I like so-called contemporary worship styles, generally. I enjoy an enthusiastically strummed acoustic guitar as much as the next guy, and quite a bit more than some. I’ve even been known to keep my snarky remarks about the worship leader wearing his girlfriend’s pants mostly to myself, no matter how probable it seems. I like the style.
But I also like to sing. I know, I know, bizarre notion, enjoying singing along, but I do. Here’s the problem, and it seems to be almost exclusively a problem of contemporary worship services – I can’t, a lot of the time. I’m somewhere in the baritone/bass range, and I’m not an especially skilled singer, both situations exacerbated by a number of years of smoking. I can carry a tune, but I’m no soloist. In short, I’m a pretty typical churchgoer, as far as my singing ability goes. And I simply can’t sing along to a lot of contemporary worship services. I’ve seen a few worship services in my life (admittedly, not as many as an adult as I saw as a child, but still quite a few), and it seems more and more that the music isn’t intended to be accompanied by the congregation. It’s a performance.
Whether it’s because of modulating into a key that is intended only for operatic sopranos and certain varieties of dog whistles, or unexpected complex melodies that take unusual turns (I’m looking at you, David Crowder Band), choices of song that challenge the congregation’s singing abilities are neutral at best, but seem far more likely to be a distraction. The classic hymns are songs of doctrine, of instruction, and of prayer, and they’re intended to be easy to remember, and yes, easy to sing. Isaac Watts wrote many of his hymns in ballad meter, without tunes designated. Have you ever sung Amazing Grace to the tune of the theme to Gilligan’s Island? Same idea – the tune wasn’t the point. The lyrics were.
Now, honestly, there’s nothing wrong with performance. There’s certainly joy, and I’d even argue that there’s merit in stretching your capabilities. If you’re a singer with a five octave range, by all means, use it. Use it to the glory of God. But if you do, let that be your whole purpose. Don’t play “worship leader” and modulate the song up three times just because you can. The congregation will become the audience halfway through. If you go up in front of an audience to perform, to demonstrate a gift that you have, and you bring some portion of them to worship, awesome. If, on the other hand, you are planning to lead songs of prayer and thanksgiving and adoration, and you are planning to minister to a congregation, why would you do something which accomplishes nothing except to jar some portion of the congregation out of that state and to bring attention onto you?
Again, I want to say that I ENJOY this sort of music. In the following video, Steve Green modulates out of my physical capabilities after the second verse (and from note 1 is already singing in a range that I have no business attempting). This is probably my favorite rendition of this classic hymn. And it’s unsingable, for me.
There’s nothing wrong with performing an unsingable song. There is definitely something wrong with using an opportunity to lead congregational worship to perform. I’ve been guilty of it in the past, although thankfully very few people notice the antics of a bass guitarist, except perhaps other bassists.
I speak of this as though it is an intentional choice, and as though conscious pursuit of attention is the sole motivator for choosing such songs. This is deliberate, and also incorrect. I understand that a worship leader might choose a song that is difficult to sing because it is relevant to the service, or because it’s part of a set that works particularly well, or any of a hundred excellent reasons. I do not deny that there may well be quite legitimate reasons to have a song with which some part of the congregation cannot sing along in the service. I would just caution all worship leaders to be intentional and careful in their choices of songs. You may be professional (or at least, professional quality) performers, and it may feel as though you’re never stretching your performance ability in the weekly service. For the people that you’re leading, however, this might be the only time this week that they have sung. This might be the only time in their LIVES that they sing for fifteen minutes straight. Why do you expect us to be capable of following along with a trained voice?
While it may be that familiarity is the reason that I think that O God Our Help in Ages Past is far more singable than O Praise Him, as one friend suggested, I think that there are some fairly objective ways to examine singability. For example; I picked up a hymnal while I was working on this article, and you know, the overwhelming majority of songs are verse-refrain, or simply verse. This is not to say that I suggest only playing old songs, mind you, but I do suggest avoiding POP songs. A pop song is written with lots of melodic changes, and will probably be pitched too high – for whatever reason, the trend these days favors that.
I suppose that the likely fear is one of irrelevance – it’s awfully hard to force one’s listeners to downshift from the constant stimulation of contemporary music into the stately, almost staid world of the classic hymnody. This is not an invalid fear – there is much to be said for keeping one’s instruction tools relevant to the culture, and I’d be the first to admit that an enthusiastically overwrought organ performance of How Deep the Father’s Love for Us is one of the more effective soporifics on the planet, when delivered by your average church organists. It’s an invalid dichotomy, though.
God With Us or Grace Like Rain or The Power of the Cross or 10,000 Reasons, or any of a dozen others offer contemporary musical style, but they feel more like hymns. And this brings me (finally) to my point – there’s a LOT of good stuff that’s eminently singable out there in the contemporary Christian market. Music leaders need to spend time listening to music critically – don’t ask “do I like this?” or “does this interest me?” but “is this saying true things?” and “can the congregation sing this?”
I wish I had more answers than simply just noodling around, but really, that’s what I’ve got. I’m not a music leader, and I haven’t been a performer for some years, so any solutions I offer would likely miss something. I think, however, that this is one of the major failings of the contemporary church. We either cling with manic determination to a worship style that belongs to a prior century, or we throw ourselves into the dopamine-rush world of pop music, playing the pop game ten years behind the pop world.