Congregational Singing


A church music director has a twofold responsibility: That of giving every member in the congregation a touch of musical experience, and that of further developing the especially talented. Neither responsibility should be neglected. It is with congregational singing that a music director can exert his musical influence over the greatest number of people at any one time. This is the starting point in developing a vital, total music program in a church. Once the entire congregation is reached with musical inspiration, the task of recruiting and developing other groups becomes much easier.

Psychologists tell us that singing is a natural human behavior and is basically enjoyed by everyone. Congregational singing, then, is not only beneficial to the individual, but active congregational participation in a service should always be one of the chief distinguishing characteristics of evangelical Protestantism. Congregational singing is one of the most important expressions of one of the basic tenets of the evangelical position, that of the priesthood I of the individual believer. This principle was one of the important issues in the Reformation movement of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In our church life today there is no finer sight than a congregation of believers heartily enjoying this great heritage.

(Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16)

A song service for any service should have several basic objectives. A song leader must continually be aware of these objectives and keenly desirous of accomplishing these spiritual ideals. Without this awareness and desire a song service can easily become either sheer entertainment or a mere time-consuming activity. The following are several of these spiritual objectives of a song service:

1. A song service should provide the means of unifying a group by providing a common channel for individuals to join together in worship, prayer and praise.

2. A song service should teach and reinforce spiritual truths.

3. A song service should provide individuals with an outlet for expressions of personal soul attitudes and experiences which often are difficult to express in one’s own words.

4. A song service should create the proper mood for the message and the remainder of the service.


It is often said that the spiritual status of a church can be gauged by its congregational singing. It is further contended that great periods in church history, periods of revival and spiritual fervor, have always been characterized by great hymn singing. It must be admitted, however, that today in many of our evangelical churches congregational singing is not in a healthy state. For the most part, congregational singing is either a giddy, superficial, emotional activity or has degenerated into an experience to be endured.

How different would be the singing in our churches today if worshipers would heed the directions for congregational singing given by John Wesley over 200 years ago:

SING All. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.

SING LUSTILY, and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you are half-dead or half-asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of it being heard, than when you sing the songs of Satan.

SING MODESTLY. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation–that you may not destroy the harmony–but strive to unite your voices together so as to make one clear melodious sound.

SING IN TIME. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slowly. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing our tunes as quick as we did at first.

ABOVE ALL, SING SPIRITUALLY. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward you when He cometh in the clouds of heaven.

This lack of enthusiastic, meaningful congregational singing cannot be blamed entirely on the parishioner in the pew, however. For the most part the blame must be assumed by the church’s leadership in that it has failed to maintain the inspiration and respect for this important area of church activity. There are church leaders who think of the song service as necessary traditional routine. Others merely tolerate it, regarding it only as a way of using up time until the truly important activity, the sermon. Others use the song service as a means of entertainment, or as a display of a particular group or personality, or as a means of attracting a larger crowd to the service. The true ideal, however, is a realization by each church leader that congregational singing is an integral part of the entire service. Each activity of the service, the congregational singing, special music, Scripture reading, prayers, message, etc., should not attract individual attention, but rather each should combine as a total unit in bringing true spiritual blessing to needy individuals.

This, then, is not a plea for the cheer-leading and showmanship tactics commonly associated with the term “song leader.” Rather, it is a desire for the return of sincere, inspired, meaningful leadership of congregational singing by consecrated directors. To accomplish this ideal it would be helpful if every leader of a church service would gain a basic appreciation and understanding of the subject of hymnology. This would include a knowledge of the lives of those who wrote the words of the hymns, something about the times and conditions in which they wrote, the personal experiences that prompted the writing of particular hymns, as well as a knowledge about the origins and composers of the music. For helpful texts, see Singing with Understanding by Kenneth W. Osbeck, published by Kregel Publications; The Story of Christian Hymnology by E. E. Ryden, published by Augustana Press; Hymn Tune Names by Robert Guy McCutcham, published by Abingdon Press. It is also good for a leader to encourage his people to use their hymnals along with their Bibles and other devotional materials in their personal devotions. This deeper perception of hymn appreciation will do much to relieve the flippant style of congregational singing or the stolid, sluggish type of singing found in many congregations. When people are sincerely alerted to the possibilities of spiritual enrichments from hymnody, they will respond and “sing with the spirit, and with the understanding also” (I Corinthians 14:15).

