Thanks to the pandemic of 2020—and the now-widespread practice of churches broadcasting their services over the internet—some virtual music leaders have finally gotten what they’ve wanted for a long time: The chance to hear their own voices doing the music they love without having to worry about those pesky people in the pews trying to sing along.

Of course, that statement doesn’t apply to all worship-music leaders. Our church also has some leaders who select music the congregation knows, and take care to lead rather than musically overwhelm the rest of us. Their humility and sincerity comes through even on the CovidCam.

But, once we’re all back in the sanctuary, it’s certain that some leaders will once again use their time holding the microphone to put on a concert rather than engaging the congregation in musical communion.

A big, loud performance might be led by singers who try to imitate the contemporary Christian hits they hear on various radio stations and music apps. Or it could be traditional hymns led in a way that elevates the song leaders(s) at the expense of the congregation, sonically smothering individual members trying to make a joyful noise.

Rehearsing for church

Like many of you, I grew up in a church that did not hold rehearsals for Sabbath music-leading. There was planning, and responsibility, and an order of service. But no one felt it necessary to run through how they would lead “A Mighty Fortress” or “Crown Him With Many Crowns,” because there was exactly one way to do it: Select a few hymns everyone knows, announce the first one (along with selected verses, if desired), wait for the piano (possibly organ) intro, and lead the congregation through the designated verses in order, in one key. Repeat.

So, was that the ultimate way to lead music, the one and only way which we should never try to change or improve? Of course not. But the congregation understood it and you could actually hear everyone sing. Even when acoustic guitars flowered in SDA churches like the small-town one I grew up in in the mid-70s, the youthful leaders who brought their new sound to worship and vespers supported the congregation with songs that were easy to learn and very singable.

When our young family moved to Kansas City in the early 90s, the idea of rehearsals and choreography for music-leading was just dawning at the church we attended. The general thinking seemed to be that we had to “keep up” with non-SDA churches (usually of the “mega” variety) in both putting on a show and shedding the old-fashioned hymns, or at least relegating them to just one of many options in a rotating cast of styles driven by the preferences and skills of the song leaders. Otherwise, the young people will all run away! (Or so one senior-age elder insisted to me at the time.)

Yet there are several factors about the 1990s revolution in congregational song-leading that interfere with congregational participation, including the style of music itself. I’ll get to that later, but for this column I’d like to set aside the contentious topic of music styles and focus on some of the underlying ideals that came with the shift away from simple, unrehearsed hymn-singing:

    1. Music leaders should arrange and fancify everything. Those who pushed the mid-90s revolution in music-leading apparently weren’t familiar with the concept of "Less is more,” popularized by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969). The phrase encapsulates the idea that reducing ornament and excess can lead to a more beautiful and powerful piece of art. Or as Wiktionary nicely puts it: “That which is less complicated is often better understood and more appreciated than what is more complicated.” I believe these musical reformers honestly thought that if simple hymn singing led by one or two people accompanied by a piano or organ was good, a “praise team” with half a dozen leaders, numerous instruments, and elaborate medleys and arrangements must be better. They began to put an ornate, gold-plated frame around every musical “picture.” This related closely to the concept that . . .
    2. Song-leading is an opportunity for creativity and self-expression. In this paradigm, the point of song-leading is to cater mainly to what makes song leaders excited, to affirm the value of their choices and willingness to participate, and to give them free rein to lead any song in any way that appeals to them—with little practical regard for whether the church family can actually join them in making music.
    3. The key to leading congregational music is volume. If you can heavily amplify your sound, and dominate the sonic stage with both your singing and your accompaniment, the congregation will sense your excitement and join you in extra-enthusiastic music-making! This belief was aided by church sound-system operators who felt it was their job to make the song leaders and instrumentalists just as loud as if they were doing special music.
    4. They’ll sing anything we project on a screen! The arrival of video projectors driven by personal computers meant that song leaders could type in the words to any song they’d heard on Christian radio that week and “teach it” to the congregation just by projecting the words! The idea of springing new material on everybody with the aid of projected words was considered true liberation from the limitations of the stuffy old hymnals.
    5. The acoustics of church sanctuaries don’t matter as long as we have microphones and loudspeakers. Though this is technically more of a shift in architectural tastes among SDAs than a change in music-leading philosophy, it is related to number 3, above, and builds on the idea that sound in the church is all about electronic amplification and that hearing what is happening up on the rostrum should be everyone’s main concern.

The result has not been salubrious for congregational singing.

In our church, back when worship was still in the sanctuary, song-leading under this now well-established set of values had—on many Sabbaths—almost snuffed out the voices in the pews. Depending on who was leading, the sound produced by the congregation ranged from “modest” to almost nonexistent.

