What Makes a Great Sing-a-long?

I can’t tell you how often I hear worship leaders complain that the people don’t sing, don’t clap, aren’t engaged, or just don’t show up for worship. I feel their pain, trust me, I’ve been leading worship for 15 years. But how come Tom Petty can get a crowd of X-thousand people all singing, without him even being on the microphone…

They won’t let me embed the video so you’ll have to go here and watch it (sorry).

Here’s a thought. He plays the same songs over and over, and over, and over. I don’t think Tom Petty complains about doing “Breakdown” another night. I bet he doesn’t say to his band, “You know I think Breakdown is a very boring and dull song, it’s only got four chords, and it’s very repetitious, let’s not do it tonight, we’ll schedule it again in a month”.
Tom Petty knows that people love that song. They love it so much that they’ll sing on cue, even off cue. They’ll keep singing it over and over and over and over. And the band knows it so well they don’t even need to think to play it – they can take it anywhere they want to at the drop of a hat.
Tom Petty knows that if he plays that song, that one song, people will engage. So guess what, he plays that one song, all the time. Of course if he didn’t play “Breakdown”, he could always play, “Free Fallin'”, or “American Girl”, or “Runnin’ Down a Dream” (hmmm, this is beginning to sound like a familiar trend from guy by the name of Chris Tomlin – oh but we don’t like him because his songs are too popular…?).

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all about new music. In fact I love it and want our church to get it and love it as much as me. But let’s face the facts. As worship leaders, music is our passion, for many of us, it’s our job – so we spend an abnormal amount of time listening to music, talking with other worship leaders who are listening to new music, and oh yeah, listening to new music. Guess what? There’s no shortage of new music. But in my estimation, there is a shortage of worship leaders who’s number one goal is to lead and engage people in worship – to have a weekly invitation to participation.

Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to judge motives because I believe that most worship leaders want to engage people, they want them to connect with God, but their desires and their execution don’t always line up. We often leave out the “people” part of the equation when we’re preparing. We think of keys, of players, of sounds, and instrumentation, (or we pull the God card “this song will really bless the Lord!”), and completely forget that people plain don’t care to much about all that – they need to be invited to participate in the worship of God. If you’re bringing music to the people each weekend and hoping that they like it and that it will engage them, then you’ve missed the point. As a worship leader you are leading them, you are using the gift of music as a tool to bring them closer to God.

I guess my point is, don’t be afraid of the “Breakdown” worship songs. You know, the ones that every church is doing, the one’s that everybody knows, the ones that have only four chords and a straight ahead drum beat, the one’s that seem overplayed (when in reality if you think about how many times a song is heard on the radio compared with how often you play it at church, it’s ridiculous for us to expect people to know it).

OK, that was almost a rant. All I’m saying is that if Tom Petty can do it without the power of God’s Spirit, then we’ve got a lot of work to do my fellow worship leaders…

9 thoughts on “What Makes a Great Sing-a-long?

  1. Billy Chia

    I agree man – I don’t think it’s an issue of “people are conditioned to not sing” People LOVE to sing. Go to a Dashboard Confessional concert.

    Frequency is a big issue – not simply how infrequent we play favorite tunes, but simply how very frequent we have church.

    People love to get rowdy once in a while. How often do you go to see Tom Petty live? You might get intense at that one show, but you can only maintain that intensity so long. Certainly not week after week. The people who go to rock shows every single week are a minority.

    Fact: If church was less frequent, people would participate more.

    Billy Chias last blog post..Top 5 Worship Leader Blogs

  2. Timothy Luce

    My thoughts. Leading worship is not about leading people anywhere, it’s about going to that place yourself, and when you get there they want to join you.

    And, of course that is more easily accomplished when they know the song. Thanks for provoking thought. 🙂

  3. bobby

    Hmm. I think I have too many thoughts to share! Let me try quickly.
    Billy-agree. Tom Petty plays it every night, but it is for a different crowd every night.
    Billy-disagree. “Fact: If church was less frequent, people would participate more.” I don’t think it really translates over the same way.
    Timothy – disagree. I’ve seen worship leaders who go there without a problem, but they don’t bring anyone else with them. You gotta do more. It’s not a private worship time. It’s just different.
    Rich – Amen. It is worth it.

    This concept is part of why I actually try to do hymns more often than I used to now. Our church is multigenerational. The hymns are updated, but people where I’m at love them. They aren’t my #1 choice, but it isn’t all about me. That’s actually been a tough one to get past.

    But I don’t think the pendulum can swing the other way either. I have seen leaders do a song so often that people in the church wanted to puke when they heard it after a while. Open The Eyes is a good example for some people I know. God does say to sing a new song as well. I dont want to get stuck playing mid 90’s “choruses” every week when there are so many great new expressions out there to share also. As with everything, balance.

    And I think you could probably write a whole other post on…wait…nevermind. Maybe I’ll do that! 😉

    Thanks for the great thought provoking posts!

  4. James McLean

    oh this is a great topic and one that does not have a simple response. i understand what Timothy means, we cannot change people, they either worship or they don’t. so here is what we can do, we worship hard to God and people see that and join in. this is what i have seen ring true. also, just because people aren’t clapping or singing doesn’t mean they aren’t worshipping.
    it is who we are what we do, we worship because we can’t help but worship. whether people join in or not is their choice, we hope that they do but we can’t manipulate it.
    the bigger question is, what are we doing outside of the hour long service to euip and prepare them to be the church? we are calling them to live a lifestyle of worship and mission and you can’t get that in 1 hr on Sunday morning.
    just my thoughts.

    James McLeans last blog post..I don’t really know what I’m doing

  5. alex

    Hmmm, I’m crunching through the comments, good thought provoking ones. Timothy, I’m gonna have to address the leading portion of your comment – I have some strong feelings about leadership styles and how effective they are and how they relate to your vision, or the type of people you are targeting (if you are targeting, etc.)

    James – you caused me to immediately think, “what is that 1 hour for every Sunday?” probably another blog post.

    Billy – interesting line of thought. Is that what Passion, Harvest Crusade, etc. are for?

    Bobby – Right on. I think the issue of putting old songs to bed is another struggle we have. Why is this so complicated?

    Rich – “it will be worth it all in the end” 🙂

    Thanks all for continuing the conversation, let’s see who else will jump in!

  6. eric

    Sorry, I had to do that! LOL!

    So here are my real thoughts… What a great topic. I just had someone comment on how we “kind of have theme songs”. Meaning that we play a lot of the same songs. There’s something to be said about doing new songs.

    I agree with you all. In other words, different environments call for different leadership styles, techniques and song choices. Seriously though, for this post we’ll assume that singing along is our primary objective. Here are some of the techniques that I’ve used.

    So why not pick some popular Radio tunes that they might be more likely to sing along with (like “won’t back down”). I actually force myself to listen to Christian Radio once in a while for the sole purpose of picking up a popular song. Let’s face it, a lot of Christians listen to Christian Radio and the truth is they’re still playing some songs from the 90s (talk about repetition)!

    One of the best (and toughest) things I’ve done as a worship leader was create a few live, unedited CDs from our Sunday morning worship experiences. Now this was before I actually cared about how I sounded (what a tragedy that I’ve lost that) so I was able to put it out there. Today I’d be too embarrassed, but I bet it’d be worth it. This was over 5 years ago and I still get people asking for copies of those CDs. There’s something about being able to go to Church in the privacy of your own vehicle.

    Maybe I should put together a new CD!

    erics last blog post..Legos… the greatest creation of mankind…

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