What Makes a Song "Congregational"? (Leading Worship, 020)

The 20th installment of the worship series! What! And yet I feel that I’m still scraping the surface.

Hope that this blog post finds you all doing well. I wanted to explore some thoughts on what makes a song “work” in congregational, worship contexts. Generally speaking, a worship song fit for congregational use is one that ministers to as many people in the congregation as possible. Now to be fair, I understand that what works beautifully in some settings does not work well at all in others. So the questions that I listed below are just a guide for anyone needing help on where to begin in choosing songs for congregational worship. I hope it helps!

Also, I’d love to hear from you if you have any thoughts on this post or if there is something you feel should be added. Let me know in the comments below, or email me at joshuahrwatts@gmail.com.

So, what makes a song “congregational”?

  • Is the content of the song applicable to a majority of your church?

Make sure that the theme of the songs you select are broad enough to apply to a variety of individuals from many different walks of life. For example, instead of doing a song that specifically deals with the recent death of a loved one (which would minister only to a small, select few), I might do the hymn “It is Well,” as it is broad enough to minister to numerous needs. Make sense?

  • Are the lyrics understandable?

Some songs are just too poetic for their own good and might cause confusion. Creatives may interpret the poetry just fine, but what about blue-collar Joe the Plumber who is trying to join in? It’s important that the song remains lyrically clever and poignant but can still be easily understood by your church.

  • Does the song’s point of view make sense to the one singing it? 

There is no doubt that many songs sung from God’s point of view, like Bethel’s “Come to Me” or “I am the God That Healeth Thee,” are inspiring, powerful, and anointed. Such songs definitely minister to many… but may I suggest that does not mean it is appropriate to do in a congregational, worship context. Perhaps such songs would serve best in someone’s private worship experience or as a special number in a different part of the service.

  • Is the song sung to God and/or teach about God?

In general, with some exceptions, I feel that worship songs in congregational settings should either provide revelation about God (for example, the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” and Hillsong Worship’s “This I Believe“) or help someone to respond to God (like Kristian Stanfill’s “My Heart is Yours” and Vertical Church Band’s “Open Up the Heavens“) – or both. Songs that tell personal stories may not be fit for congregational worship… again, because they probably don’t apply to as many people as possible.

  • Is the song appealing to both men and women?

There are some songs that are used regularly in worship sets that are definitely more appealing to a woman than to a man – for example, songs that talk about dancing a waltz with Jesus. (And, yes, they’re out there!) Know your context… this may really fly at a women’s rally. But, bear in mind that the songs you select need to minister to as many people as possible – let’s not alienate either gender.

  • Does the song serve your church in its current season?

Some songs break all the rules, like “How He Loves,” but just simply work. Through prayer and moving with the Holy Spirit, choose songs that will serve your church in its current season.

Well, worship leaders and pastors, I hope this is a blessing to you. Prayerfully choose songs that carry the message of Christ and His amazing love.. I believe in you!

Much love,
Josh

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3 thoughts on “What Makes a Song "Congregational"? (Leading Worship, 020)

  1. One thing I would add is make sure the key is not too high (or low). So many songs are recorded in a higher key to sound better, but when artists perform them at concerts they often lower the key to make them more singable for everyone. It’s ok to change the key for your lead singer to be comfortable! Also, you don’t have to do the octave jumps so many songs have in them today. One example is How He Loves. It’s fine to sing it in a general key and stay where everyone can join in, since it’s such a well known song. Congregations will thank you!

    1. Hi Beverly, thanks for your thought! I agree that once you’ve determined that a song is congregation-friendly, then one of the first things to do is put it in an appropriate key (if it’s not already). This is tricky for me as a tenor, because I naturally want to voice songs in higher registers. A good rule of thumb is to keep songs “from C to shining C,” or, from C to C—although even I break this rule sometimes!

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