What Makes a Song a Congregational Song?
Part Two: The Form
A Delightful and Demanding Skill
Choosing songs for a congregation to sing together in worship is great fun but it is also a serious business. There are many factors to consider. A skillful worship leader considers more than merely his or her affection for a song. First, we need to look at what worship leading is not:
- Leading worshipers is not the same as controlling, driving them, or even patronizing them.
- It is not a top-down leadership where the leader is asking people to do something he or she is not also doing.
- It is certainly not a performer-to-audience exchange designed to highlight the presenter and thrill the audience.
In fact, one of the greatest considerations is the fact that congregational singing can become congregational prayer as Spirit and Truth merge to become a powerful, functional unity. The unified prayer of the church is one of the most powerful forces in the human experience. Short of this communal prayer, leaders can get caught up in the songs, the moment, the thrill of it all, and lose touch with true purpose of it all. That holy purpose is to minister to the Lord, giving Him “the glory due His name.” The purpose is not to please people or attract a certain segment of the population. When this misguided thinking comes along, we try to bring our minds back in line with statements like, “Music is not worship.” Or “Worship is not music.” It seems to do little good if our theology (belief) has been overcome by our doxology (praise.) The songs take over in our planning and in our praxis. Our human spirit, stirred by these powerful arts, takes over our godly expressions and we lose the dynamic center of worship in both “spirit and truth,” which is, according to Jesus, what the Father is looking for.
The Right Tools for the Job
The wellspring of this sacred skill, choosing and leading songs of praise and worship, is a clear understanding of the artistic qualities of congregational songs. Songs that may be a tremendous blessing to us in the Secret Place, may not be very useful in the public space. The differences between private prayer and public worship are really important things to grasp. In public worship, the worship leader must not be doing his/her private worship in front of the church. To do so demotes the people from the honored status of congregation—people of the Family of God, praying, praising, and worshiping together as the Spirit leads—to the level of an audience—people gathered as individuals who just happen to be in the same place at the same time, enjoying the performances of the artists on stage. It is a great insult to them and an offence to the Holy Spirit to callously and ignorantly demote our brothers and sisters in the Lord from “congregation” to “audience.” So, let us examine the practical and artistic aspects of the Congregational Song.
Congregational Songs require demanding rules of composition.
Worship song writers must discipline themselves, working hard to take the song idea and make it singable and memorable for everyday people. For several centuries now songs intended specifically for public worship have adhered to strict compositional forms. The trained musical eye can see this form throughout any hymnal you might pick up. If in your heart you want to compose music for public worship, it would benefit you to study this demanding song form. Do not be fooled by its apparent simplicity; this is a demanding art form. It is a prime example of the maxim, “true art hides its artistry.” If it is your assigned task to select the music you will expect your people to sing, give them an even chance to do this work. Give them songs to sing designed for this holy purpose.
The Congregational Song Form
A Binary Form. Most often congregational songs are composed in two parts, verse and chorus. Each part has a different function. The verse provides the message of the song in great detail and the chorus celebrates that message in few but well-chosen words.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a great American hymn, illustrates this:
Consider another well-known hymn: “It Is Well.”
This 2-part song form is extremely efficient and leads to memory and memorization. It teaches with the verses and celebrates with the refrain. Before I learned to read, I would come to our Sunday Night “whosever will may come” choir and sing. I would hold the hymnal which I could not read and wait through the stanzas and sing on the refrain.
In the late 20th century, a third part of the song form came into being—the bridge. This is a contrasting tune, usually short and to the point, that brings out a meaningful application of the theme of the song and leads back to a repeat of the chorus.
Here is a well-known example of a 3-part Congregational Song; “My Tribute,” by Andrea Crouch.
Congregations have learned how to adapt their singing to this delightful addition to the form. This song form works! Let’s break down why it works.
What about the verses makes this form congregational?
- The verses are metric—each has the same rhyme scheme and the same number of syllables.
- The first lines are written in rhyme, making them easy to remember.
- Each stanza (verse) ends with the same line—the message of the song.
- Each line ends with a pause in the tune, giving the singer time to rest and regroup.
What about the chorus, also called the refrain, what makes it congregational?
- It is repetitive, making it easy to sing and remember.
- It is celebratory. There is no new information but there is a celebration of what was has already been said.
- The last line is the same as the last line in each verse, making the message clear.
What makes the bridge useful?
- This short, contrasting line of music and text is a powerful elaboration on the theme.
- It leads back to the chorus giving new power to the song and calling for a new celebration of the central truth.
No part of this very specific song form is accidental. It is done on purpose. The song writers deliberately shape the song this way. Why? To make the song singable by average people. Composed in the first half of 19th century, these two hymns and this 20th century worship song, are still in wide use today. Why? They are Congregational Songs.
Summary of Form
These are the general characteristics of a Congregational Song:
- The message is clearly stated. Ambiguous words do not make effective worship tools.
- The tune is simple enough to the sung by average singers. The range of the melody should not be stretched beyond an octave or a most a 9th or 10th.
- The song is placed in a key for the average singer, not for the soloist on the platform. The aim is for the people to sing it, not just the soloist. It must be pitched for the people not for the performers.
- The flow of the song is people-friendly so that the congregation always knows whether they will be singing another stanza, the bridge, or another chorus. It is not good to keep the congregation guessing. When people know what they will sing next, they do so in great strength. When they do not know what is next, they hold back until it is clear to them.
- Good, singable tunes and memorable rhyme schemes help the people sing the song in the service and take it home with them for use in the Secret Place or as needed in daily life.
Every performance art must be designed for the artist who must perform it. The simple idea behind these “rules,” really, they are guidelines rather than hard, fast rules, is to make it possible and even pleasurable for people with average talent and vocal range to sing them and receive what they have to offer.
Isn’t this form out of style today?
Please do not assume that this song form is passe, old fashioned, or it has outgrown its usefulness. The form has nothing to do with the generation of the song’s origin. Modern songs can and should be created using this proven compositional form. However, there are dangers ahead for Worship Leaders who have not yet learned how to make the music he/she leads a better fit for the people he/she is leading.
End of Part Two
Please Continue on to Part Three
 Psalm 29:1-2
 A disabling factor of song composition is use of run-on lyrics, line after line with no pauses. These are words for people to sing that never give the singer a chance to breathe, removing any opportunity for worshipers to think about what they are singing.