The other day I was reminiscing with an old friend about our adventures in leading worship as young 20-somethings. When I look at my current 20-something year old worship leaders now I can only express how thankful I am that they are far wiser and serve with far more humility than I did at that age. However, with time comes lessons learned and I'd like to offer some simple thoughts for worship leaders (of any age) to consider when trying to encourage congregational participation (ie. singing) in worship.
To begin, ask yourself the following question. Are you performing worship or leading people in worship? Performing worship is presenting an art form as an offering to God that is designed to inspire others. There's nothing wrong with it but it is very different than leading others in worship.
If your intent is performance then the following don't really apply. If your intent is congregational participation then you may find the following thoughts helpful.
1. Know your audience. As worship leaders we often have a yearning to stretch our congregations but our primary responsibility is to lead them into participatory worship. With that in mind pick your songs based on not only your theme for the service event, etc; but also based on what people know and what songs are important to them. Familiarity encourages participation, meaning the better people know the song the stronger they will probably sing. The stronger people sing the more they will encourage those around them to sing as well. It is also amazing the connection you can make with a diverse congregation by just offering one or two songs to a segment of the group that may possibly feel alienated from the rest (ie. a hymn in the familiar melody offered to an older generation). By all means please do introduce new songs from time to time, but introduce them very intentionally by surrounding them with songs that are extra familiar in order to encourage your congregation to continue singing.
2. Pick singable songs. Yes, this might seem obvious but it isn't always. What is singable to a trained musician may very well not be the majority in your congregation. Songs with multiple timing changes or inconsistent rhythms may be very difficult for many in your congregation to follow. A good test is how long it takes to teach the song to your own vocalists. If you've gone through the song more than twice without them being able to pick up the melody then it's a good indication that it may not work well with your congregation either. On the other hand, I will never forget the first time I heard the song 10,000 Reasons by Matt Redman. I bought the album the day it was released and listened to it while out for an afternoon drive. I suddenly realized mid-song that I was singing along at the top of my lungs and yet I had never heard the song before and wasn't even all the way through. I knew instantly that it was a keeper and we led it in church that Sunday. Our congregation responded pretty much the same way every other did and it became an instant favourite.
3. Pick singable keys. For many vocalists the sweet spot in their vocals where they feel the most powerful is far above (or below) what the average person can comfortably sing. When songs are presented in these keys you will find that congregational participation will be quite low. It's important to remember that people will rather hum quietly or just spectate than try to sing in a difficult key. Here is a great article that gives some helpful guidelines and rationale for key selection.
4. Lead songs in a way that the congregation can follow. As musicians there are often things that seem to come naturally including stylized interpretations of melodies and/or harmonies. This does not come naturally to everyone however and if you are adjusting your timing on the fly or constantly augmenting the melody to keep it artistic and fresh, the majority will probably not be able to follow you. This also includes alternative pronunciations of words... "God" is not "gad", and there really isn't ever a reason to insert every vowel into your pronunciation of the word "Hallelujah." (yes, a little tongue in cheek, but I've actually seen it done quite recently)
4. Be prepared to follow the congregation. If the congregation is singing strong and knows the song differently than you planned to lead it, it is your responsibility to adapt and follow the congregation's lead. When the leader insists on following his or her own direction over the direction of the congregation the singing most often stops cold. I once witnessed an entire arena virtually stop singing a powerful hymn because the worship leader decided to do something different, and after a few awkward notes of trying to follow her they just stopped. Sadly the momentum never really recovered.
5. Offer opportunities for the voices of the congregation to ring. Step back from the mic and cut the instruments, even if only for a chorus. If you have a singing congregation, they will sing all the stronger. I guarantee you will be blessed and so will the congregation.
That's it. I hope this has been helpful to you and I'd love to hear some of your thoughts as well. To close, for a little bit of fun check out this great video on How to Write a Worship Song (in 5 min. or less)