How Do You Know Your Congregation Is Singing? Take A Canary into the Mine.


Taking a canary into a coal mine previously served as an early warning system for mines with inadequate ventilation systems.  Canaries are especially sensitive to methane gas and carbon monoxide, which made them ideal for detecting a dangerous build-up of gas in the coal seam.  The canary showed signs of distress in response to small concentrations of gas before it became detrimental to the miners.  The first sign of imminent danger was when the canary stopped singing.

canaryIf certain generations, cultures, or even the majority of your congregation has stopped singing, it is probably an early warning sign of danger ahead.  And it is often difficult if not impossible for worship leaders to detect those warning signs from the platform.

The idiom canary in a coal mine has continued as a reference to a person or thing that serves as a warning of a looming crisis.  Enlisting trusted individuals from your congregation to regularly ask questions not only about the worship singing of your congregation, but also about the way you lead the singing could alert you and your congregation to imminent conflict while there is still time for curative care.  The key is to intentionally implement a pre-emptive process since the asking of similar questions will inevitably occur in the halls and parking lots anyway.

Note:  It is vital to enlist individuals to ask evaluative questions who love God, love the church, and love you enough to honestly evaluate your leadership and assess the level of congregational participation.  The humility necessary to initiate a process such as this can only occur if you also love God, love the church, and love the people enough to sacrifice your own interests for the greater good of the church.

Sample Congregational Singing Questions:

  • Are characteristic traits, character flaws, or idiosyncrasies of the leaders encouraging/discouraging congregational participation?  Examples:  genuineness, preparedness, platform presence, vocal clarity, empathy, grammar, arrogance, aloofness, chattiness, selflessness, service, selfishness, and deep spirituality.
  • Is congregational singing passive or participative?  What are leaders doing to encourage/discourage passivity or participation?  Are the leaders depending on song selection only to accomplish this goal?
  • Do song selections include a balance of familiar and new?
  • Do songs include expressions that are:  vertical and horizontal, celebrative and contemplative, comforting and disturbing?
  • Is the song text theologically sound and does it affirm scripture as central?  Is it trite or archaic, repetitive or diverse?
  • Are song selections culturally appropriate for our congregation?  Are leaders selecting worship songs giving primary consideration to the culture they hope to reach, the culture of our existing congregation, a mixture of both, or neither?
  • Do our songs encourage conversational worship… including God’s words to us as well as our words to God?  Are leaders incorporating musical elements that distract our attention from that conversation?
  • Does our worship space encourage participation in congregational singing?  Examples:  inclusion of icons, art, symbols, colors, lights.  Does our worship space discourage participation in congregational singing?  Examples: poor acoustics, sound/volume issues, poor lighting.
  • Do the service songs flow well?  Do transitions link other worship elements?  Is the pace satisfactory?  Is the volume appropriate?  Are the keys routinely pitched too high or low for the average singer?
  • Are physical actions actively encouraged?  Examples:  raising hands, kneeling, bowing head, palms upturned, or clapping?  How do leaders convey to the congregants and guests what is appropriate and/or acceptable?
  • Do the songs give participants an opportunity to connect with one another?  Is this intentional or assumed?
  • Are guests able to participate in the congregational singing without confusion?  Are elements presented that are generally accepted by the congregation that might be unfamiliar to a guest?  How do you know?  Are musical elements explained or assumed?

5 Responses to “How Do You Know Your Congregation Is Singing? Take A Canary into the Mine.”

  • Mike Reber Says:

    After reading your e-mailed blog post David, I opened up the blog site figuring to challenge you to relate to me even one church where the leadership was taking on this topic in this way. I was very happy to read Alden’s responce, leading me to ask where he serves? Where he serves will just help my curiosity and allow me to maybe be aware over time as to his church’s progress in the cause. Myself I am too committed to ever consider changing churchs in pusuit anything for myself but your blog helps me when I have an opportunity to add to my body’s thought process. I love the leaders of my church, wish they were not so chicken sometimes. Who knows maybe someone else from the same body has just read what I am posting, they know I love them so I post.

  • Paul Clark Jr Says:

    Excellent post close to my heart. I appreciate you turning attention on the leaders and the singing itself, whereas most discussions only try to address the music – the songs we sing. I heard a worship leader once say he did not want to keep singing the same old “dead hymns.” I believe there are not dead hymns, just dead hymn-singers. No such thing as passionless worship; it is implied in the very meaning of the word itself. Keep up the good work!

  • Adam Johnson Says:

    These are really good questions to be asking ourselves. Some of the questions about encouraging people to sing or clap their hands or even raise their hands are ones that I am still trying to figure out. It seems that there are always the people who get upset when you “order” them around yet others who need that encouragement to engage in worship.

  • David Manner Says:

    Alden, glad that you guys have a tool in place already. As far as people to enlist, I would recommend a variety of participants: multigenerational, multicultural, multivocational, various educational levels, theologians and new believers, an English teacher, musicians and non-musicians. Doing this a couple of times a year as a formal process with numerous participants will also allow you to average the responses. It also should not be a one Sunday shot. Any given Sunday can tank or soar. Evaluating several consecutive Sundays will offer a better understanding. I also think the results should be shared with some group to which you are accountable so that they can help implement results. Again, as I mentioned in the post though, the people who ask the questions should be those who love God, love the church, and love you so that it doesn’t become a tool to gig the worship pastor.

  • Alden Schoeneberg (@alden_t910) Says:

    These are great questions. Ours look a little different but some are the same. I’d like to hear more about the people you seek out to whom you pose these questions. What is the forum and format? In passing? Meeting? Is it a regular Email evaluation questioner?

    This is great stuff, David. Thanks for keeping us mindful to evaluate what we do so that we do not fail in this important calling.


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