In a recent article posted on a worship blog, Keith Getty (who, along with Stuart Townend, has written modern hymn classics such as “In Christ Alone,” “The Power of the Cross,” and “Speak, O Lord”) provided “Five Tips to Improve Congregational Singing.” The entire article is well worth reading, and all of the tips should be given due consideration. But since I’m primarily addressing my fellow pastors in this column, I want to reiterate only one of those tips, and it’s the first one: “Begin with the pastor.”
You read that correctly. Getty’s first and most important tip for improving congregational singing is to start with us, not ministers of music, not musicians, not choir members, not the congregation, but pastors.
In fact, Getty makes the following observation: “Look at any congregation not engaged in worship through singing and the most consistent correlation is a senior pastor equally as disengaged. Ultimately the buck stops with him in congregational worship.” When I read that comment the first time, I had two thoughts. One, ouch! Two, he’s exactly right.
Pastors, we need to own up to the fact that we may very well be the ones most to blame if our congregations aren’t engaged in worship through singing. Let’s face it. If our churches don’t value congregational singing, it’s likely because we don’t value it. While everyone is supposed to be singing together, we’re busy fumbling through our notes or looking around at who’s there or not there. Or worse, we just stand there with our arms folded, waiting on “our” turn.
No wonder our congregations aren’t engaged in singing (especially the men). They don’t see us joining in the song. And whether we like it or not, they often take their cues from us. So don’t expect the sheep to sing if their shepherds are silent. Brothers, we have a pastoral responsibility to model the significance of congregational singing for our churches.
But not only do we have a responsibility to model the importance of congregational singing, we also have a duty to be involved in its planning. And for too long now, we pastors have been derelict in this duty. We have completely neglected this aspect of our calling, laying it all at the feet of music ministers and musicians. But Getty reminds us how important it is that we too be involved in this planning when he writes, “Every pastor must be intimately involved in the language being placed in the congregation’s mouth, for that singing ultimately affects how they think, how they feel, how they pray, and how they live.”
Did you catch that? A congregation’s songs affect how they think, how they feel, how they pray, and how they live. We too easily forget that people learn as much theology from the songs they sing as the sermons they hear, which means that one of our greatest opportunities to instill sound theology in our congregations is to plan theologically rich songs for them to sing on a weekly basis.
We have no grounds to complain about the shallow nature of the songs we sing if we’re not willing to be involved in helping choose better ones. Brothers, this is not an optional or peripheral part of our calling; it is central to it. We may not sing in tune, we may not play an instrument, and we may not read music, but that doesn’t excuse us from fulfilling our role in worship leadership and worship planning. This is far too important to the life and health of our churches to simply shrug it off or think the duty belongs to someone else.
In fact, I dare say that if many of our pastoral heroes from the past could come back to speak to us, they would rebuke us for our negligence in this area. Let’s not forget that many of the songs we know and love (and that our congregations know and love) were written by pastors — pastors who cared deeply about worship and saw the significance of congregational singing. Historically speaking, then, we are the anomalies, not them. Now, I’m not saying that you necessarily need to start writing hymns and worship songs (though that would be great if you feel gifted in that area), but I am saying that you ought to care about the songs that are sung in your congregation.
So fellow pastors, I plead with you to join me in making congregational worship, and congregational singing in particular, a priority in our ministries. Let’s recognize our responsibility to model its significance in our worship gatherings. And let’s reclaim our duty in helping plan the songs our congregations sing. For the sake of our churches and for the sake of God’s praise, we pastors need to be better students of worship, both biblically and historically, so that we can help place appropriate language in the mouths of the congregation. Keith Getty is right: “Ultimately, the buck stops with [us] in congregational worship.”