Why will no one sing with me? Part II
In part one, we talked about some of the reasons why people find it difficult to sing, and my feeling is, that ultimately it boils down to confidence, and enjoyment. Singing an unfamiliar song at a pitch that is uncomfortably high (or low) is not enjoyable. In fact, it’s often hard work, and makes it difficult to actually focus on the act of worshipping. In the first part of this article, we talked about pitch, and collaborating as a team to find what works for your congregation. Now I want to look at helping to build people’s confidence by giving them a chance to get to know the songs they’ll be singing, by restricting the number of songs that you use.
I was talking to a musician recently who estimated that if they listed all of the songs that their congregation had sung over the last year, there would be about 200 songs on that list. Most of us use 5-7 songs per Sunday service. So, if we take 200 individual songs, and use 5 different ones each week (200 divided by 5) it will be 40 weeks until we get back to the beginning of the list. Which means that someone new to your church, potentially has to be coming for 9 months before they hear a song more than once. And when you consider that most people aren't there every Sunday, that time frame gets even longer. And it's not just new people that are missing out. Those who are lacking confidence will find it much easier if they are familiar with the songs they are singing.
In addition to the benefits to the congregation of a restricted song list (and not to be underestimated in my opinion) is the benefit to your team. Your musicians will most likely volunteer their time, rather than be paid for it, and have limited time available to practice and learn songs. If they have a smaller pool to draw from, they will be able to get to grips with those songs far better, and be able to focus more on leading and worshipping, and less on getting the notes right. And please take it from me, speaking as a musician and volunteer in my local church, the last few years have been hard work. The more we can do to ease the burden on our volunteers right now, the better!
Another big plus to having a restricted song list, is that it encourages a sense of belonging and group identity. A sense of ‘this is us, and these are our songs'. There are great examples of this in wider society, and it’s always been a normal part of human socialisation. Just think of the marching songs, or trench songs of the First and Second World Wars. Think of Liverpool fans, who know that they'll "never walk alone". Or residents of East London who express the bittersweet mix of hope and disappointment, that is an enduring feature of supporting West Ham United, by singing choruses of "I'm forever blowing bubbles" (A song of solidarity first sung in the communal underground shelters of East London tube stations during the blitz). As followers of Jesus, we have "a hope and a future" and our songs are an important part of how we both remember and express that; uniting us with those who we stand alongside in our local congregation, as well as believers in other times and other places who have lifted up the same songs to the same Jesus! Music can be a powerful tool in creating a strong group identity.
Now, I hear your concern - mostly because it's the same concern people always have when I suggest they cut their song list down to 40 songs (yup, that's right, I said 40... we'll come back to that in a minute). The first question people ask is "What about Christmas Carols?!". Well, it's ok. You'll create a separate list for Advent and Christmas, and possibly other seasons and festivals too, if you feel that would be beneficial. The second concern that people tend to raise is that it will get 'boring' or 'repetitive' or they won't be able to be 'flexible'. Again, please don't worry. The aim is for your list to be a helpful tool, not a burden or a restriction. In fact, most people who try this, end up finding it easier to keep things feeling fresh, because they intentionally review what works, and what doesn't, and are able to add and remove songs accordingly – rather than just falling into the same routines. And ultimately, it's your list, so you can always change it if it isn’t working after you’ve tried it for a while.
So why 40 songs? Well, there’s nothing magic about the number 40 (although it is one of those numbers that pops up in scripture quite a lot, so maybe there is something there..?), it’s mostly that by trial and error, I’ve found it to be about the right number. Based on the calculations we used previously, if you’re using all of the songs, then you should have some of them repeated after about a month. But the popular ones will get chosen more, and you will probably find that some of them don’t get picked much at all. For that reason, 30 felt like too few when I tried that. At the other end, When I tried a list of 50, it was too many to really get to grips with in a meaningful way. [n.b. In my current congregation, we have a separate list of about 10 songs that we use for kids church, and inter-generational worship. All of the stuff I’ve said applies even more so to children, so it’s good to get together the people responsible for the children’s, family’s and musical areas of church life and work together on a bespoke list - although this doesn’t mean I won’t expect adults to join in with the ‘kids’ songs… but that’s a whole other article].
Built into the method, is a review of the list, to periodically identify which songs to keep and which to remove. Again by trial and error, I think that once agreed upon, the list should remain untouched, for at least 3 months, but should definitely be reviewed within 6 months. I would also advocate ONLY changing up to 10-15 songs when you review the list, in order to maintain consistency.
So that’s it. Get together with some key people in your church, compile a reasonably varied list of 40 songs and then sit with those songs for the next three to four months. I promise you, your congregation will be better able to join in, your musicians will find their burdens lifted, you’ll develop a stronger group identity, and you’ll be singing like a bunch of rowdy football fans before you know it (well, maybe not that last one… unless that’s what your church is into).
Remember when choosing, that in the Church of England, the vicar has the power to over-ride or veto the organist (you know the joke about organists and terrorists right?) and that rule also applies to guitarists and vocalists. But the idea is for this to be an enjoyable collaborative experience that will refresh your worship life.
I’ve created a work sheet for teams to use, to help guide them through the process. If you do decide to give it a try, I’d love to hear how you get on, so please do get in touch to let me know!
You can find the work sheet here
(You will need an Equip Hub account to download the sheet, but all that's needed to create one is your name and email address. If you already have an account, you'll need to log in).
You can contact me at email@example.com with any questions, and if it would be beneficial for you and your team to have an outside facilitator, I would be more than happy to come and help you work through any of the issues I’ve outlined, or any others you may want to address.
James Henney is the Diocesan Worship and Discipleship Enabler. He is keen to work with anyone who wants to develop their leadership in both Worship and Discipleship, and as well as being an experienced Worship leader, is also a trained Coach.