Sing Lustily and with a Good Courage! [i]

Growing your church and music ministry by including young musicians

Most of my life has been spent in small to medium sized churches with limited resources and one main congregation catering for all ages. Although I have trained as a professional musician, one of my special areas of interest has been encouraging people to participate in communal music-making with whatever experience or skill they have. I have delighted in gathering together a community choir for carol services, hand drumming sessions at our after-school kids club, and nurturing the skills of young musicians in our church.

I am grateful for the reflections of some of the participants on their teenage experience in these activities over the years, which are included in this discussion.

God will provide

My starting position for all ministry in the local church is this: God will provide.
If we trust that God will give us what we need, then we can start looking at the gifts and resources that God has given us in our own, local community. It is our privilege and responsibility as church leaders to discover and nurture the gifts and people that God has placed in our midst.

If God provides for our particular needs in our particular location and situation, we can proceed with confidence. We don’t need to look longingly at the church up the road which has resources we don’t have. While we can be encouraged by our wider church fellowship, we don’t have to imitate what they are doing. We can take satisfaction in God’s particular and loving provision for our community.

A Culture of Service

The commitment to discovering and developing the gifts God has given will happen in a community which is welcoming, affirming and nurturing. An inclusive music ministry will be a reflection of (and a stimulus to) a healthy inclusive community. There will be opportunities to serve which are not restricted to the ministry ‘professionals’ or other experts. People of different ages and different faith stages will be engaged in appropriate ministry. Those serving will be reflective of the whole church community – including children. And there will be opportunities to sing!  Our music will reflect the needs of our congregation, our current teaching program, the diversity of our community and the riches God has given us. 

One of the advantages of a smaller church is that a culture of service is pragmatic as well as desirable. We need to use everyone we have! We don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing those who suit a certain ‘image’ or have professional skills. We need each other, and are grateful for all those who are willing to serve. This approach contrasts with some larger churches where a performance culture, reputation and standards can lead to ego clashes, and some church members feeling excluded.

The current trends and expectations in church music don’t always serve us well. Our music culture is driven by a performance model – whether that is the latest song from a megachurch, or our favourite Christian artist. Maybe the large churches producing and promoting their music are our contemporary cathedrals with music designed for large spaces, large congregations, professional musicians and sophisticated production. A mountain top experience! But just as it would be unrealistic to expect to replicate a cathedral service with choir and pipe organ in our local church, so too it is unhelpful to attempt a reproduction of the highly produced megachurch sound.

Recordings also shape our expectations. For many in the congregation and in our music team, a professional, recorded performance will be our first impression of and the template for a new song.     Some of the trends I observe in congregational music can be attributed to this. A soloist will easily handle a song with an octave and a half range. Not so your average singer in the pew, particularly when the bridge section will hover around the top of the vocal range without relief. An introduction that establishes a particular mood is great for a solo, but doesn’t really help the congregation work out what the tune is going to be. What about the reality that a song sung by 2000 people in a vast space will necessarily be sung slower than in an intimate gathering? The recommendation at a church music seminar to ‘never play the melody’ makes sense for a performance, but most congregations will be grateful for a vocal and instrumental lead. An unpredictable structure adds to performance interest but will mean that the congregation is dependent on the band at every musical crossroad. And most dangerously, skilful arrangements and production can hide the fact that neither the tune nor the words are particularly helpful or strong.

In general, when done well, church music has helped strengthen my connection to the community and my faith… Note that ‘done well’ in this context has not had any correlation with the level of ‘professionalism’ of the sound. It’s more about how the music engages the community (or not) and how the lyrical content resonates with the congregation. So in my experience, careful selection of music, and carefully building community around the provision, enjoyment and participation in music (including for the congregation), are far more important than the ‘quality’ of the sound. (David)

So how do we navigate the world of contemporary worship music? How will we serve our local congregation well? How will we know when we are succeeding? Here are some practical ideas for your encouragement.

