What Makes a Song a Congregational Song?
Part Three: The Function
Songs composed or adapted to the standard Congregational Song form are a wonderful gift to the church. Without these artful compositions, songs intended for use in praise and worship can lose their effectiveness. To understand how Congregational Songs work so well, we must take a careful look at how public worship can suffer if songs are used that do not do the work of worship.
Song Hazards to Avoid
Every artist who leads other artists needs regular and efficient measurements of how well he/she is doing. The Worship Leader, especially, cannot consider his/her work a success if the people of the church are not singing along. That is a major goal of leading worship—participation by the people. The characteristics of the Congregational Song are the result of generation after generation of attempting to lead this communal art.
On the evaluation side of the equation, there are some definite signs that things are not going well.
- Standing silent and looking: When the people are not singing the song you are leading something has gone wrong. Is it the song? Can it be sung by average voices? Are the people comfortable with the structure, knowing what they are supposed to be singing and what comes next? Is the message clear and unambiguous? Do the people understand what you are expecting them to sing? Is the song pitched for average voices, not low or high ones.
- The octave shift: When a song is pitched for the singer and not for the people, you will hear the horrible sound of the octave shift. This awkward, acrobatic vocal move involves singing the 2nd or 3rd line of a song an octave higher or lower. At best this is a distraction. At worst, it emphasizes the soloist not the song.
- Excessive repetition: Repeated phrases are a staple of congregational singing and they are necessary for emphasis on vital truths. However, if done to the extreme by just too many repeats, excessive repeats become a distraction. Instead of emphasizing a truth, the people are subjected to what feels like outright manipulation—“we are going to keep singing this until something happens,” etc. The emphasis shifts to the method, leaving the message behind in the well-trodden dust.
- Overdone images: Congregational Songs use vivid images, and they always have. The Book of Psalms gives us the pattern of metaphor and simile using physical things to describe spiritual things. Sometimes songwriters can lose control of this literary device and use images that are not at all clear in their meaning. Excessive use of pronouns instead nouns can leave a worshiper wondering if this is a romantic song or a worship song. When a worshiper must stop and try to remember what the words mean, they are no longer worshiping. They are solving a puzzle.
- Narcissism: I first heard this term applied to worship in a discussion with Dr. Robert Webber. I was offended. I thought of all the psalms that employed the disputed pronouns of “I,” “Me,” “We,” and “Us,” as a defense against this unmerited charge. Back then, I didn’t understand the differences between necessary pronouns and an unfortunate, unproductive emphasis on the feelings of the worshiper rather than the attributes of the Savior. While expressing our feelings, needs, and desires may be a starting point in public worship, to be biblical in our content, we need to move quickly into the expression of the details of the Lord’s praise. His character, not our feelings, is the message we carry. We need to minister to the Lord, not just express our hurts. In Peter’s words, we have been “called out of darkness into His marvelous light” to proclaim His excellence, not our feelings. Paul says the content of our worship should be the “manifold wisdom of God.” In this culture which elevates feelings over facts, worshipers need to get the facts in short order.
- Private Worship in Public: The progression of a public worship services moves from praise and thanksgiving to worship and adoration. We move from singing about the Lord to singing to the Lord as we minister to Him. The Greek word for “hymn” is “a song of praise addressed to God.” This progression in public worship comes very close to the qualities of private worship, an intense time of fellowship with our Savior. This can be a legitimate dynamic of a public worship service and thank God for these times of community fellowship with God. It is in these times the Gifts of the Spirit can operate to the exaltation of Christ and the edification of the church in fitting and orderly ways. With this in mind, we must look to Paul’s instructions about the ministry of the Holy Spirit in public worship. He makes it clear that one of the goals of the Spirit is to minster to the whole Body of Christ gathered in one place at one time. A primary distinction between private and public worship is one of discipline. We are cautioned against hindering other worshipers in public while in the Secret Place no such disciplines bind us since we are alone with God. An over-zealous worship leader can launch into a season of private worship right there on the platform. He/she is being blessed by the Lord while everyone else is just watching, perhaps even wishing they could join in. As “spiritual” as this may appear, it is really the sign of poor leadership. When leading worship, the worship leader, the worship team, and the people are sharing a journey into the heart of God. It is a together experience, not a demonstration of the personal spirituality of the worship leader.
- Confusing Arranging with Composition: Many Worship Leaders and their teams take their material from digital recordings instead of printed music. This leads to two unfortunate things: The first is the process of replication of recordings rather than the original production of music. To me this process is a surrender of our personal musicianship to some other Worship Leader. I treat this phenomenon in an article at my ministry website. The other unfortunate practice is the misunderstanding of the differences between arranging a song and writing a song. When the Worship Team simply replicates someone else’s craftsmanship, they treat the way the other leader presents the song with the song itself as if his/her arranging techniques are a part of the song. A more excellent way is to reduce the song to its basic form and then put it together yourself. That is the calling of a Chief Musician. Just because the original Worship Leader repeated a phrase 7 shouldn’t mean that you have to as well.
I am sure there are other hazards to be avoided. In such demanding crafts, there are always more ways to do it wrong than there are to do it right. Each Worship Leader and each Lead Worshiper must be a student of the Word and of the ways of the Holy Spirit—Spirit and truth!
The Benefits of the Congregational Song Form
It is time to flip the coin over and see the positive side. With effective Congregational Songs we can see:
- A fully engaged congregation worshiping God free from distractions,
- Smooth settings of each song in the keys they were meant to use enabling full participation,
- A meaningful combination of detail through the verses and celebration through the repetition of the refrain,
- Creative poetry, well-thought-out and well presented, to enlighten and never confuse the worshiper,
- Personal desires expressed and then put aside in favor of the details of how wonderful the Lord we serve really is,
- A continual ministry of the Holy Spirit edifying the church, drawing us closer to Jesus and to each other, and
- A Chief Musician who is musically skilled and spiritually sensitive to that the service always unfolds “decently and in order.”
The blessings of public worship are too many to innumerate in this space. The single artform that releases these blessings must be the Congregational Song. Through it
- we can praise God together,
- Worship the Lord Jesus together, and we can
- Pray together in the kind of unbreakable unity Jesus prayed for on the night of the Last Supper.
- We can build brother and sister relationships
- We can see bodies and lives healed, estranged people reconciled with each other, young gentlemen and ladies of the faith can find each other.
- Every child can discover God’s will for his/her life.
An Anointed Craft
Whether new, old, ancient, or post-modern, a well-constructed, Holy Spirit-inspired Congregational Song is a precious work of art, one intended not to transmit to an artist to an audience, but to act as an adhesive binding a family together. To use the earlier image, it is a useful tool in the devotional ministry of the believer. It is portable spirituality as needed today in this season of modern worship as it always has been when the Family of God gathers to worship together in Spirit and in Truth.
 1 Peter 2:9
 Ephesian 3:10
 HYMN humnos (NT:5215) denotes “a song of praise addressed to God
(from Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers.)
 1 Corinthians 14:6-18
 “A Craft Surrendered: The True Cost of Song-Driven Worship.” https://stevephifer.com/a-craft-surrendered/
 1 Corinthians 14:40
 John 17