Recently I’ve attended several churches as an incognito visitor and I’ve noticed a trend – a lot of people don’t seem to be singing in worship these days! There definitely seems to be a decline in congregational singing from say, 10-15 years ago.
Now this is an admittedly subjective observation – I am probably biased as a musician/singer/worship leader. And this post is not intended to be a judgmental critique nor an angry rant. I’d recommend any of these churches. They were friendly, offered great hospitality, excellent music and solid, inspired teaching.
However, the idea that “Churches don’t sing anymore” has been a hot topic of discussion among worship thought leaders for a while. From my non-scientific sample of churches, I’d say it’s an accurate trend. A Google search of “why churches don’t sing” will find many articles from a wide range of perspectives. I especially appreciated an excellent in depth series from Kent Sanders entitled: Whatever Happened to Singing in Church?
I have a very different take from what I’ve been reading and in this post I’ll offer my own thoughts on Why Your Church Does Not Sing. I’ll also offer some practical solutions both long term and short term. In fact you can experience some level of breakthrough in congregational singing almost immediately if you follow some of the suggestions in this article.
But first a qualifier – I have no interest in firing another salvo in the never ending worship wars. I see worship as a worldview and a lifestyle. Music is just one aspect of the congregational worship experience, but it is strategic and important.
I appreciate and see value in almost every style of music and church culture out there. This post is not about the very tired arguments concerning preferences over musical styles, hymns vs modern worship, consumeristic mentality, or the evils of modern production techniques.
Why Your Church Does Not Sing
I see four categories that shape the worship culture (or lack thereof ) in any particular church context. They are:
- The Health of the Body.
- The Culture of the Church, it’s roots and current direction.
- The Ministry Leadership Philosophy of the pastor or primary leaders.
- Practical Realities including the design of the space, skill of the worship leader and the content of the worship experience.
Let’s examine each in more detail
1.The Health of the Body.
Healthy people relate to God and one another in healthy ways. The degree of wholehearted engagement – and singing is one measure – is a reflection of the health of the body.
Of course, most churches are full of the walking wounded, which is the the way it’s supposed to be. You don’t have to have your act together to come to church and worship.
Jesus said “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Luke 5:31) However if you’re sick – physically, spiritually, or emotionally – you may have a hard time singing.
Corporately, church bodies will have a hard time singing if they are filled with anger, strife and division. (2 Corinthians 12:20)
A spirit of unity within the church is vital. A united, enthusiastic, singing worshipping church bears witness to the healing love of Jesus. A house divided can not stand.
Jesus prayed for his believers to be united as one so that the world will believe (John 17:20-23).
The Psalms instruct us that church harmony is important “Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in harmony” (Psalm 133:1).
Lack of relational unity and harmony will diminish the presence of God in worship, and of course, singing.
Additionally, a congregation will feel timid and disengaged if there is recent loss, betrayal or uncertainty in the leadership. This will leave many feeling wounded and grieving. They’re not going to be singing for joy.
Furthermore, individuals may be apathetic and not sing for a wide range of reasons. They may be angry or disappointed in God, they may not trust Him or the church.
The again, some people just don’t have a revelation of how much God loves them.
Pray for healing and breakthrough.
The breakthrough is when people have a genuine revelation of worship – who God is, what He has done for them, and their identity in Christ. Then they are more likely to respond by worshiping wholeheartedly.
2. The Culture of The Church, it’s roots and current direction.
Not everybody is into singing, I get it.
Every community of faith has a unique story and personality, purpose and vision. The tribe that gathers there is attracted because – all things considered – the culture is a good fit for them. Some have a rich tradition of congregational participation through singing, others are more reserved. Some people just are not wired to sing very much.
That’s ok, but only to a degree. If we’re going to have Biblical standards to shape our church culture – and I believe we should – then singing is a direct instruction.
Singing is not optional. If you are physically unable to sing, then just sing “in your heart”. The Lord is looking for those ‘after His own heart” (Acts 13:22).
Believers are commanded to sing when they meet together.
Come! Let us sing joyfully to the LORD! Psalm 95:1, See also Psalm 81:1, 47:6-7, 96:1
Speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord Ephesians 5:19
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Colossians 3:16
Singing to the Lord is not only if you’re in the mood. The people of God are called to participate in singing, not just watch the band.
