Getting music right in your youth group
There's more important things than a good performance
I must admit that I’m a bit of a sucker for the national anthem. When it’s sung well, especially with 40,000 others, I love it.
My fondest memory of singing the anthem was at Subiaco Stadium in Perth lining up for a pie in the depths of the stadium before the rugby test match began. The line for the food was ridiculously long and all of us blokes lining up knew we wouldn’t make it back for the national anthem, so as we heard the band strike up in the distance we looked at each other, nodded and burst into chorus. Thirty big beefy rugby blokes singing – unaccompanied – to the national anthem, waiting for our pies and chips. Awesome.
Performance vs. Service
I reckon there’s a lesson to be learnt from that occasion, and it’s got nothing to do with pies and chips, or even footy.
The lesson revolves around the clash between performance and service. National anthems by definition are not about the performer. They are about the nation and its people, singing together with one purpose. When someone leads the anthem with vocal gymnastics – that is, they “perform” the anthem, directing attention to themselves rather than the people – in my experience people don’t sing, they just watch and are entertained.
We can fall into a similar trap when it comes to singing in a youth group (or congregational) setting.
The problem for leaders and those responsible for training our young musicians is that often they teach the band and song leaders to “perform”. That’s the nature of being a musician. That’s all fine if you’re in a performance setting, but when we sing together in our youth groups, that’s not the musicians’ purpose. Our purpose is service, directing people’s attention away from ourselves and instead to God and his people.
Jesus summed up this attitude when asked, in Matthew 22, to name the greatest commandment. He answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… and love your neighbour as yourself.” Our example in such love is, of course, Jesus himself. Philippians 2 teaches that our attitude needs to be the same as our Lord’s: humility and service.
If we want to make singing work, if we want our young people to actually sing well in our youth groups, service and humility have got to be priority number one.
The Purpose of Singing
We also need to keep thinking about why we do what we do (and not only in singing). So why do we sing? I’ve come up with six summary points:
- Christians have always sung; it’s a biblical tradition (see Exodus 15, Psalms and Luke 1).
- We’re told to! (Psalms 9:11, 33:1-3, 68:4)
- It’s a source of encouragement, teaching and strengthening believers (see Colossians 3:16 – this means we must chose our songs carefully, that is, they must be faithful to the Bible, the Word of Christ). Therefore…
- Singing is a ministry of the Word of Christ.
- Singing is a way to praise God. See Ephesians 5:18-20 – we need to be “spirit-filled” singers who sing with thankfulness. As we sing, just like the Psalms teach, we need to declare what God is like and what he has done. And notice too that singing is “heartfelt”: it’s emotional, not forced emotions, but in response to what God is like and what he has done. Finally…
- It’s fun and it feels good! Possibly a matter of opinion, but considering my other five points, it ought to be.
What about some practicalities? Here are my top six tips that I’ve discovered help make singing work in youth groups:
- Get the leaders on side first. They have to be enthusiastic about singing no matter how bad the musicians play! I would train the leaders on why we should sing as Christians (see above) before you take it to the youth group.
- If you have a leader who can play, use them to lead, train up and play with some youth. If not, be patient and train up someone who can do the job. I’m biased, but acoustic guitar is best (throw away the electric for the time being). The key to acoustic guitar leading is rhythm. If you can stay in time people can sing with you – a few wrong chords aren’t an issue.
- Choose appropriate songs for your musicians and your youth group. See below for my top five youth group songs.
- Upfront, confident, emotionally sensitive and humble song leading that glorifies God and serves is fundamental. Steer clear of the young person who wants to be on Australian Idol.
- Encourage your youth to learn an instrument. Build a culture of serving with music; this will help your church services too.
- Be patient. It can take time. But remember to make it fun and enjoyable, especially as you introduce the concept.