As much as I struggled with explaining what I meant when I said a song was Scriptural, I think I struggled more with figuring out how to explain something is Congregational.
The reason for that is which Scriptural is a rule. It is definite. It is concrete.
Congregational is more like a set of guidelines. There are certain things I wouldn’t recommend doing (or at least doing very often), but those things don’t necessarily prevent a song from being used by a congregation.
With that in mind, here are some of the guidelines I think about when considering whether a song is Congregational or not:
1. What is the range of the song?
How high does the melody go and how low? Generally speaking, a congregation will struggle to sing much higher than the second E above middle C or much lower than the A below middle C.
So if a song has a high F#, does that mean you can’t use it? Not necessarily. If it’s a single F# and the melody builds to it, it might be doable. But if the first note of the melody is that F#, it’d be tricky. If you’re singing that F# several times in a single phrase, it’d be tricky.
The same general principle applies to low notes as well.
The easiest way to get around this? Change the key. However, if a melody runs both very high and very low, then changing the key won’t make a difference.
2. Does the song have tricky rhythms?
This is much harder to define than range. Some rhythms look very difficult when written out, but if learned by ear are quite simple. Other rhythms are difficult no matter what.
There are a few generalizations that can be made:
-A string of quarter notes is easier to sing than a string of sixteenth notes (yes, I know, tempo makes a difference, but you get my point).
-Large amounts of syncopated notes are harder to sing than notes on the downbeat.
-Long phrases without spaces to breathe are difficult.
3. How much repetition does a song have?
Repetition can show itself in a number of ways.
Hymns have long been the gold standard of congregational singing for one reason (feel free to argue with me on this, I love a good argument). The melody repeats. This happens not only from verse to verse but many times from line to line.
In more recent songs, repetition could come from repeating an entire verse. More often we see the use of a chorus as a repeated element. Additionally, in many recent songs, you see the use of a bridge that is repeated multiple times.
Why is repetition important? It gives the congregation something to latch onto. They know what to expect so that frees them to not have to think about the notes they are singing and, rather, focus on the words they are proclaiming.
Repetition is not only important within a song itself, it is important within a congregation. The vast majority of hymns have elements of repetition, making them easier to learn, but if they are only used once every two or three years, a congregation is unlikely to remember them. Consider repeating songs from week to week to help the congregation learn and remember them.
Again, these are all guidelines, not hard and fast rules. I’m sure you could find examples in most congregations of songs that do not follow one or all of these guidelines. You will also likely find songs in this blog that don’t follow them.
If a song doesn’t follow one of these guidelines, I will do my best to point it out and give advice about how to make it easier for your congregation. Whether that’s by changing a key, slowing the tempo, or simply spending more time teaching and repeating a song with your congregation.