Forming Faith Blog

Expansive or Exclusive Singing?

Singing is a critical part of worship, especially worshipping together. If we want everyone to feel like they belong in worship (and are not outsiders), then we must identify any obstacles to participation and work to eliminate those obstacles.

A hymnal on a piano. How can we make worship singing expansive, not exclusionary?
Expansive Worship So Far

This summer I have been thinking about the problem of insiders and outsiders in terms of our congregations. And in the last five blog posts, I have been focused on how our worship services can be unintentionally exclusionary, with suggestions on how to improve. Specifically, I have addressed community and worship, liturgical language, the children’s sermon, the sermon, and Bible readings. This is the final week of this series and I’m taking aim at singing in worship.

If you want to know what I mean by expansive and exclusionary, see my little glossary below.

Singing in Worship

Singing is—for many people—a critical part of congregational worship. Not only is this something that we just know in our bones, but we even saw this in action in the past year. COVID has given us many fun times, one of which was when we received permission to return to in-person worship but without singing. Wherever I looked, I saw worshippers complaining about this and pastors worried about worshippers complaining about this (and their own feelings). I’m not going to touch on the many issues of COVID and church, but this does illustrate the importance people place on singing in worship. Most people would likely not count a sermon without singing as worship, but they would count singing without a sermon.

And singing is important. There is a saying (attributed to several people) that the one “who sings, prays twice.” Music is more than just the lyrics. Scientifically, the act of singing accesses a different part of the brain than purely listening or speaking (which is why you might still sing the alphabet song in your head as you are trying to alphabetize something). Spiritually, people feel that music can touch their heart, soul, or spirit in ways that speaking cannot. On top of all of that, it’s something that most people can participate in. And I’m a really big fan of participation in worship.

Exclusionary Singing

But this doesn’t mean that the use of singing in our worship services is without problems. As with preaching, reading the Bible, and everything else, singing can include people or exclude them. Some obstacles arise from a cultural shift away from group singing. I don’t know enough about the subject to say anything further, but I do know it exists. Instead, I’m looking at three main obstacles.

  1. What? As in, what songs are chosen, and who are they chosen for? Are they easy to sing or difficult? Does a critical mass of worshippers know how to sing them with confidence? How do we even find the lyrics to sing?
  2. How? Many people are not able to read music, so the notes on the page don’t really help. Extrapolating from my personal experience, the singing most people do is to sing along with the radio (or other recordings), which means they are following by ear. I have been to some churches when the congregational singing is not very…robust. That makes it very hard for us singers-by-ear.
  3. Why? Or rather, what does it mean? This is probably a question that many people don’t even think to ask. Heck, I enjoy “singing” along to songs on the radio that I don’t even know all the lyrics to, much less what they mean. The act of singing is fun and meaningful, even without the content. But, as faith formation leaders, we know that learning and understanding are key to forming faith. Just like with my personal difficulty with non-narrative Scripture readings in worship, my brain doesn’t process fast enough to both sing the lyrics and think about that they mean.

Note: I have found that online worship only makes these things worse (especially if you might be the only one singing at home).

If I’m tripped up by one or more of these obstacles, then I’m going to feel lost, like I don’t belong, like an outsider. Outsiders who stay outsiders are not going to wait around long enough to work their way in. Or, in the case of children and youth, they might stop attending church as soon as they have the choice.

Moving toward Expansive Singing

There are obstacles here, but, as I mentioned above, singing is really important to congregational worship. This means it is imperative that we work to make sure that everyone can participate. The great news is that we can do something about these obstacles!

What? There are a few ways to address the obstacle of what (or which) songs we sing.

