A Strategy That Calls People to Sing

by Matthew Raley

The reason churches need to recover the folk singing dynamic is that individuals need to be called out of their own heads to participate in the singing of the body of Christ. Believers are too rooted in their own passions to grow in Christ. They need to pull out their headphones and make music with others, as Ephesians 5 describes. I believe that what’s at stake in this issue is not their emotional satisfaction in worship, but their spiritual growth.

So here is the strategy we have followed in Orland to recover the folk singing dynamic:

1. We’ve given up the right to sing the music we each prefer as individuals.

Look, if I never sang another chorus, I’d be happier. Speaking as a music consumer, the entire CCM industry could disappear tomorrow and my quality of life would be undiminished.

But the reality is that very few believers feel in their guts the kind of music that I feel in mine, the kind of music that I respond to most passionately as a listener. So I have to make a decision. Am I going to claim the right to sing in worship the music that I prefer for listening?

No, I don’t have that right. Christ is glorified, and I am edified, when I join others and we raise our voices together.

In Orland — a rural, small Evangelical Free church — we brought in all sorts of instruments, including the dreaded drums, without a worship war. Believers here saw the need to give up this “right.”

2. We’ve made no effort to produce a certain style.

Six years ago, when our we began to change our worship, we did not pursue a certain demographic, demanding that those not in that demographic get out of the way. We said frankly that we didn’t know what the style of the music was going to be. Our style would emerge over time.

3. We have embraced the musicians and singers we have, in all their diversity, and asked them to work together to lead the congregation.

We have the usual instruments, and the usual musical backgrounds: classical, rock, CCM, bluegrass. We asked all the musicians to go back to basic rehearsal and performance skills, like listening to the other players and finding a good blend, establishing rhythmic integrity, and responding to the expressiveness of others. We found that the classically trained musicians picked up improvisation, while the rock players saw better results from lower volume. (More in a moment.)

4. We have adopted a stripped-down singing style.

Vocal leaders understood that their job was not to have a personal worship experience in front of the congregation, as if they could lead “by example.” Their job — their service of worship to God — was to give leadership that the congregation could follow musically. Singers did not slide up to notes, syncopate for expression, or ornament melodic lines. They sang the notes that they wanted the congregation to sing.

A funny thing happened. The congregation sang.

5. We put strong doctrinal and devotional themes into our singing.

A theme is a developing idea. “Jesus” is not a strong theme. “Jesus is loving” is not a strong theme, either. Both are too general. A strong theme has potential for development: “Jesus’ love is sacrificial” is somewhat better.

For several years, we aligned the sermon with the scripture reading, and took a theme for the singing from them. This year, our readings aren’t aligned with the sermon, but cover the history of redemption up to the birth of Christ. Next year, the readings will cover biblical doctrine. We sing lyrics, regardless of style, that best develop the themes in the readings.

What’s that? You don’t have scripture readings in your worship services?! What exactly is the source of your unity, then?

6. We encourage a variety of musicians to do solos, including young people.

There is a place for solos — that is, for individual testimony in music to the greatness of God. Just as we combined a variety of musicians in the leadership team, so we encourage a wide range of styles in soloists. We have bluegrass, Gaither, CCM, classical. We’ve even had fifes. It was thrilling.

7. We minimize electronic amplification as best we can.

Most contemporary worship services are stupidly loud. You wouldn’t hear the congregation even if they were singing.

A worship service is not a rock concert. So we took out many of the monitors (small speakers that help the musicians hear), lowered the overall volume, emphasized the vocals, and brought up the weaker instruments (e.g. acoustic guitars). These decisions had a lot to do with the “live,” hard-surfaced room in which we sing.

This approach gives enough amplification so that the congregation can follow, but not so much that they’re drowned out.

Over the last six years, this strategy has produced a service that is different. It’s unique to us. People who come with strong stylistic preferences don’t like it. But people who come to participate in a community find that there is a healthy one to join.


5 thoughts on “A Strategy That Calls People to Sing

Add yours

  1. Great practical insight. Couldn’t agree more. Although, some of us a few hours south of you on I-5 are still lamenting the loss of two of our best musicians. {bitter}

    I’m curious what you think about professional musicians in the church (hired hacks).

  2. I’m happy to report that I’m part of a church with a strong folk-inspired worship ensemble. I have been in several church ensembles in my life and it has been by far the best Christian music experience I’ve had.

    Because of the size of the church, we must amply everything, voices included. However, we only acoustic guitars with the exception of the keyboard and electric bass. It’s a very accessible and fun type of music and is very popular even with older folks who may prefer traditional music. Mostly everyone in our group is older, except for me (late 50s, one gentlemen is 70 and I’m 20).

    The best part is that we have no reason to be what we’re not. We have not attempted to conjure a sound other than what we are and it’s amazing. Everyone plays how they know how to and everything works both musically and in terms of personality.

    I’m all for the folk approach. It’s awesome.

  3. Matthew,
    “Dreaded drums” — that’s funny. Why does a drummer leave his sticks on the dashboard of his car? So he can park in the handicap spot. What do you call a guy who likes to hang out with musicians? A drummer.

    OK, as a drummer, I have heard them all. “More cowbell”… For many good reasons, the drummer has gotten the sharp-end. There are far too many examples that have tipped us over the edge into the “dreaded” zone. I have been witness to far too much of it— all the while cringing. So, granted.

    But, there are a number of us who understand the kit as a total instrument, and one that is to be approached with as much care and sensitivity as any violinist takes with their bow and resin. We are few, the happy few, but we are out there. Melody, texture, warmth, depth, support and response — these are the words in our musical vocabulary.

    Any way, just making a plug. I am truly enjoying your blog Matthew. Take care.

  4. Christopher,

    May your tribe increase! You’re absolutely right about the potential of the kit in the right hands, and I love to hear it explored.

    We just got a drummer who has a tremendous vocabulary of styles and patterns. It’s a joy to hear how a dull melody gains interest when he makes a counter-intuitive change.

    Sorry about “dreaded.” But I know a lot of singer jokes too …

    Thanks so much for your comment!

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