About Congregational Singing

I recently attended a traditional worship service where the emotional and spiritual highlight for me was the opening and closing hymns.  This was not because the sermon message was subpar (far from it), but because of the quality of congregational singing.  The opening hymn that Sunday was “When Peace Like a River”, and the closing hymn “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”.

I hesitate to bring up the importance of congregational singing, because this particular worship ministry challenge can present something of an “uneven playing field”, especially for smaller churches. So full disclosure: In the above worship service I was one of about 150 worshipers.  So you could argue that my positive worship “experience” would not have been so memorable if I had been one of only 35 or 40.  In fact, in that scenario I might have only heard my own voice during these hymns. (Heaven forbid!)

However, I am absolutely convinced that the following worship music principle is true for congregations of virtually any size, not just mid-sized or large churches.   The principle is this: For any church worship service that includes hymns (or contemporary songs), the quality of congregational singing will usually depend on two factors: The familiarity and popularity (among worshipers) of a given hymn.  And this principle is just as true for a worshiping community of 50 or fewer as it is for a worship gathering of 150 or more.  In fact, the fewer people present at a worship service the more awkward it is for worshipers to feel comfortable and motivated to sing aloud when the hymn is not familiar and not a “favorite”.

Here are some questions that might have already come to mind for some of you:

  1. “How am I to determine my congregation’s “favorites”?”  If you don’t trust your own judgment on this matter, a congregational survey might be in order.  This can be done during announcements on a well-attended Sunday.  Those worshipers who need more time can be invited to take the survey home and return it the following Sunday.
  2. “What about when we want to introduce a new, less familiar hymn?”  Unless you have an above-average vocal song leadership team to help, do not introduce unfamiliar compositions at the beginning or end of a worship service.  You don’t want the first or last impressions of worshipers on that Sunday to be based on trying to sing unfamiliar and potentially difficult hymns.  Instead, “teach” and lead an unfamiliar hymn toward the middle of your service; perhaps after the sermon.  And please, let them learn this hymn sitting down.
  3. “What about when we have a particular yet unfamiliar hymn we want to introduce based on the lyrics alone?”  Trust me on this: If your worshipers can’t sing it, it is unlikely they will appreciate the lyrics.  A suggestion: Have the lyrics printed out in the bulletin (or projected), and play an audio or video recording of this composition.

There is one additional reason for selecting familiar “favorites” for your opening and closing hymns: Quality congregational singing goes a long way toward encouraging members to worship in-person rather than online.  Why?  Because quality online vocal worship music is, more often than not, a oxymoron.  When watching online worship the viewer typically only hears the amplified voices of song leaders; or the two or three worshipers that happen to be closest to the microphone.  In fact, I later watched the very same service I mentioned above online.  The sermon message was just as good, but not the hymns.  All I heard during the hymns was the voices of two song leaders.  I could not hear the congregation at all.

So if you suspect that the quality of your congregation’s singing can be improved, I have a suggestion.  If you currently draw from a list of over one hundred different compositions for your opening and closing hymns, consider this challenge: Shorten your list to the fifty hymns and songs you deem—or discern to be, through a survey—your congregation’s familiar “favorites”.  Then for at least three months, only select your opening and closing hymns from this list.  (Just one caveat: If your worship attendance averages less than about fifty, avoid compositions—no matter how familiar—that are beyond the vocal range of most of your worshipers.)  My conviction is that, over this three-month trial period, you will be pleasantly surprised by what you hear.

Pastor Don Brandt

Congregations in Transition

The Congregational Lay-leadership Initiative

Increasing (in-Person) Worship Attendance: “One Sunday at a Time”

From a Washington Post article on March 29, 2021: “Church membership in the United States has fallen below the majority [of the population] for the first time in nearly a century … First time this has happened since Gallup first asked the question in 1937, when church membership was 73%.”

Some caveats here: Gallup uses a “scientific” yet relatively small number of respondents for their surveys.  However, Pew Research uses a far larger number of respondents.  And Pew has been seeing a similar, dramatic decline when it comes to not only whether people are formally affiliated with religious institutions (i.e., membership), but also a significant decline in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christian.  Second caveat: This Gallup survey was focused on formal institutional affiliation, and Americans have become increasingly cynical about almost all institutions, not just religious ones.  But again, I would refer you to multiple Pew Religious Survey results which have been revealing significant declines not just in formal church membership, but in people self-identifying as Christians by faith.

