Many of us would agree that worshipers in a church gathering are called to be participants in that gathering instead of mere spectators, consumers, or critics. But even though so many of us might affirm this truth, how do we practically accomplish it? How do we encourage our congregations to participate with whole hearts every week? How do we put word into action to create this kind of culture? The answer is one you might not be hoping for, because it’s not easy or formulaic. But there’s greater payoff, I believe, if we pursue the following practical considerations with faithfulness and love in our churches.
1. Remember the “one-anothers.” Keep the passages of Scripture that address corporate worship gatherings, especially the New Testament passages, at the forefront of your mind. Study them. Know them well, so they can influence your planning and leading. This might seem like a philosophical point, but it’s immensely practical for the worship leader or planner. For instance, Colossians 3:16 tells us to “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” In echoing passages like Eph. 5:19 and elsewhere, we get a strong sense of joining voices with and to “one another” in church singing and worship. Your song choices should teach and encourage with the glories of Scripture. Do everything out of love for the congregation that gathers as your local church, and enable them to sing and worship and see Christ clearly together. Consider this: if a worship gathering is mostly about the congregation getting to participate, you might pause to shepherd your people through an explanation of the verse of a song; you might sing the melody a little more straight, since it’s not about your solo performance but about leading the gathered church to sing together.
2. Choose songs for the congregation. Let’s face it, some songs help congregational participation better than others. Pay attention to which songs your church sings the loudest and best, and think through why that is. Is it the way a certain chorus is written? The simplicity of a melody? A pattern of rhyme or rhythm in the poetry that lends itself to memorization and singability? Choose lots of these songs. It’s becoming a lost art to write songs with a congregation in mind. Listen to folk music pre-1900, and especially the classic hymns of the church. Read the poetry and watch the patterns. If you write songs, try some of these patterns in your own stuff. It might not always sound like pop music, but your church will sing their lungs out to it.
3. Keep a balance on your volume and lights. Not much needs to be said here, necessarily. But be mindful that we’re embodied creatures, and our hearts and minds are affected by our environment. If you can’t see anyone around you, or can’t hear them singing because the band drowns everything else out, you might not be getting the right sense of community and gathered-ness. Contrary to some prevailing views, the New Testament doesn’t portray a church gathering as a place for people to feel isolated and alone with God in the dark. We’re a gathered congregation, and we need to feel like that to sing like we should. We should at least be able to hear ourselves singing together.
4. Let the congregation SING. Use arrangements and dynamics with the band to pull the congregation in to sing with you, and to feel like a necessary part of what’s going on. Get the bass frequencies dialed in to make a nice cushion in the room, to provide fullness without loudness. People feel safe jumping in to sing when the bass can provide that low-end foundation if you’re leading with a band. Also pull the band out for some choruses, have all your singers back off of the mics, or whatever you have to do to let the congregation take it away. You’re leaders, not performers, per se; so lead, and give the congregation space to be heard and participate.
Again, just know that there is no easy, quick-fix answer to creating a culture of participation. Any culture shift usually happens by degrees, and by even-keeled faithfulness over a greater span of time. So again, “keep on keepin’ on” at the main things, at a mindset of the “one anothers.” Reinforce this in the way you lead and play. Stay faithful, and abide in your Savior. Christ is the Lord of the church, so prayerfully look to Him to provide perseverance and grace for every worshiper in your church as you gather together each week.