Getting music right in your youth group

Image: 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:

  1. Christians have always sung; it’s a biblical tradition (see Exodus 15, Psalms and Luke 1).
  2. We’re told to! (Psalms 9:11, 33:1-3, 68:4)
  3. 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…
  4. Singing is a ministry of the Word of Christ.
  5. 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…
  6. It’s fun and it feels good! Possibly a matter of opinion, but considering my other five points, it ought to be.

Getting Started

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.

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Comments (6)

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  • user

    Ben

    Its a shame the whole article didn’t make it onto the page. It was a great read, thanks for the tips. Its especially helpful as I’m a leader at my youth group and am in charge of organising music weekly. Thanks!

    • user

      Fervr

      Hi Ben - Thanks for the message. What looked like an unfinished sentence at the end there was me accidentally typing a couple of letters at the end of the last sentence… thanks for pointing it out :-) it’s now fixed & the article is in it’s completed form.

  • user

    David

    what do you recon are some really good songs that arnt full on electric but just like garage hymnal style

    • user

      Andy

      Hey David - Mr Fervr Editor asked me if I’d have a think about your question…  People are often surprised to learn that most songs start off life being played very simply on acoustic guitar and keyboard. Actually Greg from my band is about to come over and write some songs, and he’ll just bring his acoustic guitar. It’s only once they get to recording for a big album that all the electric instruments are added in. So the good news is that most songs will still work without heaps of electric guitars, just with a simple rhythm like GT was talking about. Tried and true ones like Mighty to Save, How Great is Our God, See Him Coming, We Belong to the Day, God of Wonders, Jesus Thankyou, etc will all work like that. Or even some real old school classics ‘Lord I Lift Your Name on High’, ‘In Christ Alone’, That’s Why We Praise Him, Your Love is Amazing…wow this is bringing back memories! The same applies for new ones from Sovereign Grace (Behold Our God), Michael Morrow (Come Hear the Angels Sing), Mark Peterson (In the Name of Love) ... Or if you want some ‘garage hymnal style’ we have heaps of songs in acoustic version on the Garage Hymnal blog at the moment. Hope that helps!

  • user

    Andy

    Hey GT, long time no see!
    Thanks for your post - just wanted to add into the mix that even when we ARE performing (whether an item in church, or a Recital at the local concert hall) the Christian musician should have the same attitude of service and humility (Phil 2 applies to all of our lives after all!). As Paul says in a different discussion, whatever we do, we should do it to the glory of God our Father, not for drawing attention to ourselves (1Cor 10:31). That attitude is what makes Christian musicians some of my favourite people to work with outside of church music. I don’t think that attitude should change whether our goal is to support congregational singing or to delight an audience by reflecting the beauty of creation in a beautiful piece of music. Just a thought :)

  • user

    Graham

    Thanks Andy, Dave and Ben for your comments. Andy, I’m with you, thanks for the addition. Another thought: I’ve been enjoying preaching from Isaiah lately and this Sunday’s on Isaiah 12 - a great song of praise and a picture of Heaven, God among his people (vs.6). I love in the chapter that the singing (which is one aspect of the praise mentioned) is clearly heartfelt and its focus is on God, his character and purpose. It’s God honouring praise, it glorifies God and what he has done. Next time I write something I’ll whack something like that in as well!