It is vital that a congregation can walk into a worship service and feel confident that they will be able to fully engage in the service without fear of embarrassment, feeling left out, or being confused. A church's music is a large part of creating that confidence.
However, ask ten people to name some of their favorite music artists, and chances are high that you'll hear ten different band names you'll pretend you've heard of with radically different styles, genres, and cultures.
You can therefore see that getting a group of dozens or hundreds of people together in a sanctuary and expecting them to know the same songs—to the point that they would feel comfortable singing them aloud—is a big ask.
Every worship leader's and team's goal is the same: excellence which leads to participation. If the congregation can't sing along, you're no longer hosting a worship service but a concert. Concerts are great, don't get me wrong. But it's not usually what people are looking for from a church.
If the goal is participation, then worship pastors, directors, and leaders need to give serious consideration to 1) the number of songs they expect the congregation to know; and 2) the number of new songs the congregation can be expected to learn.
I'll write later about the number of songs a congregation can know. But here is how I think about adding new music to the congregation's repertoire.
You May Be Sick Of A Song, but Most Folks Aren't
According to U.S. religious surveys, a person considers themselves a regular, committed church attender if they show up around once a month. And, unsurprisingly, the average church attendee does in fact show up to a Sunday service once every three to four weeks. Some come more, some come less, but the middle of the bell curve is attending every three weeks or so.
That means a church's worship team may have played a new song 6-8 times over the past couple of months, but the average church attender has heard that song maybe only ever once or twice. The band may be ready to move on to something new, but the congregation is just beginning to learn a new song.
That's why you'll notice that certain songs—usually five years old or more—can bring out the volume and enthusiasm in a congregation. The worship team may never want to play "Beautiful Name" ever again, but for the congregation, it's still familiar without having outstayed its welcome.
Space It Out
There will always be more good music than there is time to listen to it—or sing it in church. Worship leaders can have a sense of unrealistic urgency when their favorite band or church comes out with a new worship album. "I want to introduce these six songs this month!" While sharing your enthusiasm with your congregation is worthwhile, it will also likely overwhelm them. Unless you expect your congregation to all download the same album and listen to it throughout the week (which, I'll tell you, isn't going to happen), a congregation isn't going to know what to do with so much new music.
Worship leaders need to admit that their church won't ever be able to sing every song that they love. There's simply not enough time (at least on this side of eternity).
In collaboration with your church's worship team and leaders, you need to pick those few-but-great songs that your congregation needs to hear right now and space them out so the congregation can learn them at a realistic pace.
When introducing new songs, you'll need some initial repetition to help make the new become familiar. I suggest playing a new song two weeks in a row; taking a break on week three; and then playing it again on week four. In those four weeks, you'll likely hit all of your regular attenders at least once.
But then, once you play it those three times, don't drop the song! It needs to stay in high rotation for a few months for it to stick with the congregation. I suggest playing it every three weeks for about four months. After that, it can go into a less frequent rotation, like once a month or so.
Let's give an example, pretending that these old hymns are brand new songs the church has never sung before. Let's say last month the church introduced "Be Thou My Vision" and is going to introduce "How Great Thou Art" his month. Here's my suggested pattern:
Week 1: How Great Thou Art
Week 2: How Great Thou Art
Week 3: Be Thou My Vision (revisit last month's new song)
Week 4: How Great Thou Art
Depending on how adaptable your congregation is, maybe you want to introduce another new song on Week 4. I hear that "Amazing Grace" is a banger. Maybe you want to give it a break for a week. You, as the leader, have to decide what works best.
Depending on your congregation's flexibility, you may able to introduce something like 12-20 songs, using this pattern. But remember, it's better to have fewer new songs that the congregation feels really confident in rather than more new songs that most people are just mumbling along with.