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, eighty 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 just 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 judgement.”
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 percentages of the sales go 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.”
I’ve included the links to Zombie and Running Up That Hill above. Watch those videos. 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 in (and contribute to) 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.
- CHOOSE EASIER SONGS. Jorgensen chooses catchy, well-known pop songs. In 2019, she traveled to London and arranged a Pub Choir performance 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, has always 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, 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. 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 on 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.
23 thoughts on “What churches could learn from the Pub Choir phenomenon”
There goes my weekly gig no the bass guitar.
ON the bass guitar.
Maybe something like this?
https://youtu.be/3KsF309XpJo Is a stellar example of an audience choir being conducted by a musical genius.
I think I just posted the same video! Haha
A brilliant post Mike. My thoughts exactly
It is worth thinking about WHY we sing in church. (And WHY we go to church at all.) Is the purpose of singing having a good time, or feeling communal, or singing theology, or worshiping God or revving each other up, or ….? Maybe all of them. But if we knew WHY we were doing it, we might do it differently, as you say. But I fear most often it is because (i) churches always sing, right? or (ii) we’ve got good musos and lighting and sound teams, so we should use them, or (iii) we hope to impress all those many newcomers who are flooding into our services (!!!), or (iv) we need something to fill in time until the latecomers arrive then get to the only really important reason for church – the sermon. Call me a cycnic, but I agree with you – we are old dogs but we can still learn some new tricks.
Eric, I totally agree. What if we were reminded that the whole point is worship, not singing, not listening? I assume that if the people around me aren’t singing it’s because they’ve been moved by the music to pray – to take their burdens to the Throne of grace and leave them there. Singing, prayer – they flow in and out of each other.
It seems ‘worship’ has come to mean ‘singing’ rather than the whole of our gathering together and this is distorting how we look at the songs we sing.
Great article – thank you! You’ve provided a common point from which to reflect on congregational singing and perhaps start a fresh conversation which is much needed! We might think every church has stage, screens, tech team and band but this is not as common as thought!
Whole-hearted congregational singing has been in the ring since the early 90s, John Bell and the Iona repertoire and also the Black Gospel singing movement in Australia largely led by Tony Backhouse. Here in Victoria we have had a huge take-up with community singing groups.
As far as our Sunday singing goes there is much more which can be done, particularly if we don’t allow just one mode of doing it to dominate. This has unfortunately tended to restrict our repertoire, make it less accessible and disempower the congregation.
I have been a practitioner and researcher in this field for 30 years and still find the possibilities exciting!
Have you ever been to a black church?
Yes, in Memphis and Chicago. What I think is worth taking from that is a way of entering into singing, of a certain freedom, of music-making.
As a worship leader, I am always aware of the fine line between performance and worship, as well as the line between hyping up to get participation vs worship.
I think some of this is good, but as a leader who wants to encourage worship, and a leader who also plays an instrument while leading (as many leaders do), sometimes, inviting you in is the most we can do.
Fully agree about the encouragement factor, fully agree about sharing that all can sing and make a joyful noise, and fully agree that we, as leaders, should always be looking for ways to do this that will reach everyone. And perhaps, hosting a “sanctuary” choir night periodically is just thing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
YES!!! It is not about being CCM artists, it is about facilitating worship.
Pub Choir is an outgrowth of an unchurched, secular world trying to fill a void created by leaving organized religion, to its own detriment. To all the pub choir folks, I would say you can have a similar experience every single weekend of your life, absolutely free… at your little local church on Main Street that is still doing congregational singing, sans rock stars.
Wonderful article! What a way to learn from the world. We could learn a lot from this. Thanks for sharing!
Oh Mike you have put my thoughts into words! I love Pub Choir and have been part of it a couple of times. I was at my old church recently and noticed I couldn’t hear the congregation singing, I could only hear the worship leaders. They are phenomenal musicians but I’m not there for a concert, I’m there to worship God collectively with others. I’ve recently been attending a different church which has much simpler worship style and it’s so powerful to hear communal singing/worship. Communal singing brings people together – whether at Pubchoir or in Church.
Yes! This is exactly what the church needs (at least where I’m at. A majority of churches I’ve visited do.)
No one at church should be passive or bored or feel unimportant. Everyone is important to God enough to die for, after all.
*In the church I’m currently at they don’t have a worship team. But they do have a great idea of having whoever wants to come up for a special music to either sing or play an instrument.
It really makes people feel included.
I’ve been meaning to ask if they could extend it further, so I could simply read poetry or quote a passage from say, Mere Christianity or something.*
I’ve always been bothered by “worship teams” & now I know why.
To add to Mike’s point, it creates an unnecessary divide & hierarchy, with an implication that the worship team is more essential & important than a regular church attendant (one could argue pastors hold similar implications).
It also leads to a passive & often bored (if you don’t count yourself a singer or like music) congregation.
Which is exactly the opposite of what church should be.
Church could be exciting & life changing & provocative.
Also, a worship team leads to a focus on the singers & the quality of their singing & entertainment, since, again, not everyone is on the worship team.
It also places an unnecessary strain on those in the worship team to perform well & can also lead them to the sin of pride.
Being passively entertained is not what church is about.
Again, the same can be true in regard to popular preachers or Christian speakers. People enjoy them sure, but are they really being transformed?
It’s all about participation verses observation of performance.
Pub Choir an interesting phenomena, as an Australian I’m proud it started in Oz
Learning in 10 mins: https://youtu.be/O2qaLKnJNig
The result: https://youtu.be/Et1OniAWKlI
Great article. I’d also add that a lot of current worship leaders / songwriters seem to have quite high voices. Transpose worship songs down a third or even or fourth and it’s in a much more comfortable part of the average person’s voice. I do that in our church and you can hear a lot more of the congregation singing strongly.
J.S. Bach was a city-level worship leader and keyboard player who participated in similar ventures — in and out of the church. The “Collegium Musicum” became immensely popular, especially among emerging generations. It connected the churches to their communities (doing festivals, etc) and offered music to the masses. A valuable study: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collegium_Musicum
Love it ♥️
Worth thinking about