Song Selection

My strategy is to look first at the words. Do they make sense? What about the use of Christian jargon or clichés?  Do the lyrics say something new, or in a fresh way? Would they stand alone? If not, stop there.      

Then look at the tune – hum it on its own. Is it easy to sing? Is it a tune that has shape, a hook, something memorable? Is it something you could sing in the shower or in the car? Can it stand alone?  If not, stop there.

Only then listen to the recording. Don’t let a convincing performance sell a mediocre song.

Work to make your song selections reflect your congregation. A multi-age congregation will appreciate a range of musical styles. A teenager will surprise you by saying that their favourite song is ‘All Creatures of Our God and King.’ An elderly lady will be brought undone by the children’s chorus ‘He Knows My Name.’

Choose music which suits your resources. How and when can you use that didgeridoo or piano accordion?! If your resources are limited, look at folk and world music. It has often thrived in situations with limited resources, and amateur enthusiasm and involvement. These musical styles often put a great emphasis on voices – ordinary voices! Instrumental accompaniment can be minimal.[ii]

Could our music reflect not only the latest music trends, but also solidarity with our brothers and sisters through history and across the world? How will our faith be strengthened by songs of lament, by child-like exuberance, by the engaging of head, heart, hands…and feet? How can our song choices prepare people for worship and for the coming week?

Develop trust. In my experience, the congregation will be happy to try new songs and ways of doing music if they know that it is part of a thoughtful, purposeful plan, rather than a response to the latest fad.

We were worshipping with the world. We were worshipping with history. We were worshipping young and old. We were worshipping in a way that was specific to our community. (Grace)

Using Experienced Musicians

Keep reminding people of the unique nature of leading church music. We are serving God and his people. We are part of a team. We are dependent on the Holy Spirit.

Pianists might need help to clarify their role in the team (e.g. contributing harmony, rhythm, melody, additional colour – but not all at the same time). It might be helpful to consider themselves as a particular instrument or section in an orchestra.

Encourage a mentoring mindset. Get alongside young musicians and encourage them. Show them a new chord or ask about their favourite song. As we rehearse together, there will be opportunities to talk about what a song means and why we need to play it a bit slower or stronger or softer to support the words. Our prayer together, our words and attitudes will be a powerful example. I loved observing a music team a few years back. The band included an international academic who is a fine musician. He happily played alongside a young teenage pianist, and took directions from the team leader who was in his 20s. God’s upside-down kingdom on display.

Joining the music team was my pathway back into church and it was wonderful to be welcomed and treated equally, despite not professing as a Christian or going to church at the time. It gave me the opportunity to experience life alongside Christians, see God’s love in action and be part of it. It was lovely, freeing, and demystified church over the course of time. (Bek)

Young Instrumentalists Need Lots of Support

It was my joy to have a junior band at our church when a number of kids were learning music at school. They would join the church junior band after about 6-12 months of tuition. My strategy was as follows:

  • Find out what notes they can play comfortably.
  • Prepare simple parts based on the harmonic progression, maybe one note in each bar, which can be highlighted on the music or written separately. That note can be given a rhythm for extra interest and energy. Tam ti ta, tam ti ta…’keep   the beat, keep   the beat’!
  • Step-wise movement, simple rhythms and repeating patterns work well. Syncopated contemporary melodies will be difficult to play.
  • Have these musicians play the chorus only, or every second verse, so that wind and brass players can recover. This is also a good way to reinforce the narrative or changing mood of the lyrics within a song.
  • Hymns are challenging for kids to play because of quickly changing harmonies but they have predictable rhythms.
  • Use SongSelect’s transposing function to prepare music for transposing instruments like clarinets, saxophones and trumpets.
  • Young keyboard players will need very simple parts – often a repeating chord pattern for one hand, or the melody only.
  • Guitarists or bass players might play unplugged beside a mentor.
  • Drummers need particular direction because of the prominence of their sound, and the potential to sabotage the tempo and the mood of the song.
  • Get organized early – hand out music the week before, and arrange a practice before Sunday. Leave plenty of time for setting up, warming up and tuning.