In a more formal worship service a music director’s influence over congregational singing is not as strong as it is in a more informal, evangelistic type of service. Even in the worship service, however, there are items that a director can discuss with the pastor and accompanist that will make for more meaningful singing. The director can remind the pastor of hymns that are especially appropriate for worship and easy to sing, hymns that are especially difficult to sing, hymns that are too commonly used, or unfamiliar hymns that the congregation should learn. In this regard it can be helpful if the music director knows of such hymns in advance and has the choir ready to lead the congregation forcefully in the learning of such songs.

An especially important person and one who is vitally responsible for good congregational singing is the organist. A music director must realize the importance of this person and work in close co-operation with him. By having occasional informal discussions on such topics as the purposes of church music, items of interest regarding a hymn or an anthem, improvements in the order of service, etc., an amateur organist’s entire philosophy of church music may be heightened and his sensitivity to the needs and moods of a service improved. Often an organist with years of experience will discover for the first time the thrill of creatively playing the emotional meanings of the words of each verse of a hymn rather than being content merely with the exactness of the music.


It is in the area of more informal congregational singing such as the traditional evening service that a director can exert the greatest influence in getting people to sing. This type of leadership requires much skill and wisdom if it is to be done effectively. To the song leader falls the responsibility of realizing the spiritual objectives of the song service. He must become a keen student of crowd psychology. As the leader he must unify and inspire the audience as well as guide the necessary mechanics of a service. Yet all of this must be done so that the message of the music and the spiritual emphasis of the service are the focal points of attraction rather than the leader himself.

The following are specific suggestions offered to song leaders to encourage better congregational singing:

1. Be thoroughly prepared for the service. Be well on time for the service. Know in advance such matters as the verses of a song to be used or omitted, when the audience will stand, etc. Pray earnestly for God’s guidance and blessing on the singing portion of the service.

2. Direct the service in an enthusiastic and friendly manner, yet with mature dignity. The proper position for the song leader is generally to the right of the pulpit, although this position must never become fixed or stereotyped.

3. Establish a personal, sympathetic contact with your audience. Know the words and music of a song well enough so that you aren’t tied to the book.

4. Use the conventional conducting patterns and techniques discussed in the previous chapter. Have a definite downbeat for each measure. Make all conducting movements positive, yet graceful. Avoid peculiarities and mannerisms in your conducting, such as stiffness, pointing of the index finger, etc. (An excellent means for eliminating these mannerisms is the frequent use of a mirror.)

5. Make the size and extent of the arm movements comparable to the size of the audience, the mood of the song, and the type of service being conducted.

6. Be tempo and rhythm conscious. Regardless of a song’s mood, it must be directed with enough “lift” to make it singable.

7. Always carry the melody of the song when leading with the voice. When this becomes vocally impossible, sing a harmony part under the congregation, never the melody an octave lower.

8. Lead with your voice as well as with the conducting pattern when beginning each new verse or to pick up a lagging phrase. Conserve yourself, however, when the congregation is enthusiastically singing (yet continue to show interest), so that when it is necessary to speak you have not made yourself hoarse or breathless.

9. Be the song leader and not the preacher. Don’t feel that you have to say a great deal between every verse or between the songs, yet be able to give a meaningful word about the song when it is appropriate.

10. Strive to have a lively and interesting voice quality for giving instructions. Speak slowly and firmly enough to be distinct. When announcing a hymn give the instructions at least twice. (Remember, your speaking voice is a vital factor in expressing your personality.)

11. Guard against annoying mannerisms and expressions in your speaking. This includes flagrant grammatical errors or ambiguous expressions such as, “Let us stand as we sing,” or, “hymn number two hundred and sixty.” (This could mean singing two different songs.) Also avoid mispronunciations such as pee-un-ist rather than pee-an-is” for “pianist,” etc.

