The first time I heard about “worship wars,” I was in high school youth group. The debate was raging about which type of music was superior – hymns or newer praise music (and by “new,” I mean songs that had been written twenty years prior).
The debate continued into college, and was then replaced with the question du jour, “To use a screen, or not to use a screen?” Churches that were up-and-coming had projectors and screens and were forming audio-visual teams. People argued about whether projecting the lyrics helped people to sing with confidence, or if it was just one more step towards the church becoming entertainment-driven rather than God-centered.
Going way back, I remember in elementary school hearing the adults at church exchange strong words about the appropriateness of “canned music” during worship. Some firmly believed soloists should be able to sing with an accompaniment track, while others found it to be an abomination. “There ought to be someone within the congregation who can accompany with an actual instrument!” I remember someone saying as though the truth of the gospel depended upon it.
And so, I suppose it really shouldn’t surprise us that all kinds of articles are circulating the internet claiming to know the truth of why people aren’t singing during worship services. As the Teacher said so many years before, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
We live in a dynamic world where things are constantly changing. Music changes, clothing trends change, parenting styles and technology all change. Institutions and organizations resist change, but are always trying to keep up with an ever-changing world. It’s no wonder that a change-resistant church finds friction (often) when trying to navigate what it means to exist in a rapidly-changing world.
For some reason, the place of anxiety we often turn to when trying to figure out how to function in society is the music. It’s almost our go-to when things get tough: When in doubt, blame the music.
I understand why we do this. Music is deeply personal, and preferences are deeply ingrained. Singing does something inside of people that draws out their innermost selves. It is highly vulnerable, and emotionally-charged. When music doesn’t connect with us, it can be distracting, grating, frustrating, even anger-producing. And, in many denominations and cultural groups, worship services depend on the music almost as much as they do on the Scripture and the message.
When was the last time you attended a worship service that contained no music? I honestly can’t remember ever attending a worship service that didn’t have at least one song.
Lately, though, it seems as though many worshipers, worship leaders, and pastors are looking around the congregation and noticing that an awful lot of people aren’t singing along with the songs. And it’s troubling to us. We see it as a sign of a deeper problem in need of fixing. And we try to figure out who to blame.
I’ve read articles blaming worship leaders for straying from the melody too often, or churches for no longer having choirs, or praise teams for no longer using the organ, or projection systems for not having the musical score for people who want to read the notes.
Do we need to go back to hymnals, or ditch them altogether? Are songs today shallower than hymns used to be? Which type of song is more un-singable? Or maybe people just aren’t invested in the worship service, and they don’t care to participate.
So, why don’t people sing at church?
There could be so many reasons. Maybe the music is too loud, or the melody isn’t clear. It could be that the song is new, and the people don’t know it yet. Perhaps the song is too high, or too low, or the instrumentation is distracting.
It could be any of those things. I don’t disagree with many of the reasons that so many articles cite for why there are people in congregations who don’t sing. But, I think most of these concerns are only scratching the surface of the problem.
I’m not an expert by any means, but I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life in ministry – first as a volunteer worship leader and praise team member, and now as a pastor. Here are some things I think we should keep in mind as we consider the conversation about people not singing in church:
1. Nostalgia – In some cases, I think we’ve so idealized the churches of our youth that we may not be remembering accurately the way people sang. We remember being enveloped by the music. We remember how that made us feel. But, we are likely forgetting the many people who never did sing along. The present-day church can never keep up with our idealized memories from childhood.
2. Culture – In some cultures, music is like breathing. People sing together. Stories are told through music, and if dancing is a key component of the culture, music likely is as well. In other cultural groups, music isn’t something done with regularity. For some cultural groups, the singing during the service is a stretch. For other groups, a service without singing would be deeply lacking.
3. Not everyone likes to sing – As a musician and music lover, this is a really hard one for me to write out. But, the fact remains that not everyone loves music, and not everyone loves (or even likes) to sing. For these folks, singing even one song is a tremendous step out of their comfort zones. That’s not to say we shouldn’t continue encouraging participation, but it helps to keep in mind that singing isn’t every person’s thing.
4. Singing leaves people vulnerable – Singing is a highly personal act. It reaches deep down inside and brings out a part of ourselves that we keep hidden during most of the rest of our lives. When we sing songs about grief, and praise, and surrender, and brokenness, we are leaving ourselves deeply vulnerable. Intimacy and vulnerability cannot and should not be forced.
5. As worship leaders, we need to be careful not to expect too much – For those of us who find ourselves up front leading music, we have to be careful that we are not expecting too much of the congregation or ourselves. If someone is not singing along, it is possible that the person doesn’t like the song or is finding something about the music distracting, or it is also possible that the person has had a difficult week. It’s possible that the words of the songs are touching a place of deep hurt. Or it could be that the struggles of the week have left the person feeling weary. As worship leaders, we should not expect 100% participation 100% of the time. Those kinds of standards are unrealistic, and they are also unfair to the congregation, and to ourselves.
6. Be mindful of others when selecting songs for worship – There are things to keep in mind when planning worship music. When planning worship, it can be helpful to ask these questions: Have we done this song often enough that people know it? If it’s the first time using the song, how might I introduce it so that people feel more comfortable trying to sing? What does this song communicate about God? Is this song in a singable key? (A range of D just above middle C to the D one octave up is about as far as most people can go.) Does this song alienate people?
7. The only way congregational singing will improve is if we sing better and more often – Feeling discouraged by the lack of singing at church? Sing out! Take a risk. Sing loudly. Sing often. Sing even when you don’t know the song and you’re missing half the notes. The more we do it, the more natural it will become. And perhaps others will see our example and decide to take a risk and sing, too.
8. There’s more to worship than the music – I think we need to remind ourselves of this one often. If someone doesn’t sing, there are still many more opportunities to engage in worship throughout the service. Every piece of the service should be included with the goal of offering worship to God.
So, what do you think? Have you noticed fewer people singing during the service? I’d love to hear your thoughts.