or adjust the key to make it more accessible for the congregation. It may be harder for the leader, but it’s not about the leader, it’s about the majority of the body of Christ being able to express itself corporately.
B. Sometimes the rhythm and melodic line of the song is so much like recitative, or like spoken text and almost defies everyone singing together. There again, soloists, or small groups pull it off, but only after hours of practice. In a large group, the textual intelligibility vaporizes as far as understanding the text, and frustration can set in trying to stay together. This type of song is difficult for the congregation, and may not be the best choice if the focus is facilitating congregational participation.
C. Good melodies are memorable; they have “hooks” that keep pulling the singers back into the song and have some sense of internal repetition that helps the ear in learning the melody. They have a recognizable structure. They have melodies that are sung in the hearts of the congregation during the week when no one else is around. Songs that change structure with each verse or line and unpredictable melodic jumps are much more difficult to learn.
Is the song of lasting character, or is it more of a temporal filler?
Songs based on cultural fads or are “ear candy” are probably not the best choice as a vehicle for corporate worship. Many times, personal taste drives our choices of worship music more than service design. Instead of asking, “What is the best and most appropriate song for this service and message from God’s Word?” – we just look for ways of including our favorites.
A related point is song association. Some songs become associated with certain movements and take on a life of their own.
Many times this has been a great help to congregational worship, but there does exist the danger of using melodies or styles that are so associated with something or someone that it is difficult to bypass the association. [For example, for those who remember the television show “Gilligan’s Island,” the melody fits great with the text for “Amazing Grace,” but to use it with those individuals almost always causes a grin, because in their minds they are thinking about the program as they sing the text.]
Can the congregation follow?
When a song is new, the congregation must learn both new text and melody.
Obviously, the words may be on some screen or printed text, but rarely any more is there any written music. Even when hymnals were in use, the majority of the congregation really couldn’t read the notes.
This means that the congregation is dependent on learning the melody from hearing it sung and played. In guitar-driven worship, the learning of the melody is limited to the ability of the singer to lead with the voice, since chordal accompaniments lack melodic support.
A great aid in correcting this deficiency is to use the piano, keyboard, or organ, which can help carry the congregation’s melodic line. The less familiar the song, the more important melodic support for the congregation is necessary. Sure, it can be done without it, but melodic support makes it more effective.
Corporate worship is different from just gathering a group of individuals together to sing. Corporate worship is dependent on a group of believers focusing on the worship and adoration of Almighty God. Something very special happens when that group comes together to express praise as the Body of Christ. Effective corporate worship is not dependent on a set of steps that guarantee success.
There are no magic buttons to press that guarantee the corporate focus on God and His nature and character.
Corporate worship means that the Body of Christ is participating. If the congregation is not participating, it is not corporate worship.
As far as the leader is concerned, personal preparation is indispensable; we cannot take people where we have not been.
Corporate preparation is indispensable; congregations don’t just flip a switch and transform into a body of worshipers without conscious action.
We can do some things to facilitate corporate worship. One thing is to make sure that what we use in worship is “congregational.” A wise worship leader is aware and continually evaluates each song of each service with these things in mind.