Have you noticed hardly anyone at your church sings the congregational songs anymore? I have. And I visit quite a few churches around the place. The singers and the band on stage seem to be really into it, but the congregation not so much.
Sometimes people explain this by pointing out that singing just isn’t something many people do these days anyway. I’ve also heard a few people make the claim that men in particular hate singing in public.
But then Pub Choir came along and completely put paid to those theories.
Back in March 2017, 80 people turned up to a Brisbane pub called The Bearded Lady to sing “Slice of Heaven,” a catchy 1986 tune by Dave Dobbyn. The participants were not trained singers or a practiced choir. They didn’t really know what they were doing. They had responded to an invitation from singer and conductor Astrid Jorgensen to form an ad hoc choir “to help regular people reclaim music in their lives, free of pressure or judgment.”
If you know “Slice of Heaven,” there’s a lot of “da-da-dup-do-do-da-da-dup” in that song. Perfect for untrained singers.
Jorgensen arranged the song and taught it to the audience in three-part harmony. After a few run-throughs, they performed the number, which was filmed and shared on social media.
The event was a rousing success, so nearly a year later, Jorgensen did it again. This time she arranged a choral performance of “Zombie” by The Cranberries. The video went viral and was shared by the band themselves shortly after the death of lead singer Dolores O’Riordan.
Pub Choir was born.
Jorgensen has organized pop-up choirs in pubs and theaters all around Australia and New Zealand, as well as in the United States and England. Pub Choir’s song list has included “Creep” by Radiohead, “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus, “All These Things that I Have Done” by The Killers, and most notably the 2022 rendition of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” which attracted international media attention when Bush herself posted that she thought the performance was “utterly, utterly wonderful!”
Pub Choir had become a movement.
There is no formal recurring membership. Participants have to purchase tickets to attend each show (which are always sold out), and a percentage of the sales goes to local charities.
Jorgensen says: ‘‘We just want people to come along and feel part of something and not to be afraid of singing in public. Pub Choir is the opportunity to let that inhibition go and enjoy the feeling that singing brings.”
Watch the videos in the links above. Or Google “pub choir” and watch some of their other performances. Each of the venues are filled with the joyous voices of hundreds of happy people singing in harmony. You can’t help yourself from smiling at their sheer jubilation.
It seems people are falling over themselves to get into an open one-off choir performance these days, putting the lie to the claim that public singing isn’t so popular anymore. And the other thing to note about Pub Choir videos is that there are as many men belting out those pop songs as there are women.
But when I compare all that exuberance with the lackluster singing I encounter (and contribute to) in the churches I’ve attended, I’m drawn to ask what’s up with congregational singing these days. What’s the difference between Pub Choir and church? And what can churches learn from Astrid Jorgensen and the Pub Choir movement?
Here are a few observations:
Treat the whole congregation like a choir. This is the genius of Pub Choir. The audience is the choir. Everyone and anyone can join in. Some churches make a distinction between their choir and their congregation. But what if we saw every person in the congregation as a choir member? Each playing their part, each contributing their voice, no matter how shaky, to the whole. We are united in song, from the youngest to the oldest, from the most godly to the least.
“What if we saw every person in the congregation as a choir member?”
Choose easier songs. Jorgensen chooses catchy, well-known pop songs. In 2019, she traveled to London and arranged a Pub Choir performance of the Spice Girls’ “Spice Up Your Life.” Her most recent effort was “Free Falling” by Tom Petty. They are kind of mindless, meaningless, repetitive songs (and I say that as a Tom Petty fan). It seems the meaning of the lyrics is neither here nor there. What matters is the ease with which they can be sung.
In saying that, I’m not suggesting the words are irrelevant in congregational singing. We sing our theology and our heartfelt belief when we worship. Protestant Christianity, in particular, always has been a sung faith. But we can learn from Pub Choir by choosing congregational songs that are easy for anyone to sing. This isn’t just about lyrics. It also includes putting songs in a key everyone can sing and breaking us into parts for different voices.
Conduct us. A lot of worship leaders lead their congregation by, well, performing the song. The rest of us are invited to join in. But Astrid Jorgensen is a conductor. As I mentioned earlier, she arranges each song, breaking it into a three-part harmony, and then she preps the choir before conducting the final performance with joy and gusto.
She points at different sections when it’s their turn. She dances and moves and weaves around the stage, gesticulating dramatically to keep the audience engaged and informed about what to sing and when.
Also, harmonization adds to the sense that the singers are working together as one, not something you would have thought a congregation needs to be regularly reminded of. Music and singing teachers know how to do this and to get the most out of a bunch of non-singers. Our worship leaders could learn a thing or two from them.
Encourage us. Related to being conducted, we also need to be encouraged. People are selling out concert venues to join Pub Choir because it is clearly a beautiful, moving experience. The whole night evokes such a strong sense of communality and pleasure. No one’s voice is judged to be inferior. It is inherently encouraging.
“I feel like I’m not good enough to contribute.”
You’d think the church would be a natural at this, but as a bad singer I can attest I often feel silenced during church singing. I feel like I’m not good enough to contribute. But Astrid Jorgensen believes that, given the chance, everyone can sing and enjoy it and, the more people they do it with, the more enjoyable it becomes.
We need worship leaders who don’t care whether the singing is perfect or not, but whose beaming faces and flashing smiles invite us all to sing at the top of our lungs.
Turn the instruments down. Watch a few Pub Choir videos and you’ll see there are very few instruments. Sometimes there’s just one guitar. Pub Choirs often sing long sections a cappella. By paring back the sound of instruments, Jorgensen brings the audience’s voices to the foreground.
Try it in church too. Turn down the volume. Strip back the band. Let people hear each other singing, even the not-so-good singers (like me). Help people to sing without judgment, to know God loves our devotion, not our excellence.
On her website, Astrid Jorgensen writes: “Sure, you’re probably not the best singer, but we don’t care. When there’s enough people helping each other, we can do anything, and that includes blending your weird singing voice beautifully amongst a crowd of happy strangers. You are good ENOUGH, we promise.”
A church is not a crowd of happy strangers. It’s a family. So you would have thought the church could easily make that same promise. And keep it.
I’m no singer. And I’m no worship leader either, so there is probably a lot I’ve overlooked or been unaware of here. I’d really value any feedback or comments about how to reinvigorate the sung life of our congregations.
Michael Frost is an internationally recognized Australian missiologist and one of the leading voices in the missional church movement. He is the founding director of the Tinsley Institute, a mission study center located at Morling College in Sydney, Australia. He is the author or editor of 19 theological books, the best known of which are the popular and award-winning The Shaping of Things to Come (2003), Exiles (2006), The Road to Missional (2011) and Surprise the World! (2016). Frost’s work has been translated into German, Korean, Swedish, Portuguese and Spanish. He was one of the founders of the Forge Mission Training Network and founded the missional Christian community smallboatbigsea, based in Manly in Sydney’s north. He is also well known for his protests against Australia’s treatment of refugees, some of which have resulted in his arrest by the NSW police, as well as his advocacy for racial reconciliation, foreign aid and gender equality.
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