Now back to this very recent Gallup survey.  From a long-term historical perspective — something Gallup provides — this current survey should be something of a “wake-up call” for church leaders.  One more quote from the Washington Post article: “In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque.”  This Gallup survey “also found that the number of people who also said religion was very important to them has fallen to 48%, a new low point in their polling” going all the way back to 1937.

Not surprisingly, the Gallup and Pew Research findings are being reflected in decreasing worship attendance.  And this worship attendance decline was painfully evident in a majority of Lutheran congregations long before the current pandemic.

In the last issue of this newsletter I wrote of ways to improve what your congregation offers to online worshipers.  And I do consider online worship as a needed outreach strategy in the years to come.  However, do not think you can afford to give up on offering quality in-person worship.  Those who already are — and soon will be — worshiping in person deserve your congregation’s best efforts.  Below are some specific, practical suggestions regarding how you can incrementally increase in-person worship attendance: “One Sunday at a Time.

As mentioned, a majority of Lutheran congregations were already dealing with decreasing worship attendance even before COVID.  Needless to say, this can be demoralizing for faithful members on a “number” of levels.  First of all, for them this is about more than numbers, because this decreasing attendance represents friends who are “missing in action”; whether due to inactivity, their having moved, or illness.  Whatever the factors involved, low worship attendance is perhaps the single clearest indication — to members and visitors alike — of a congregation in decline.  Given this fact, anything that pastors and lay leaders can do to noticeably increase attendance will most likely improve congregational morale and bring added energy and enthusiasm to worship services.

Perhaps the best, initial strategy would be having the pastor and a few congregational leaders commit to meeting monthly to coordinate the implementation — one Sunday at a time — to the following, multiple strategies.  (Disclaimer: This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I realize your congregation might already be employing some of these ideas.)  I encourage you to utilize at least one of these ideas on any given Sunday.

1. Special Music – This could be a solo, a duet, a vocal ensemble, or an instrumental performance. Offering this not only improves the quality of your worship celebration, but it also requires the presence of the above musicians; many of whom bring one or more guests to hear them perform.

2. Congregational Sermon Survey – In preparation for the next Sunday’s sermon these very short surveys can be filled out by worshipers during the previous Sunday’s worship service.  Tell them not to sign.  Mention that you will be using some of their comments and opinions in the pastor’s next sermon (or sermon series).  Odds are this will be an encouragement for some otherwise infrequent worshipers to definitely show up the following Sunday.

3. Drama Skits – There are excellent Christian drama skits available.  One example: Drama Ministry at dramaministry.com.  This Christian ministry offers over 750 small-cast scripts for performance. Obviously, a short (usually under 10 minute) drama means the guaranteed presence of not just cast members, but probably their families, and maybe some friends.  Note: Many of these scripts are quite humorous.

4.  Refreshments Following the Service –  Provide a light “brunch”; if not weekly, then perhaps monthly.

5.  Involve Children and/or Teens in Some Part of the Service (They typically come with parents!) – This could be a musical performance, or as Scripture readers, or ushers and greeters.

6.  Celebrate and Honor People from Your Community – Do this as part of your worship service and invite not just members who qualify but non-members from the community as guests on this Sunday.  Some examples include schoolteachers, first-responders, veterans, fire fighters, police officers and especially in this time of COVID, health care workers.

7.  Enlist Additional Volunteers to Celebrate Church Year Festival Sundays – Maybe enlist members who are infrequent worshipers to help out on these Sundays.  In addition to Christmas and Easter, do not forget the first Sunday in Advent, Epiphany Sunday, Palm Sunday, All Saints Sunday, and Pentecost.  Plan for creative ways to utilize these volunteers.

8.  Use Special Video Resources – While this strategy does not increase attendance on a given Sunday, it can improve the overall quality of your worship celebration.  And that will most likely improve attendance over time.  Free resources on the internet include live performance music videos from Mercy Me (“Even If”) and Chris Tomlin (“Is He Worthy”); and many more.  Obviously, you need to be sure that showing any given video does not violate any copyright laws.  There are also short sermonettes online that could emphasize the pastor’s theme for a given Sunday.  Additional video resources that involve a reasonable fee include drama skits from “The Skitguys” at skitguys.com, and video messages available from the ministry Sermonspice at sermonspice.com.