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. Hebrews 13:15
In other words, if you believe congregational singing is important because that’s what the Bible says to do, you may need to make a culture shift in your context.
Shaping culture is a very long term game. It starts with intentional leadership, but it must have widespread buy-in. You have to make it a goal that all the stakeholders agree with. And give it time – perhaps many years, to bear fruit.
The breakthrough is when you get a vision to encourage congregational singing.
3. The Ministry Leadership Philosophy of the pastor or primary leaders.
Leaders and planners of worship have a responsibility for the spiritual formation of their congregation.
As goes the pastor, so goes the church. So I’ll be blunt. Based on years of experience – if the pastor doesn’t actively model wholehearted singing as an expression of worship, you can’t expect the church to sing out either.
However, if the pastor holds a high value for congregational singing, and teaches the people to worship, then they will follow his instruction. I’ve seen it both ways many times over.
The breakthrough is when the pastor models and teaches his flock to sing and worship wholeheartedly.
4. Practical Realities
Consider how these three critical areas affect congregational singing.
A. The design of the worship space and the volume of the band.
Old style churches and cathedrals have large volume, high ceilings with reflective surfaces and huge reverb times. Awesome for a cappella singing. Terrible for praise bands.
Modern churches are designed like theaters with sound absorbing carpets, chairs and acoustic panels. They are dead sounding. Great for high volume sound sources like drums and electric guitars. Terrible for group singing.
In high production based churches, I personally found it more physically challenging to sing along with the band. And yes, when the worship team is loud, it’s harder to sing along. Not only that, but the contribution of your voice seems pointless. You can’t hear anything but the band.
A simple workaround solution. Just include intentional moments in your worship set to drop the band out and encourage the people to sing out. Leave plenty of sonic space so they can hear themselves and one another.
B. The skill of the worship leader.
The worship leaders role is a pastoral one, so you have to encourage, coach and instruct folks to sing. Doing this elegantly is an art form which will vary according to your cultural context.
First, you have to lead from the over flow of your worship life, from the inside out.
Next, design the worship service to make it easy for the average person to participate.
Third, give them a clear word or two of direction. Give them short focused sound bites based on scripture and the song lyrics. Think it through, pray it in and plan it out.
Be sensitive not to “show off” by over emoting or obscuring the melody with too many vocal riffs. Also, be inviting. It always helps to smile and open your eyes.
The breakthrough is when the worship leader overflows from the inside out, and plans wholehearted worship in spirit and truth.
C. The content of the worship experience.
Finally, here’s a list of problems and solutions related to planning the content of your worship set.
- The number one reason people don’t sing is they don’t know the song. SOLUTION: Pick familiar songs the church knows and loves.
- The number two reason people don’t sing is the key is too high or too low for the congregation. SOLUTION: Choose singable keys.
- The number three reason people don’t sing is the songs are too complicated and/or too rangy. SOLUTION: Choose songs that are intended for easy congregational participation. Call and response or “echo” songs are excellent. Pick songs with simple, easy to anticipate melodies.
- Choose songs a wide range of your congregation can relate to. Revive an older praise song from the last 10-40 years and give it a fresh arrangement. Do the same for an old hymn, or choose a modern hymn.
- Pick great songs with simple, scripture based lyrics, solid theology and a gospel message. If people can not agree with the lyrics or message of the song, they may choose to not sing it.
- Treat new songs as an investment. Teach them and repeat them. Don’t just throw a new song out there and hope people will catch on eventually.
Macro Longterm Issues
The Decline of Musical Training and Literacy
Another large scale cultural factor is the decline in musical training for the younger generation both in practical skill development and in learning church music repertoire.
Sanders see this as an opportunity for the church to step up and fill the gap. I hope so. I hope some church leaders get a vision for teaching kids how to read music and learn a wide range of great church music. But if we keep doing what we’re doing, you’re going to see more decline.
Too Many Songs?
Another factor is the massively expanded worship song repertoire due to the explosion of great worship music being created around the world. It is impossible to keep up with it all.
Just 40 years ago, there was a much smaller body of music to choose from. Practically speaking, this also poses a challenge to plan worship that is easy for the average person to participate in.
The good news is, there is something for everyone!
Well I hope you agree that encouraging congregational singing is important and Biblical. I hope this article has given you some perspective and ideas for improvement.
Over to you.
Do you sense that singing participation in worship is declining? Why? What solutions would you offer?