How do we help visitors sing songs they may not know?

  • Philip Percival
  • 5 December 2016

It is pretty common these days to find each and every church using a unique playlist of songs. The decline of the hymn/music book, and our now unlimited access to new music on social media, means there is no single ‘canon’ of songs that we all know. Okay, yes, we might all sing ‘10,000 Reasons’ and ‘In Christ Alone’. But no longer do churches, or even different congregations within churches, sing off the same song sheet.

This has obvious implications for newcomers to our churches, Christian and unbeliever alike. My own church has a lot of visitors: one-offs, one-termers, one-yearers. And I often hear the comment: “I really love the singing here, but I don’t actually know any of the songs!” I admit that we like to stay current with our song choices! And, while that doesn’t mean we are simply going for whatever is new and popular, we are looking for fresh and accurate expressions of gospel truths to engage the heart and mind with Christ and to encourage the church with those truths. It doesn’t mean we have ditched hymn singing, but it may mean we are sometimes using new or ‘refreshed’ versions of old tunes. All of which results in the danger that a visitor may feel slightly at sea when they enter one of our meetings.

So how do we help visitors sing songs they may not know? Here are a few tips:

Choose songs that first serve your congregation

This may seem a counter-intuitive response. But it follows the theological truth that church is first of all for Christians, and that when we are clearly speaking gospel truth to one another, it will have a profound impact on the outsider (1 Cor 14:24-25). And a great example of that ‘prophetic’, church-building speaking is our singing (1 Cor 14:26)!

This means choosing the right songs to keep our eyes fixed on Christ, and each other, as we sing out a true and affective response to the gospel. And practically, it means choosing songs appropriate for your church’s context (age, style, cultural preferences, etc.), which crucially take into account the congregation’s ability to sing those songs well. A great song which is too hard for your church, or which they are bored by, sadly won’t deliver those gospel aims.

Sing in a way that a visitor will want to sing with you

Following from this point, I would argue that the enthusiasm and authenticity with which a church sings is going to be more attractive to a visitor than them actually knowing the songs. Singing is a great indicator of what is going on in the heart. A church that shows its love for Christ and each other in the way it sings is a chorus I want to join!

Song leading is key

While it is the word of Christ that does the work of engaging hearts with the gospel (Col 3:16), the song leader has, none the less, a crucial role in helping us sing together. A song leader gives us the cues to start and stop, and the right notes to sing—thereby giving me the confidence to ‘sing with heart’ without making a fool of myself! Equally, a good song leader gives us the emotional cues of how to approach a song, showing something of their own joy in praise, sadness at sin, confidence in salvation, etc. Note: a song leader may be a designated musician, but they may equally be the pastor or service leader. If you are at the front then the church will be watching you for musical leadership! Getting song leading right is good for regulars and visitors alike.

Give an eye to the unbelieving visitor

Bearing in mind all of the above, it is of course worthwhile to consider how we make our singing accessible for visitors. When my church holds an invitation service we will avoid jargon-filled and overly subjective songs, or language which a guest might find hard to affirm, and we’ll always make sure there is at least one song an outsider might recognise—even if that is ‘Amazing Grace’. As society becomes more and more post-Christian, however, this is going to get harder. Also hard is the fact that people tend not to sing corporately anymore. So if you have someone who has the right gifts, perhaps do less corporate songs and more solos.

In the end, I would argue that, while singing is a counter-cultural activity, Christians are a people of song—deliberately so. And in my own context, the sound of heart-engaged gospel singing has attracted many to walk into our church off the street to find out what is going on.

If you found this article helpful, then give Philip's book Then Sings My Soul a read. His book will equip you to reignite in your church a passion for singing together in response to God’s amazing redemption of his people.