Creative confusion

Creativity is surely a God-given trait, but in congregational song-leading it can promote exclusion rather than inclusion. I’m not talking about a leader introducing a song by saying what it means to them, or reading an appropriate Bible verse. Such personal touches can be inspiring. I’m referring to turning an opportunity for bringing people together into a chance to show off a whole repertoire of new and challenging pieces you like, and know well, and expecting the rest of us to just magically join in.

There are many songs beyond the hymnal that congregations can learn, and learn to love, over time, something I’ve witnessed with our church’s warm embrace of “In Christ Alone” by Keith and Kristyn Getty. But when every week is a carousel of new and different songs, or ones which make an appearance no more than once or twice a year when certain leaders are on, it’s difficult to get everyone singing from the same page, or rather, screen.

Even setting aside the difficulty that congregations have learning certain varieties of new music, the repetitive choruses of some contemporary songs, coupled with various bridges and verse-tune callbacks, are so complex that I’ve seen even the leaders themselves get mixed up, with some members of the “praise team” almost hypnotically repeating a chorus phrase an eleventh time while others go back to the opening. Whoops! If you can’t keep it straight up there, how do you expect the congregation to follow along?

Similarly, having a group of song leaders doing harmonies, like they’re a trio or a quartet, can be lovely to listen to, but it actually makes it harder for the congregation to sing along. What you view as an extra-special effort to communicate your love or respect for the music isn’t helping those of average musical ability to participate, especially when your harmony has hundreds of watts of amplification behind it.

Threshold of pain

Yes, overamplification is another major reason congregants aren’t singing like they used to. I have nothing against music that conveys power and excitement with volume, and have often been moved by well-amplified voices or instruments. But in the settings I’m referring to, it’s a concert or a recording, not a sing-along. And that’s what over-amplifying voices and instruments for church singing does: It turns music into something to listen to, not participate in. 

I have even heard brass ensembles play along with every verse and every note of a hymn so loudly that, combined with the power of a piano and organ, it forced the PA operators to raise the song leaders’ volume to compensate, taking the congregation to the threshold of auditory pain. We wanted to get in on the excitement, but literally couldn’t hear our own individual voices, let alone others in the sanctuary.

It's great when musicians sing and play their hearts out, but throwing such massive sonic firepower at a congregation that’s just trying to hear themselves simply shuts down singing in the pews—no matter how many times you implore: “Come on, church, sing it with me now!”

Projecting words on screens is helpful for songs when people already know the tune but are a little rusty on the lyrics. It really doesn’t help much when the song itself is new or rarely sung, and has melodic surprises or rhythmic irregularities. That said, I’m always up for learning new music that’s intuitively singable—not to be confused with music that a group of talented musicians who have practiced before church can manage to sing.

The architectural aspect of congregational singing is simple: A certain level of reverb, or echo, helps congregational singers hear themselves, giving them confidence and joy. When a church is designed primarily as a performance venue for those up front, with the assumption that amplification can overcome the sound-deadening effects of heavily padded surfaces or interior acoustics that don’t support reverb, the congregation—straining to hear their collective voice—suffers.

Sometimes we do need to sit and listen and have sound projected at us. But when it’s time to sing together, the building itself should reinforce and feed back the sound we are making.

Invitation to silence

I’m not sure that all music leaders even expect or want congregational participation anymore. Some leaders appear to neither notice nor care when the lips of those in the pews are closed or barely moving during singing. Or maybe they do notice, but believe that even more volume and performative enthusiasm will get the congregation going. 

It’s not working.

What often radiates from the musicians “on stage” is simply self-absorption: We are so, so into creating this sound! We feel a passion for this music, have arranged it in a way that’s fun for us to sing up here, and are giving it all we’ve got. Go ahead, try to join in, but right now we’ve got the microphones, we’re listening to ourselves, and basically you’re on your own!

A friend who is a veteran of accompanying church song leaders on the piano recently told me that she tried during one rehearsal to get a particular praise team to choose more familiar songs, simplify the arrangements, and back off on the volume. “Your job while leading songs is to bring as many people into the singing as you can, not to give a concert,” she suggested helpfully.

They wouldn’t hear of it. And on Sabbath morning, as they held their wireless mikes close to their lips, wove in and out of complex arrangements of unfamiliar songs, expressively raised their hands, closed their eyes in rapture, and blasted the sanctuary with ever-increasing decibel levels from keyboards, guitars, and drums . . . neither could the congregation.

As we’ll discuss later, less really can be more when it comes to congregational singing.