Obviously, this is only a partial list.  And you can no doubt come up with more and better ideas for your congregation.  But remember the principal that underlies all of the above: Working on the quality of your worship celebration not just for your faithful worshipers, but in the hope of connecting with new people over time.  So why not organize that small team, involving the pastor and a few lay leaders, to strategize and plan for worship attendance growth: “One Sunday at a Time.”

Note: In the next CORE newsletter issue I will cover the theme of “How to Disciple Online Worshipers.”

Grateful Client’s Experience with CiT

Editor’s Note: Jody Ellingson is the former call committee chair and transition team member of American Lutheran Church (LCMC), Long Prairie, Minnesota. She wrote this unsolicited recommendation about the ministry of Lutheran CORE’s Congregation in Transition (CIT) program.

 It was bittersweet reading our pastor’s retirement announcement in the summer of 2019.  Pastor Bill had been the pastor at American Lutheran Church for over ten years and was deeply loved by our congregation.  We were certainly going to miss him!  However, we were also happy for him as he transitioned to the next chapter in his life.  In true Pastor Bill fashion, he set our church up for success as he prepared for his own departure.  Not only did he give our congregation an entire year’s notice before his retirement, he also set us up with CIT.

     When I was asked to join the Transition Team (and eventually the Call Committee), I was excited for the new opportunity, but naive about the process.  Honestly, up until that point in my life, I had never even heard the terms “call process” or “call committee.”  I grew up Catholic and Pastor Bill had been my only pastor since joining American Lutheran Church as an adult.  “What do you mean we have to find our own pastor?  Aren’t we just automatically sent a new one once Pastor Bill retires?”  Nope!  OK, so where do we even begin?  Thankfully, we had our CiT coach, Pastor Don Brandt, to guide us through the process.

     In the fall of 2019, Pastor Don made a trip to American Lutheran Church.  He spent the weekend setting us up for a successful transition and call process.  We held a meeting open to the congregation where he explained the current pastoral supply situation.  We discussed the future of our congregation, including the potential challenges and opportunities facing us during our transition.  Pastor Don then met with the Transition Team, where we dove deeper into the unique characteristics and needs of our congregation.  Over the next several weeks, the Transition Team held multiple conference calls with Pastor Don.  Together, we made a plan to keep all areas of our church ministry functioning during the transition between pastors.  We discussed CiT’s “Wish List” congregational survey results, which indicated the hopes and concerns of our members moving forward.  We also discussed the next steps to take in the call process.  The Transition Team then compiled all the information we gathered into a detailed report for the Call Committee and Church Council.  Pastor Don also provided specific step by step recommendations for the Call Committee to follow.  With all the background work complete, once the Call Committee was formed, we were able to hit the ground running.  We had already received materials from applicants by the time our Call Committee first met!  Even though, at this point, our scheduled calls with Pastor Don were complete, he still maintained close communication with our Call Committee.  He was available via email to answer any questions and to coach us through the call process.  

     We all remember March of 2020 and the difficulties the country faced as the pandemic brought our lives as we knew them to a halt.  As we were in the interview phase of the call process, the shutdown created a whole unique set of circumstances that we had never before encountered.  Words cannot express my gratitude for Pastor Don’s guidance and patience during this time.  His responses and advice were nothing less than thoughtful, thorough, and timely.  With CiT’s help we were able to overcome hurdles, forge ahead (although there were definitely delays) and find the pastor God already had in mind for our congregation.

     Should your congregation face a time of transition and a search for a new pastor, I cannot recommend enough the Congregations in Transition ministry.  What an amazing gift for taking an overwhelming transition process and breaking it down to specific, simplified steps.  I am so thankful we had CiT to guide us through our transition process!

Note regarding CiT assistance during Covid: As the pandemic is still presenting unique challenges for all of us, the CiT process is now entirely “at a distance.”  This involves Zoom meetings, conference phone calls and on-going email communications with “client” congregations.  The good news is that because of this congregations do not have any coach traveling costs to cover.  As a result, the only cost to your congregation is an initial $175 registration fee paid to Lutheran CORE.