12. Don’t wear out the audience by excessive standing and singing. (Generally plan to have the audience stand twice before the message.) Give opportunities to rest occasionally or to enjoy some other activity. Give enough time between verses of a song for the congregation to catch a breath so as to begin together on the new verse.

13. Don’t get into a rut with your congregation. Don’t use the same songs all of the time. (It is a good plan to keep a record of the songs you use.) Avoid using the same approach or the same expressions for beginning each service or for introducing each song.

14. Know your own church hymnal thoroughly. Strive to memorize as many songs as you can. (This always makes for the most effective directing.) It is also helpful to prepare a list of songs that are suitable for all types of services and which are found in most hymnals.

15. Try new techniques and ideas that you have seen others use successfully. However, never imitate a certain person. Be natural–be yourself.

16. Use special effects or “stunts” with extreme care and caution. Never allow these practices to let a service get out of control or to cause embarrassment to anyone. Some of these song leading practices include: dramatic pauses, sudden changes in tempo, undue holding of certain notes, antiphonal singing (one section of the audience answering another group), pitting one group of singers against another, using choruses with rounds, the use of whistling or clapping of hands, etc.

17. Work with the pastor so that the entire service emphasizes a common theme and all of the songs and activities have the same basic purpose.

18. Never allow the service to become dull and monotonous. Be inspirational. Use contrast and variety between numbers as well as between the verses of a song. Be ready for and make something of the climaxes when they occur within a song.

19. Women directors–be enthusiastic but remain feminine at all times.

20. Keep a sense of movement to the service, yet make the audience feel relaxed.


Always a challenge for any song leader is the matter of starting the service. It is the director’s responsibility to say or do the right thing so that the audience becomes quickly unified and ready to sing. There is an interesting Greek proverb which says, “The beginning is the half of all things,” or “Well begun, half done.” There is usually a great deal of initial inertia that must be overcome with any audience. Basic, of course, is the fact that a song leader must project a spirit of sincere enthusiasm that soon becomes contagious with the entire group. Most song leaders, however, use various planned approaches for beginning each song service. Some of these approaches are listed briefly as follows:

1. A warm, friendly greeting and welcome to the audience.

2. A short, personal, enthusiastic testimony which leads directly into the first song.

3. Quoting a Scripture passage which has to do with singing. For example: Psalm 149:1; Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19.

4. Quoting a verse of the first hymn to be used, then having the congregation join in spontaneously without their hymnals.

5. Beginning with prayer, asking God’s blessing upon this particular service.

6. Having a theme song or chorus for a special period of time.

7. Beginning with an unannounced special number, either instrumental or vocal.

8. Beginning with a “musical package”–several special numbers together without any announcement between each.

9. Immediately asking the congregation to stand for the first song and to remain standing for prayer.

10. Having the choir sing a verse and chorus of a familiar song, such as “Wonderful Grace of Jesus,” followed by the chorus repeated in a soft hum, during which time the pastor or song leader leads in opening prayer.


As is true in any program building, a song leader must develop a keen sense of the factors involved in maintaining an audience’s interest and attention. Once interest lags or an audience becomes restless, it usually is a difficult task to recapture that attention during the remainder of the service. A song leader must not only capture an audience’s attention and maintain that interest throughout the song service, but he must actually build that interest so that the people are prepared and eager to receive the spoken word. An audience’s interest is maintained as a song leader is able to achieve a balance of unity and variety within a song service. Although there should be a unified theme throughout the service, a director should be aware of choosing songs with contrasting tempos, moods and rhythms. Songs should be selected so that a charge of key is possible when moving from one song to the next. Special music such as soloists and various musical groups within the church can also be used to give relief from continuous singing as well as to provide greater variety and interest. The following additional suggestions are offered as possible helps for maintaining interest within a song service:

1. Use various groups of people or sections of the congregation to sing or play various verses or parts of a song.

2. Use medleys–a chain of several songs or songs and choruses, for the purpose of getting the people to respond spontaneously.

