Music Matters

August 2014

How campfires teach us to sing

In Community of Christ church camps we often circle round a campfire and sing songs to close the day’s activities. Campfires are far removed from my typical Sunday morning worship, but studying what we do for campfires can offer some insight and techniques that benefit Sunday morning. Campfire singing matches camping in general: you have limited resources but hope to gain something wild and beautiful from the experience. Campfires give up expensive sound systems, comfortable seating, electronic projection, and grand pianos. Yet we find a way to create wild and beautiful music with nothing more than willing voices and intent ears.

Campfires encourage participation—particularly for children and youth.

Campfires go to extremes to encourage enthusiastic participation. We sing songs that make us laugh and sometimes cringe, but we sing them because of enthusiastic demands from our youngest participants. Call and response songs allow us all to join in, even if we’ve never heard the song before. Action songs encourage not just children, but help all of us remember the words with hand motions acting as cue cards. When we divide into teams to see which half can sing louder, half-hearted singing can transform into fully committed singing. The goal of these antics is to demonstrate that all of us can contribute to the church’s song.

Campfires don’t require music degrees but I need to know the songs really well.

On Sunday mornings I rarely play or lead a song from memory. In contrast campfire songs are taught aurally, and the leader rarely looks to written words or music. Some songs, such as “The Wee Wee Song,” I only sing once a year at camp but know better than “Holy, Holy, Holy” which I sing year round. Of course campfire songs tend to use repetition and other devises to aid memory. But the goal is to learn songs well enough that it feels completely natural to play and lead them. At camps it is common to teach a new song to others involved in the campfire before teaching the whole camp. This practice is equally helpful for new songs on Sunday morning. The more I practice teaching a song, the better I get at leading it.

Sing to match the character of the song.

During my childhood in England, Fred Crane was the expert for the “Funky Chicken” song. He brilliantly embodied the character of a misunderstood songleader with tension increasing each time the group chanted,

“What’s that you say?” His frustration would build until he angrily threw his hat to the ground in during his final call, “let me see your funky chicken!

This summer at Deer Park reunion Nicholas White developed a distinctive llama character that drew me and the rest of the camp into singing a ridiculous song with far more sincerity than the mindless singing I can slip into on Sunday morning. In the songs you lead on Sunday morning, look for dialogue, character development, tensions, and emotions that you can bring out. The challenge is to sing the significant hymns of our faith with the same investment as Nicholas’ “Llama Song.”

Campfires teach us to share the songleading.

Campfire leaders frequently bring in extra people to help lead a song or round. Sometimes this is because the campfire leader knows the person has a particular talent for a song (like “Funky Chicken” or “Llama Song”). Other times it takes on a cultural-religious exchange as we learn the songs of a distant land. More often than not the main campfire leader is intentionally mentoring new song leaders. This leadership opportunities can be as simple as “An Austrian Went Yodeling” where 8–10 people lead the camp in a single sound effect and action, to as complicated as teaching a new multi-part song. The goal is to find opportunities for new leaders to grow. On Sunday mornings we can offer beginning pianists a chance play one hymn multiple Sundays (rather than multiple hymns in one service). We can ask if they are interested in simple hymn arrangements available through Piano Club ( And we can involve musicians who play instruments other than piano or organ.

I’ve always enjoyed campfires. While it is easy to dismiss their ridiculous songs and antics, I have come to appreciate the unexpected ways they benefit and inform our church’s song.
—David Bolton


Music Matters: tips and insights for church musicians. Subscribe to receive Music Matters every month.

If you have suggestions or ideas for future columns, please contact:

Jan Kraybill
Principal Organist
Community of Christ Headquarters
Independence, MO, USA


David Bolton
Worship and Music Support Specialist
Community of Christ Headquarters
Independence, MO, USA