Common denominators for super congregational singing #3 — Hugh Wetmore

Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.

This month we aim for an “EASY Sing-Along Style” of song to get the congregation really singing! The emphasis is on easy singability.

Professionals don’t want easy songs for their performances. They revel in the challenge of music that is different and unique, that demonstrates their talent.

But congregations comprise ordinary people, not professionals. They want to enjoy their singing, with lyrics that naturally roll off their tongues when sung to a catchy tune with a swaying or pulsing rhythm. An easy sing-along style.

I’ve been reading a fascinating book: “Honky Tonk Gospel”, subtitled ‘The Story of Sin and Salvation in Country Music’, by Veith & Wilmeth (Baker Books 2001). Country style songs naturally roll of their tongues because they are sung to a catchy tune with a swaying or pulsing rhythm. True, big name professional artistes record them in studios. But their roots are among the simple hill-billy mountain-folks and the cattle-ranching plains of the Southern United. And they are easily sung by ordinary folk wherever they gather.

Hitherto, we’ve identified common denominators for congregational singing as:

A. Enthusiasm for the message of the Song.

B. Songs can be sung spontaneoulsy — even without instruments.

C. A steady rhythm.

D. The words fit the notes. Don’t crush too many words into too few notes.

This month we emphasise simplicity and predictability


Nursery rhymes, lullabyes and folk songs are so simple that even little children easily sing them. Think of some that are still rooted in the back of your memory: “The Farmer’s in his den” … “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are” … “Thula Mntwana” … “Puff the magic dragon lives by the sea” … “Jan Pierewiet” … “Sarie Marais” … “Asimbonanga ofana naye”.

Many country and western songs have a simple structure that make group sing-along participation easy. “The Yellow Rose of Texas” … “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes” …

Some hymns, and some contemporary worship songs, are so complicated that choirs and worship-groups need time to practice them before they are sung on Sunday. And when they are sung, the congregation struggles to sing along with them. They’re easy on the ear, but difficult on the lips.

It is the simple hymn-tunes and song-tunes that are easy to sing. The tune and the rhythm grab the ordinary people in the average congregation and lift them into the united joy of singing the lyrics for our Lord Jesus!

Let the people sing!

F. Songs written for congregational singing (not Performance)

Terry Dempsey is a successful South African songwriter who has authored a book The Key to Successful Songwriting (Angela: 1985). I read it eagerly, hoping it would guide my own songwriting, which is geared to congregational singability. But I was disappointed: it became obvious that he was fixated on performance songs. He made no mention of sing-along Songs. It was as if they did not exist. Some of his Performance songs might be singable by the crowd – e.g. Love is a beautiful Song.

But most are not. His goal is the record company, play-time on radio/TV, and number one hit rankings, earning him lifetime royalties. My goal is the congregation singing the Word songs to each other (Colossians 3:16), pleasing to God.

Many contemporary worship songs are written for a professional performer. They are initially promoted by a big-name performer, and mediated through recordings to the public. The blurb promises “a Worship experience” (not Worship singing). A worship leader hears it and likes it. Her/his band+vocals practice it, and then they introduce it to the congregation on Sunday. The congregation enjoys it … enjoys it … but that’s where it ends. Take away the band+vocals on the platform, and the people in the congregation can’t sing it.

Professionals love musical riffs and interludes. Congregations don’t. They tend to sing when they shouldn’t, then stop singing to avoid embarrassment. For congregational singing, be suspicious of songs that have these special effects.

Some songs were not intentionally, purposefully written for the congregation.

Yes, there are exceptions. There are times when a professionally recorded performance song can be quickly learned by the congregation of unprofessionals. That is, if it is simple, with a steady rhythm and a catchy tune. Those are the songs to include your service song-list.

But better still, choose songs that were intentionally, purposefully written for congregational singing.

Here are some suggestions – you’ll be surprised how easily the congregation can sing along with enthusiasm. “Be still and know that I am God” … “God forgave my sin in Jesus’ name” … “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” … “Ten Thousand Reasons” … “We believe in Hebrews thirteen eight” … “All to Jesus I surrender” … “Search me O God” … “O let the Son of God enfold you” … “In Christ Alone”.

The bottom line: If you choose a hymn or song from a professional source — a CD, a video-clip, the Internet, or sung by a professional artiste — be aware: It may not be suitable for the congregation. But if it passes the simplicity and singability tests, then …

“Let the people sing!”

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