As I have discussed previously, to worship is to orient one’s life around something as the ultimate source of value and meaning. But we can also talk about worship as a specific act or event. We might talk about worshipping at a Sunday service, or worshipping while listening to certain songs at home.
In such settings, “worship” is often equated with “music.” But the act of worship is much more than music, and music, lovely as it is, is not even truly necessary for worship. Worship is the act in which we recognize God for who he is, submit and offer ourselves to him, and participate in the divine life of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
This participation in the life of God is brought to its consummation in the Eucharist, or Communion, as we physically partake of the body and blood of Christ, joining ourselves to Christ’s sacrifice and receiving his grace. Indeed, just as worship was focused on sacrifice in the Old Testament, so in the New Testament, worship in the early church is centered on the breaking of bread together (ie, Eucharist – Acts 2:42, 1 Corinthians 10 & 11). Singing is certainly also commended, but it is never depicted as the central act of worship.
This communion with God and each other is the reason we gather every Sunday to worship corporately. The Bible described Christians as the hands and feet of Christ, together joined in one body of which Christ is the head (1 Corinthians 12). We cannot fulfill our roles as hands or feet or eyes in the body of Christ unless we are joined to the other parts of the body. And for this reason, our worship attains its truest form corporately, when we join together with the other parts of the body (Christ and the church). We can worship God individually, of course, but it is as a corporate body that we find our true identity within Christ. Our identity in Christ is inextricably tied up in the church.
So we do not gather merely to add our individual voices together into something louder. We do not gather merely to improve our individual understandings of Scripture. We gather primarily to participate in the life of God, and to commune with God and one another as the one body of Christ.
Participation, Communion, and Music
This view of worship has been crucial to my understanding over the last decade of what I should be doing as a music director. If the goal of corporate worship is participation and communion with Christ and one another, how does music contribute to this goal?
To start at the end, we don’t merely want congregants to participate if they are participating in the wrong thing. We could easily achieve participation by screening a college football game, or hosting a rock concert, or any number of other things that encourage people to participate in something larger than themselves (unfortunately, some churches seem to think such participation, regardless of its object, is indeed the goal of worship). But we are specifically trying to engender participation in communion with God and each other.
Musically, this means choosing songs that teach good theology, that encourage appropriate reverence towards God, that provide hope and solace, etc. Basically, the music should not just be whatever we want, but should have a certain content and character that connects to the nature of God and his church.
The content of our music is another topic unto itself which I will not explore here. But if we are confident that the content of our music is appropriately directed to God, how do we contribute to the congregation’s participation in worship? Assuming that congregants actually desire to commune with God and one another, and assuming that as embodied creatures our physical involvement is central to communing with God through corporate worship (see e.g., the example of the sacraments, and James K.A. Smith), here are a few principles that I think are crucial to this pursuit:
Sing the melody. This might sound obvious, but unfortunately I don’t think it is. Most people in the congregation are not musically trained and are easily distracted from the melody of the song. The most common way this happens is when the main singer adds complex flourishes or embellishments to the song, either melodically or rhythmically, so that he/she is not singing the same note at the same time as the bulk of the congregation. When this happens, many people stop singing, and if they stop singing, they obviously are not participating.
The other way it happens is by an overemphasis on harmony. There must be a strong, clear voice on the melody at all times, preferably the leader of the group, so that it is easy for the congregation to join up. Harmony is wonderful, but it can easily distract from participation if the people singing harmony are stronger than the melody. It is better to have no harmony than to have an obscured melody.
Keep it simple. Too much complexity in any aspect of the music (in addition to point 1) can dissuade the congregation from participating. For example, more than one singer on a given part (individuals with mics, not a choir) can be very distracting because it is so easy for variations to occur between the singers, with slight differences of melody or rhythm that can confuse the congregation. The same is true of too many instruments (especially too many of the same instrument). Unless the musicians are very well rehearsed, it is generally better to have one musician per part than two.
Turn down the volume. People are much less likely to sing if they can’t hear themselves and their neighbors. The volume should be loud enough that there is clear leadership from the music team, but quiet enough that the congregation can hear their own voices. In order for music to be participatory, there must be space for the congregation’s voice. If the music sounds the same with or without a congregation, due to the music team’s volume, it is not encouraging participation.
Choose your keys wisely. Most people cannot sing very high, and they cannot sing very low. But many music leaders choose keys based on what makes themselves sound good, not based on what the congregation can sing. There is of course some natural variability, but trying to pick keys that are easy for the congregation to sing is important. I have found that a range of B on the low side to D an octave up tends to be effective, with occasional tunes that go above or below those bounds slightly, but only for a few notes.
Choose songs with singable ranges. As a corollary, it is also important to sing individual songs with singable ranges. Some modern worship songs are written as performance pieces for accomplished vocalists with much larger ranges than the average congregant. If the range is too big (more than a 10th or 11th), people will stop singing it. Consider carefully.
Repeat. Sing songs frequently enough that people will come to know them well and can participate in them more fully, not having to think a lot about following along. But don’t sing them so often that they become wearisome and trite.
Balancing Quality with Involvement
One other topic that bears special consideration is quality. Most musicians (myself included) care a lot about the quality of their music. This is appropriate both because we ourselves are worshippers and we want to offer our best to God, and because it is easier for congregants to participate themselves when the quality of music is high. But musical excellence in corporate worship is not the top priority. Again, it is worth remembering that corporate worship is not a concert, and the primary task of the music team is to encourage participation.
Sometimes one must forsake some amount of quality in order to encourage participation. Perhaps there is a musician who is not as talented but who is eager to participate. If the quality of the music team overall is not significantly degraded by that person’s participation, it may well be appropriate to include them (but not always – it can indeed be distracting for everyone to have a poor musician leading). Similarly, a talented musician whose attitude distracts or discourages others from fully participating (including others on the music team) may need to be excluded if unwilling to change.
Each situation is unique and should be approached with care and wisdom, but my point is simply that quality is not the top priority. Quality is important, but it should always serve the higher goal of participation in a corporate worship setting.
Of course I have not covered many topics, such as music intended to stretch the congregation (with low participation at first), music that comes from other parts of the Christian tradition, or special music “performed” without the congregation. But for the majority of music sung corporately, these principles have served me well in my time as a music director.
It is easy for musicians to get caught up in the music and treat it as a performance, but it is not a performance. God surely delights when his people use their talents to their full, and there are times and places for musicians to worship God through performance. But that should never be the key focus during corporate worship, which is intended as a time to gather everyone together as the body of Christ. I hope these principles help you as you seek to lead others into communion with God.