Creative congregational singing

Hymn singing can be exciting! The vibrant sound of joyful songs of praise does something great for the spirit of the church.

DerrellL. Billingsley was minister of music at the First Baptist Church, Columbia, Tennessee, when he wrote this article.

How can an unsegregated, ungraded, unorganized body of people do anything together? How can a congregation made up of some eager singers, some reluctant singers, and some nonsingers be persuaded or otherwise motivated to become involved in a singing experience?

"The congregation is not a choir. To approach the singing of the hymns as a choral experience, using similar techniques regarding flexibility, tempo, dynamics, and interpretation as you would with a 40-voice choral group, is to discourage many whose reflexive responses have been reduced by age or impairment. The singing of a hymn by a fine choral group and the singing of an average congregation are two different kinds of experiences. One is like the execution of a well-coached high school football team; the other, like a touch football game played on the vacant corner lot by the neighborhood folks. In congregational singing, like the neighborhood touch football game, anybody can play, regardless of age, sex, height, or weight. We just choose up sides and use all available material." *

The search for new and fresh ways to interest, motivate, and inspire our people to sing continues. The congregation has the right to sing what they know and like. There is security in the familiar. By the same token, we tend to fear the unknown. A congregation faced with too many unknown hymns will soon become a nonparticipating group. John Wesley, the great Methodist revivalist and song leader, advised us to sing the familiar. If the people are to sing enthusiastically, they must know the tune.

The key word in the selection of hymns is balance. For most churches, a balance between familiar and unfamiliar hymns would come closer to 80-20 than 50-50. Familiarity will chase the reluctance from your congregational singing.

The congregation has the right to sing at a tempo that they can handle. The congregation has the right to say all the words of every hymn. The congregation also has the right to breathe as they sing. In the name of spirited singing, many of us have been guilty of running away with the tempo. We must not confuse speed with spirit. At an increased tempo, clear articulation of the text is most difficult, which in turn causes a loss of meaning of the text.

Going to the other extreme can and will affect the spirit of the singing. When the tempo is too slow, the singing loses vitality. Slow singing is taxing and tiring, as one is unable to sing a complete phrase in one breath. Again the text loses meaning, and the frustrated worshiper tends to quit in desperation. There is a place between the two extremes that is right for you and your congregation. Find it! The result will be worth the effort.

John Wesley had a bit of advice for the singer on staying with the tempo: "Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes as quick as we did at first."

The congregation also has the right to be heard over the instruments. The Southern Baptist Convocation on Congregational Singing, 1974, issued a statement concerning the role of the instruments in congregational singing: "We believe that the organist should clearly articulate the rhythm of the hymn, indicate textual and vocal phrasing of each stanza, support but not overwhelm the singing, and should not use tremolo."

The same statement was issued regarding the role of the pianist.

A good solid accompaniment will bring out the best in a singing congregation. A congregation needs and responds to this type of help. Too much volume, however, will prove detrimental. The singer will soon give up the battle to be heard over the instruments.

Accompany, as we use the word, means to "go along with."

Give the congregation their rights—with variations

Evaluate your congregational singing activities as objectively as possible. Tape-record the worship services for a few weeks. A recording will reveal the truth.

Innovation and creativity can and will bring a refreshing breath of life to what otherwise may be destined to sound more like death.

Drama. Dramatize a hymn with tableaus. A proven idea gleaned from a conference led by Sarah Walton Miller, of Houston, Texas, is to dramatize "Am I a Soldier of the Cross?" The baptistry and the areas just to the left and right of the pulpit are excellent places for the tableaus.

Stanza 1 calls for two men or boys in biblical dress. One of them is on the floor portraying Stephen; the other is standing over him with a large stone over his head.

Stanza 2 calls for a man to be tied to the stake. His clothes are torn and his head is bandaged. This person can simply hold a post behind his back.

Stanza 3 calls for John Bunyan in jail. A refrigerator box, a pocket knife, and some paint will put you in business!