3. Occasionally give the story or background about the song or perhaps some interesting incident associated with the use of the song in the past.

4. Occasionally have just the voices sing unaccompanied.

5. Occasionally have the audience merely read the words of a verse of a song or perhaps hum while the words are read or as a soloist sings the words, etc.

6. Occasionally have the accompanist raise the key by a half step for a verse of a song in order to achieve greater exhilaration for those words when appropriate.

7. Occasionally have “Audience Favorites”–just one verse of various individuals’ favorite hymns.

8. Have the congregation learn and try to appreciate new or unfamiliar hymns by having a hymn of the month. (It is always good to have a definite and practical plan for learning new songs and choruses each month.)

9. Occasionally have a service with a song sermon. An entire service of congregational singing based on a common theme, “heaven,” “peace,” “assurance,” etc., or perhaps a program of songs all written by the same hymn writer.

10. Use an appropriate poem, humorous story or anecdote when in good taste.


With regard to choosing and teaching new gospel choruses to an audience as part of a song service, the following suggestions arc given:

1. The words of the chorus should be simple, should contain a sound Scriptural truth or have a significant Scriptural thought.

2. The melody and rhythm of the chorus should lend themselves to easy learning.

3. Know the chorus perfectly before trying to teach others. It is always wise to have a copy of the words regardless of how well one may think he knows the chorus.

4. Be sure the accompanist has a copy of the music and has had an opportunity to play the chorus before the time of the service.

5. It will be helpful for a director to make his own collection of choruses based on various subjects–praise, prayer, consecration, etc.

6. A procedure for teaching a short chorus:

a. Give an introduction to the chorus so that a desire is created for the audience to learn the chorus.

b. Give the words while the accompanist plays the music.

c. Sing the chorus for the congregation, or possibly have the choir or others ready to help you sing.

d. Repeat the words again without music.

e. Have the congregation try it through while you help by singing above them, inserting a word or phrase just before they sing it, and by indicating with your hand the direction of the melody.

f. Have the congregation repeat the chorus several times but have a valid reason for requesting each repetition.

g. Review this chorus the next week.

7. A procedure for teaching a longer chorus:

a. Give an introduction for the chorus.

b. Give all of the words while the accompanist plays the music.

c. Sing the entire chorus for the congregation.

d. Repeat all of the words again without music.

e. Sing just the first phrase or section of the chorus again with the congregation repeating this phrase after you.

f. Repeat this procedure of learning each phrase or section of the chorus separately until the entire chorus is completed.

g. Sing the entire chorus.

h. Review the next week.

8. Don’t spend too much time on a chorus during the first learning. It is always better to review the chorus the following Sunday than to kill the interest during the first learning.


What greater privilege could a church music director desire than the opportunity of providing a common channel for all individuals of the congregation to join together in expressions of worship, prayer and praise, and in so doing to find spiritual enrichment for their lives. It should be remembered, moreover, that the message of a song often reaches certain individuals with the Gospel or some spiritual encouragement that might never be gained by other parts of the church service. Such possibilities are responsibilities that a music director must never take lightly.


1. Discuss in your own words the spiritual objectives of a song service.

2. Discuss what the true role of the song leader should be in a service.

3. Discuss the various suggestions given to aid song leaders in encouraging better congregational singing. What are some of the most glaring weaknesses you have noted with most amateur song leaders?

4. Discuss various techniques for capturing, maintaining and building audience attention and interest throughout a song service.

5. Prepare a complete order of service for a Sunday evening gospel meeting, showing your approach to the service, the songs to be used and the various activities to be included.


1. Community and Assembly Singing by Zanzig. Published by M. Witmark & Sons.

2. Forty Approaches to Informal Singing by Frieswyk. Published by the National Recreation Association, New York.

3. Lead a Song! A Practical Guide to the Organization and Conducting of Informal Group Singing by Wilson. Published by Hall & McCreary Co.

4. Song Leadership by Rodeheaver and Ford. Published by The Rodeheaver Co.