August 29, 2021
Occasionally an article comes across my desk or is written by a peer at the same publication I write for, that requires my deliberate and clear response, for the sake of putting out fires before they get too large and quelling potential division within the local church based on what one of my esteemed colleagues had to say on a worship matter. Especially when it's published in the magazine I happen to also write for.
Scott Connell recently wrote an article entitled “10 Things I Did Not Do That Improved My Congregation’s Singing”, which Worship Leader Magazine published on August 26, 2021.
Keeping it short and sweet: Scott and I agree on many things he mentions in this article.
Keeping a short song roster, keeping the volume at a level that does not overwhelm but accompanies the church, keeping familiar & favorite songs around for a long time, not rushing to add new songs just because they're a radio hit, not doing songs that are hard to sing, not doing more songs than the specific culture of a local church can handle at any given gathering, making room for acapella moments in each service... all these are solid things we do as best practices and can be – nay, SHOULD BE applied at every church!!
However... there are definitely concepts he espouses which fly in the face of widely applied experience and evidence, where it comes to applying these ideals with a broad stroke. Being that there is a wide spectrum of cultures where it comes to different churches and their individual preferences for styles of expression and overall flavor, we must acknowledge that he is speaking from a different culture and tradition than the one embraced by the majority of churches currently engaged in what we would consider modern worship culture.
While in conservative traditional churches there's an argument for "all the lights on" being a preference held by older folks (mainly who cannot see their hymnals if the lights are off), it does not apply in an environment with lyric projection and it's counter to psychological research data that shows that people in a modern culture do in fact sing louder and are more engaged when the lights are low or off. It's how we, as 50 years of people that have grown accustomed to concert environments and modern worship settings, are comfortable in engaging with live music performance. Plus that was prefaced by at least 1800 years of worshiping together in large buildings with low lighting augmented by candles and colored lights (stained glass followed by actual colored lighting). Research shows that doing service with lights fully on in a bright environment results in the majority of people shutting down and not singing as passionately, if at all. I've certainly seen that be the case in my 30 years plus of leading worship in environments ranging from 2-3 people to 50,000 people, in a wide variety of denominations. Even in the churches that say they prefer the lights on; they respond more passionately when the lights are off. (As long as they don't have to rely on a hymnal to read lyrics) .
It's also a well researched fact that people are most familiar with the most familiar recordings of any given song as presented in the most familiar medium. Be it YouTube, Spotify, their iTunes playlist, they know the songs the way they listen to the songs, so it is absolutely important that the worship ministry team perform the song faithfully in a manner that represents the way that the people are familiar with, or they will disengage and not sing. We don't have to reproduce every nuance, but in the same way that some older folks are vocal about "doing the hymns the way they were written" without taking too many liberties with them, the same thing applies to current songs. Younger to middle aged people are more polite about expressing this preference live in person in giving their feedback, but they're absolutely brutal about it when provided anonymous survey opportunities. If the band doesn't do the song "right", the people notice and are not happy about it. Which leads to disengagement, and we fail to deliver on the whole point of what we're doing: crafting an environment that invites people to sing to the Lord in worship.
We do best to do whatever we do with that goal in mind. Lights on or off, whatever serves the people the Lord has entrusted us to lead in a specific way in a specific context, for His worship. Let us use not only our preferences but the best practices to achieve the mission: the people of God in the presence of God singing the praises of God for the purposes of God. Anything that detracts or distracts from that should be reconsidered. Even if that means a church that says they like the lights on to try it with the lights off, like a thousand generations before them, and see what happens.
Brendan Prout is a husband, dad, pastor, worship leader and author based in San Diego, CA. He loves training and equipping others to do the work of ministry they are called to, all things geeky, good food, cars, coffee, and not driving off cliffs anymore.
Article referenced: https://worshipleader.com/magazine/10-things-i-did-not-do-that-improved-my-congregations-singing/