As I neared the completion of planning a recent service, I was feeling pretty good about things when I once again realized I had not lined up a prelude (this happens to me a lot, but never mind about that). Thinking of the theme of the message, I thought of the perfect song to go along with it. It was so apt, I even considered replacing one of the songs I'd picked for elsewhere in the service. I was actually a little perturbed that I hadn't thought of this song earlier. Anyway, I wondered at the best way to use the song in the prelude.
Since we'd never sung it before, I thought maybe it would be good to have just the praise team do it. Still, we'd be missing a lot of the great instruments heard in the fantastic commercial recording, and that would be disappointing. So maybe I could just play the recording. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there was only one meaningful way to use the song: have the congregation sing it. The reason is the same reason it is so crucial that all worship music be singable and accessible for the congregation. If I had played the recording or had the praise team perform the song, the congregation would not have been a part of it. The very thing that made the song so perfect for the service (the impactful lyrics) would have been greatly diminished.
Here's what happens when the congregation listens to a song: they think about other things, they critique the performance, they miss some of the words, they talk to each other. They don't get the full impact of the lyrics. In fact, if you play a commercial recording a good portion of the congregation doesn't even listen. Your only hope would be to make an announcement right before the song, "Now I want you all to listen to this song... the words are excellent, so pay really close attention." And after that, a lot of them would probably have difficulty getting over how silly that announcement was. Sure, a few people would listen carefully and take to heart the power and truth of the lyrics, but only a few. That means the majority of the worshipers would not be worshiping.
If you do a quick internet search, you'll see that there are endless commentaries on the subtle, but important difference between leading worship and performing. The difference is whether the congregation is just as much a part of the songs as the leaders. When you go on a Saturday night to watch David Crowder, you are a very unimportant part of the songs. David Crowder, in contrast, is essential. After all, if he were sick and they told you another guy would be singing the songs instead, it wouldn't be the same at all. Even if you sang along at the top of your lungs to every song, the absence of David Crowder would probably be the main thing you remembered about the concert. If someone asked how it was, you would immediately mention the substitute singer. You'd want your money back. Now think about Sunday morning worship. It really shouldn't matter one bit who's in front leading. We don't (generally) go to church to hear a particular singer or musician. The parishioners are every bit as important as the leaders, if not more important. So it's best if they participate.
I'm not giving any advice in this post on how to get the congregation to participate. I'm simply driving home the point that if you want them to experience the power of a song, they should sing it. Most worship planners have been tempted to exclude the congregation on occasion. Sometimes we think the professional recording is just too incredible, nothing we do live could ever be as effective. Playing a recording doesn't take any preparation either, and when pressed for time, a ready-made solution can be appealing. Or maybe, as I related above, we think the praise team would do the song better (whatever that means) than the congregation. Nonetheless, without singing the song, it's harder to worship fully. Certainly there are special situations that call for a performance. Weddings and baptisms are good examples. Aside from that, though, I think we should try to let everyone present join in singing so that everyone can experience the fullness of praising God.