Stanza 4 refers to two slain missionaries, portraying Paul and Nancy Porter. After such an experience, "Am I a Soldier of the Cross?" will have new meaning.

Varying the accompaniment

Handbells. The introduction of the selected hymn is played by the bell choir in the foyer, then they enter ringing and singing the first stanza of the hymn. The bell choir then surrounds the congregation or stands in front, depending on the size of the handbell choir and the congregation. The congregation joins in singing the remaining stanzas.

Antiphonal ringing and singing is fun with handbells. "All Creatures of Our God and King" is an especially well suited hymn for such treatment.

Brass and woodwinds. Select a hymn and use one of the following outlines:

Stanza 1—Congregation and instruments

Stanza 2—Congregation a cappella

Stanza 3—Instruments accompany as congregation reads silently

Stanza 4—Instruments play descant as the congregation sings in unison with organ accompaniment or

Stanza 1—Instruments and organ accompany congregational singing

Stanza 2—Congregation sings in unison with free organ accompaniment with modulation

Stanza 3—Instruments and organ accompany congregational singing

Taped accompaniment. In this electronic age many congregations are using prepared tapes and enjoying the thrill of singing with the sound of a large orchestra. Several of the more popular church music publishers are making such tapes available.

No accompaniment. Singing also can be thrilling and heartwarming without any type of accompaniment. Simply get the pitch from the organ or piano and sing. Another way is to prepare a member of the choir or congregation to start a hymn from where he is seated. Still another way, so old that it may be new to your people, is to "line out" a hymn. In lining out, the director sings the first phrase and the congregation sings it back to him. He then sings the second phrase and the congregation responds, and so on through the hymn. Upon completing the stanza, everyone sings it through again without stopping. Lining out was the practice before music notation became part of the hymnal.

Autoharp. People of all ages love the sound of the Autoharp. It lends itself to use with the singing of early American tunes. It is also especially good to use when featuring children's songs and hymns in worship.

Keyboard lead. Ask the pianist or organist to lead with a medley of favorites. Modulations and interludes are helpful and enjoyable. Other than setting the proper tone and attitude of the upcoming song, it also affords the worshipers a chance to catch their breath and prepare their minds for the next song. This type of singing is especially effective for evening services.

The possibilities for varying a hymn are limited only by one's imagination.

Perhaps one or two of the following suggestions will work for you:

• Sing a stanza of a hymn unaccompanied, usually a middle stanza.

• Sing the last stanza of a praise hymn slower, with strength, and with fuller accompaniment.

• Modulate to a higher key for the last stanza.

• Sing a stanza or refrain of another hymn after the last stanza (tap a song).

• Sing from memory a medley of songs in one key. The first stanza of each will not present a problem if the hymns are familiar. Example: "There Is a Name I Love to Hear" into "Higher Ground" into "I Need Thee Every Hour."

• All voices sing in unison.

• Ask the congregation to read a stanza of the hymn. Men may read one stanza and the ladies another.

• Ask the congregation for Scripture quotes at various intervals during the singing of a hymn. Examples: During the singing of "Standing on the Promises," ask for scriptures that are promises of God. Pause at the end of stanzas for quotes. Sing "I Know the Bible Is True," asking for Scripture verses at the end of each stanza. Sing "Since Jesus Came Into My Heart" and ask for a brief testimony at the end of each stanza.

• Alternate the singing of stanzas of a hymn between choir and congregation.

• Write a descant for the choir to sing as the congregation sings the final stanza in unison.

Give the congregation their rights—with variations!

* From an address, "The Practice of Congregational
Singing, "by William]. Reynolds, for the Convocation on
Congregational Singing, April 1974. See also The Church
Musician, February 1975, p. 4.


We've reprinted a portion of an article from The Church
Musician, April 1975. © Copyright 1975 The Sunday
School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. All
rights reserved. Used by permission.

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DerrellL. Billingsley was minister of music at the First Baptist Church, Columbia, Tennessee, when he wrote this article.

May 1987

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