How to encourage people to sing in worship

July 13th, 2015

The diagnoses for why people don’t sing in church are many and varied. I tend to break these diagnoses down into three categories: strong opinions that I agree with, strong opinions that I do not agree with and empirically-verifiable scientific studies. Unfortunately, the last category is rare, which is surprising considering how many “labs” (churches) we have available to test! There have been some great studies on the benefits and effects of group singing — many with religious implications — but not many that tell us how to get people to sing.

That doesn’t mean that some of those strong opinions aren’t correct. Congregational music professionals can have some pretty good ideas on how to increase singing participation.

I’ve been a big fan of John Bell’s theories of how to get more people to sing. He writes about them in "The Singing Thing: A Case for Congregational Song." At a workshop I attended, he said that he had been blessed “with a mediocre voice,” because when congregations heard him lead singing, they automatically thought, “I can do better than that, and I’d better help him out.” John has some practical ways to get people to sing, including teaching the songs to the congregation before worship (what a concept!) and using hand gestures to indicate pitch and rhythm.

One of my favorite scientific studies runs counter to a lot of conventional church wisdom. “The Science of Singing Along: A Quantitative Field Study on Sing-along Behavior in the North of England,” by Alisun Pawley and Daniel Müllensiefen, analyzed the participation of various patrons in English pubs. They found that people are more likely to sing along if

  1. A song has longer and more complicated musical phrases. This goes against the conventional wisdom that songs should be easy to sing. Apparently, the effort of belting out a long line takes more breath and effort. 
  2. There are more pitches in the chorus hook. Again, a complicated melody with several pitch changes inspired more singing. 
  3. The singer is male. Some folks explain this in terms of primal battle cries, but I think this has more to do with selection bias. Who doesn’t sing along with Aretha Franklin? 
  4. The singer (a higher, male voice) has to expend noticeable effort.

Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” The Village People’s “YMCA,” and Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer” all made the top ten list for most-sung songs in pubs. They are not exactly standard hymn fare for the church. (A summary article with samples of the music can be found here.)

Reading the scientists’ research, I’m also struck by how pub singing lines up with important observations of church music:

  1. Congregations must be familiar with the song. 
  2. The song must be geared toward being a group song, not an individual performance piece. Think about the chorus for “YMCA,” for example — it is meant to have more than one voice. 
  3. The music must be loud enough, but not too loud to overpower the crowd. Opinions on this issue range from “louder is better” to “blare kills.” 
  4. It matters how close together people’s bodies are.

This last observation may be the most important for churches. John Bell claims that if people stand more than three feet away from each other, they won’t sing because they hear themselves. But if they stand less than three feet from each other, they will sing because they hear others singing. The space between human bodies (which is never very much in a crowded bar, and is often too great in a church) may be the largest determining factor in getting people to sing.

At Saint Junia, our young church plant, we began with the idea that we wanted music to be participatory. It was important for us to learn all we could about how to get people to sing in worship. We did a lot of research and some non-scientific experimentation of our own. In addition to the lessons above, we’ve added some of our own insights:

  • How we arrange chairs matters. Sitting in the round or semi-round helps, because people in the back of a forward-facing congregation have a harder time hearing the people in front of them. In a circular arrangement, someone is always singing “toward” you. 
  • We meet in a bar, which helps — it doesn’t take many people to make the bar feel full, and it is designed in such a way that it rarely feels too crowded. People are usually not more than three feet away from another human voice. The acoustics are much better than our previous meeting place — a gym — which dwarfed our congregation. 
  • We write a lot of our own music. Writing our own music helps build congregational identity, and it gives us some control over the theology of the lyrics. A lot of what the worship music industry pumps out is either a) theologically bland, because it’s written for broad interdenominational appeal, or b) not theologically appropriate for our church. We also have stylistic control, since most “contemporary” music doesn’t fit our aesthetic. 
  • We’ve started using what Bell calls an “invisible choir.” This is a group of people who come early, learn the songs and harmonies, and sing from within the congregation. I know they are there, and even I am sometimes surprised by how excellent the congregation sounds when someone starts singing harmony behind me. 
  • I work closely with our music leader to choose or write songs that fit what we’ve learned about participatory singing. We frequently take time before or even during worship to teach new songs to the congregation. Often, if we’re doing a song for the first time, our vocalist will teach the chorus to the congregation and invite them to just listen during the verses until they know the song better.

What about your church? What are some best practices you’ve learned for encouraging congregational singing?

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at

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