  • For most of the songs/hymns you choose for worship, make the vast majority of them songs that a critical mass of worshippers are familiar with. Complicated songs are great, but leave it to no more than one per week (or per every couple of weeks).
  • If you would like to teach the congregation an awesome song that they don’t know, please explicitly teach it to them. Don’t just expect them to sing it and learn on the fly.
  • My request: choose one song to sing for multiple weeks (like a month). It can be an old favorite, a simple Bible song that the kids know (and the adults might miss), or that new song you want to introduce into the congregation. If a song can’t be repeated for four weeks in a row without getting on everyone’s nerves, it is probably not one you should sing as a congregation in the first place (feel free to disagree on that one).
  • Please don’t forget to be explicit on how to find the song/lyrics! E.g., “In the blue book in front of you, please turn to hymn number 365 near the middle of the hymnal.”

How? Now that we’ve chosen familiar songs, explicitly taught unfamiliar ones, and are repeating one song for a month or so, now we are faced with the question of how to get people to sing them.

  • I used the term “critical mass” above. What I mean by that is that there needs to be enough people singing robustly for a person unfamiliar with the song to be able to follow by ear and let their voice get “lost in the crowd” of other voices. This way, a person doesn’t feel like they are trying to sing a solo of a song they don’t know.
  • If you cannot get a critical mass (or even if you can), it’s important to have a song leader (or several). This is someone singing loudly enough (and well) that others can follow by ear. This can be the music minister, a talented singer, or even the whole choir.

Why? We now have songs we can sing and people we can follow along with, so we come to the question that perhaps only faith formation leaders ask: what does the song mean?

  • I’m a huge proponent of us understanding the what and the why of worship. That’s why I got into this faith formation business in the first place (see my original curriculum: Spirit & Truth: Teaching Kids the Heart of Worship).
  • And, just as there is a lot of great history and theology built into the “traditional” liturgy, there is a lot of great substance in many hymns (and even some contemporary praise songs). Use this as a faith formation opportunity to teach (in the classroom, small group, or sanctuary)!
  • Maybe you can’t do it for every song in a worship service, but spotlight at least one and give a short preface to help people have some context and/or understand what’s going on in the song. Knowing the tragedies that inspired “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “It Is Well with My Soul” give these hymns so much more emotional weight and meaning.
Expansive Worship Conclusion

This post concludes my series on expansive worship, on how we can plan worship so that it welcomes and includes people and does not exclude them. Moving toward expansive worship will not only help visitors feel included and welcome, but it can also engage children and youth. Even your lifelong traditionalists can benefit from many of these ideas (even if it takes them a while to warm up to them).

Go forth and worship with all of God’s children!

In the love of Christ,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

2021-2022 Faith Formation Resources

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Defining My Terms
  • Minority: Any individual or group categorized by one or more characteristics that are traditionally or presently left out of systems of power and authority in a community or organization, who do not feel like they belong (outsiders). This includes characteristics of age (children, youth, adults, seniors) and visitor status along with any commonly identified minority group.
  • Exclusion: Actions, cultures, or atmospheres that cause people to feel like insiders or outsiders (yes, both). If they are outsiders, then there is either a difficult wall to climb or gatekeepers to appease to be allowed “in.”
  • Welcome: Actions (especially speech or writing), cultures, and atmospheres where outsiders are explicitly told that they may enter a space or community. Often this is done by the majority to a minority (e.g., a congregation decides that gay people are welcome there).
  • Inclusion: Actions, cultures, and atmospheres that permit, or actually seek out, the participation of a minority group into the power structures of the community or organization.
  • Expansiveness: Actions, cultures, and atmospheres where everyone feels like they belong, with participation in that community or organization being solely limited by the individual. This is a goal, not a destination; a community will likely have a combination of all of these.

Note that the first three acknowledge/perpetuate a power dynamic of insiders and outsiders: that a boundary exists. The insiders are the ones who are excluding, welcoming, or including, and the outsiders are the ones who are excluded, welcomed, or included. This is a natural reality that must first be acknowledged and then fought against. What makes expansiveness different is the conscious work to change that power dynamic and eliminate the concept of the boundary. The limits become only within the individual: how much they know and how much time and energy they wish to invest. Creating an expansive community is about identifying and changing any obstacles that create a boundary. The majority of the time, these boundaries are not conscious or intentional. They do not make the “insiders” bad people!

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