What can a congregation sing?

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to congregational worship and those who write the songs we sing in our churches. My own experience would tell me a few things:

1. I’m a trained musician and have loved music my whole life. I learn and remember songs better than the average person, and I like complex rhythms and melodies that I find challenging.

2. Most of the songs written for the church today are written by worship leaders who spend more time doing concerts and conferences than leading week in week out at a church. Even when they are leading worship at a church, they have huge sound systems and fantastic technological stuff to back them up (lights, screens, compelling lyric presentation, dare I even say haze/smoke?). They also have CD’s or songs on Itunes that the people at their churches listen to throughout the week.

3. Most people can’t sing 95% of the congregational stuff written today well, despite what I may want them to sing or even convince myself they are able to sing.

I think it’s a bit of a problem. Actually I think it’s a huge problem. I think that some worship leaders are keenly aware of it, but most try to ignore it or say it doesn’t exist because it’s just way more fun singing harder songs. We don’t get bored, and we find ourselves as worship leaders often more easily drawn into something that isn’t old and simple.

But that’s not what leading a congregation is about. It’s about leading people to see who God is and to respond not only in singing, but with their lives. Have you ever sat in a small group of people when someone pulls out a guitar and starts singing worship songs? It usually goes well until he or she tries to do something that people don’t know or that is in a bad range. All of a sudden everyone quiets down to a whisper and looks around at each other. It’s hard to see God and respond to him when you’re spending most of your energy trying to figure out how to jump down an octave or not come in at the wrong time. Some would argue that that is the congregations fault, that they should have their hearts and minds in the right places and that it really isn’t about the singing (which it isn’t). I’m just not convinced that congregations are that mature, or even that it’s a good thing that we expect them to be.

Most congregations that I know are made up of a very diverse group of people. Diverse in age, diverse in musical preferences, and diverse in where they’re at in their faith journey. Would we really expect a person new to a church to be able to put aside the difficulty of a song and connect with God? Of course not. We expect them to sit and take it all in… look around and see what people are doing, read the words on the screen, and maybe ask some questions afterwards. Do we expect people who grew up in the 50’s reading from hymnbooks to pick up complicated syncopated rhythms the first or second time around? We shouldn’t, and we should tell them that it’s okay if they don’t get it the first time around.

I think we as worship leaders should be very aware of how difficult the songs we sing are. I think we should care deeply for the content and what we’re trying to say, but be aware that if we can’t say it in a way that people can easily grasp, it might not be as effective as we think!  I hope I can continue to learn this lesson, and ultimately write songs for the church that are both deeply profound and deeply accessible and learn-able by a diverse congregation.

What do you think? Am I way off on this? Anyone who’s not a musician want to give their impressions of some of the music they’ve been asked to sing in a church?