I'm not a music guy. I can still awkwardly bang out a few chords on the guitar, but for the most part I'm pretty terrible at music. Furthermore, I'm not a music enthusiast; I'd rather be listening to news or talk radio than music in the car. Some people seem to have music in their souls. I'm just not one of those people. But I do love singing with other believers in worship.
As a pastor, I am the worship leader of the congregation God has entrusted to me. It is my responsibility to think correctly about how music is employed for worship. I will not be the one leading the music, but I must be the one applying a sound philosophy to guide those who are leading. The following is what I have crystalized to this point as my personal philosophy concerning congregational singing. I've arrived at these through reading, talking to people who know more than me, and through trial and error.
1. Congregational singing should be content driven.
The whole worship service should be driven by the Word of God. Therefore, the lyrics of the music employed should declare truth about God that flow directly from the content of the Bible. The words should communicate the greatness and goodness of God and the message of the Gospel. Some songs do a much better job of this than others, both old and new. It's important to pick the ones that do it the best. We should not choose songs that focus more on a personal, emotional experience rather than on God. We always want our emotions to be sparked by a clear vision of God's beauty and truth. We should be wise about these choices and evaluate our selections through a sound theology of worship that starts with the content.
2. Congregational singing should be mostly familiar.
The goal is to get the congregation joyfully singing. If this is going to be accomplished well, then at least most of the people in the congregation need to be familiar with most the songs. It is discouraging for people to stand and listen to several songs in a row that they don't know. That in itself becomes a distraction to worship and hinders them from participating. Of course, congregations should be folding new songs into their repertoire, but it should be done slowly and methodically. If music leaders introduce too many songs too often, then it won't take long for the congregation to become spectators rather than participants.
3. Congregational singing should be doable for the average singer.
One of the difficulties of much popular, contemporary music is that it is simply too difficult for the average singer. The notes get too high or the timing too complex. Singers like me, who have hardly any vocal range, will get discouraged. Music leaders need to keep the average and below average singer in mind when choosing songs for congregational singing, since the goal is to get us singing. Save the difficult stuff for the choir and for specials to be done by people who are gifted. All us bad singers can sit back and appreciate the talent and praise God through it. But if music leaders really want us average folks to sing along, then they need to offer stuff we can actually do.
4. Congregational singing should be instructive.
Music is a discipleship tool. Picking congregational songs that have meaty biblical and theological content is important because it keeps God as the focus of our singing. However, it also serves to instruct. The music people grow up singing in church will stick with them forever. If that is the case, then we should choose music that communicates the best things about God and sing them regularly. I can't recall a single sermon outline from my childhood pastor, and he was a good preacher. But I can quote words from the 25-30 hymns that we sang over and over. I learned about the Gospel through the songs.
5. Congregational singing should be done well.
No matter what size the church or how great or limited the resources, each congregation should try to do music as well as it possibly can. A congregation of 25 should be as intentional about what it does with its congregational singing as one of 2,500. The pastor and the music leader should collaborate on message and music, choosing songs that work to highlight key themes or ideas of the text to be preached. If resources are limited, then keeping it simple will serve you better. Plan for smooth transitions from one part of the service to the next and eliminate distractions as much as possible. But this takes prayer, planning and being in agreement about your guiding philosophy.
Sunday morning worship is prime time. This is when most people will be gathered each week to encounter the Word of God. This is when guests most likely will first be introduced to your fellowship. The music is not the main thing, but it certainly will be a significant part of the whole that is offered up to God. It deserves careful consideration.