Having a junior band was a special season in our church. More commonly, we will place young musicians alongside more experienced team members. Often they will start by preparing only one or two songs for a service. Teenagers have also provided tech support for the music team.

Any instrumental work with kids will require lots of prayer, planning and patience. But the rewards will become obvious – affirmed, growing musicians, inspired and encouraged congregations, enthusiastic kids and grateful parents who see their children becoming an active part of the church’s ministry.

It was important to be given a chance in a junior band – or as a junior member of a band – with a patient leader who would put up with both behavioural and musical messiness. (Richard)

Adapting Hymns for Instrumental Involvement

Be discerning. As in any genre, there will be good hymns and bad hymns!

A useful strategy is to strip a hymn back to melody and words only. Sing through a few times, to consider the mood and rhythm implied by the melody and words. Can you detect a rhythmic dance pulse or lyrical folk song in the material? Simplify the harmonies to one or two chords per bar.[iii] Start adding instruments – maybe a cello or bass guitar, a recorder or violin on the melody, a guitar for harmony… and could someone invest in a cajon or bodhran?
Note that an extra bar may need to be inserted between the verses to give time to breathe and a better musical flow. This will also allow guitars and percussion to play a continuing beat rather than stopping and starting at each verse.
Avoid making adjustments to the melody, as this will frustrate those who already know the hymn.

We have a lot to learn from singing songs that have been around for hundreds of years, and there is encouragement merely in knowing that we stand with Christians throughout the ages in lifting a particular hymn to God. (Bek)

Engaging Children

Find various ways to include children. Can they sing with the team for one of the songs? Could they demonstrate the actions with an adult?

We have encouraged children to draw pictures which are incorporated alongside the lyrics on the projection screen, or prepare slide shows to illustrate particular songs. Their efforts are enjoyed by the congregation, and help the children ponder the words more carefully. Songs about God’s wonderful world are enhanced beautifully by relevant photos.

These were places for those in that awkward church stage between being a kid and adult, and places where the congregation could see the young people contributing. (Grace)

Have a box of percussion instruments to hand out occasionally for a bright song of praise - and collect up straight after the song!

Ask a music student to prepare a suitable piece to play during communion or at the close of the service. We have also invited young children to play their simple arrangements of Christmas carols on the piano or recorder before our carol service.

Seize every opportunity! Sing some fun songs at a family night at church. And a church camp is a great time to expose people to new music and take time to teach some harmonies.

Having youth in the team is more inspiring for children in the congregation. Seeing people closer in age to them shows that Christianity isn’t just for adults, but for all ages and stages of life. (Zoe)

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord (Psalm 150:6)

Keep remembering that our job is to help the people of God sing. Make decisions that support the congregational singing rather than our own musical tastes or satisfaction.

Ensure that the congregation can hear themselves singing! It is an exhilarating experience to be part of that combined sound. Rounds and simple unaccompanied songs will help the congregation to find its voice. Singing together in harmony is a particular delight.

The congregational singing was the thing that shined brightest. The congregation was the loudest, not the musicians or lead singers… On the whole, to sing at St Mark’s was to sing with the church. You always knew that your small voice was contributing to that wonderful sound. (Grace)

Provide clear leadership and step into an accompanying role when the congregation is owning the song. Take time to pray, prepare and reflect, and to encourage and support your team. 

Give thanks for God’s good provision. Trust in God’s enabling.
Rejoice. Sing lustily and with a good courage!

 Angela Chandler has had a long involvement in all aspects of congregational music, including various publishing and recording projects, training events and leading music teams for conferences. Angela works as a music teacher and accompanist, and is also the children and families worker at St Mark's Anglican Church, Forest Hill.



[i] From John Wesley’s ‘Directions for Singing’ in Select Hymns with Tunes Annext (1761)

[ii] A lot of the music coming from Sovereign Grace, CityAlight, Stuart Townend and the Gettys has its origins in these styles.

[iii] The Together in Song melody edition has attempted to simplify hymn harmonies for guitar. Note they are not compatible with the full music edition.