Should We Teach Our Congregations New Songs?

Music is one of the great gifts from God. I love music and surround myself with it. As I write this I have my headphones in my ears, comforted by the sounds pour out of my iPod. When I was younger, the first thing I did when I got my hands on a new CD was to lock myself in my room, crank up the stereo and pour over the lyrics printed in the CD booklet. When a song I love is playing in the car I’ll be singing along, despite the protests of my passengers. I clearly can’t sing and I can’t play an instrument but I still love music.

Singing together is one of the many things I love about church. Doesn’t matter if it’s old school hymns on the organ or more contemporary stuff with drums and guitar. Love it.

But there’s something about singing in church that’s had me thinking lately. Should we teach our church congregations new songs?

I’m not talking about introducing new songs. Adding new songs to the rotation is a great thing. So is taking some older, overplayed songs out of the rotation (at our church we call this the Blacklist and there is almost a sadistic glee in putting worn out songs on the list). We need to keep shaking things up. After all, the much loved anthems of one generation can become the groan inducing, stick-knitting-needles-in-your-ears atrocities of the next.

What I’m talking about is that moment when the music leader gets up and says something along the lines of “This is a new song for our church, so we’re going to teach it to you. Stay seated while we sing the first verse and chorus, then we’re going to go back to the start then stand and sing it together.” I don’t know about you, I don’t even know if this is your experience, but there’s something about this way of doing things that doesn’t work for me.

When we gather together as God’s people, singing is essential. It’s hard wired into our DNA. It’s something that the early church valued highly ” Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:19-20) Songs fill our Scriptures, from Moses to Deborah to Zechariah. The Book of Psalms is full of songs – even songs about songs “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth. Sing to the LORD, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.” (Psalm 96:1-2)

Singing in church is great. And I’m incredibly grateful for the talented musicians who each week practice their craft, rehearse the songs, put thought into how they may serve the church with music. But when the music leader breaks the flow of the service to teach us a new song, it destroys the moment for me. It’s like the curtain has been pulled away and now the cranks and gears of the machine are on display. And if I’m being honest, I don’t think it’s necessary. If a new song comes on the radio, the band don’t stop to teach me the words – they trust that I’ll get it and join in by the second or third chorus. Why don’t we just start singing and trust that people will catch up? I’m at a Christian conference this week (Oxygen14). Yesterday, the music leader stood up and said something along the lines of “This will be a new song to many of you. Join in when you’ve got it.” Why can’t we do more of that?

Is this a case of musicians thinking like musicians? Our music teams put a lot of hard work into making the music in church look polished and effortless. And for that I thank you. The singers have put a lot of work into figuring out when to pause, when to change the volume, when to come in, when to harmonise. They have thought through the nuts and bolts of the song. They’ve done the hard work. But do I, as a congregation member, have to go through the same process to join in the singing? And that’s not even thinking through the issue of attendance – if I miss church the week a new song is introduced, don’t I just have to work it out on my own the next time I’m at church anyway?

In Back To The Future, as Marty McFly gets on stage and prepares to introduce the world to rock and roll, he says to the band “All right, guys, uh, listen. This is a blues riff in “B”, watch me for the changes, and try and keep up, okay?” Is there a need to teach new songs? Or is “try and keep up” more than sufficient? Keen to hear your thoughts, both from musicians and non-musicians.

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2 responses to “Should We Teach Our Congregations New Songs?”

  1. revdavidmitchell says :

    It’s a thought provoking discussion to have.
    I figure you want to do different things for different songs in different services.
    There are just to many variables to have one rule. 1. complexity of melody. 2. complexity of the lyrics 3. where the song is in the service 4. structure of the song 5. what your hoping the song will do (e.g. prayer/exaltation/confess) 6. how personal the song is…

    sometimes you might introduce a song first if you’re wanting people to own it from the start.
    Other times you can just invite people to join it when they want to
    sometimes you want to take people through some of the really important parts of the song for the context your singing it or explain what the language is talking about

    Consider your analogy to the raido. The DJ will introduce the song sometimes by talking about the lyrics or where they first heard it or whatever. Other times they just play it. Sometimes they get the artist in to introduce it or even play it live.
    But critically, the DJ doesn’t care whether you sing along or not. They want you only to listen – so they don’t have as much invested.

  2. Daniel Saunders says :

    I don’t think that ‘listen while we sing the first verse and chorus’ is revealing the ‘cranks and gears of the machine’. It’s barely even ‘teaching’. All the musicians are doing is giving the congregation a chance to sing together once they’ve got a small feel for how the song goes.

    But the alternative of ‘join in when you’ve got it’ isn’t really all that different. Most people won’t ‘get it’ until they’ve heard at least the first verse and chorus.

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