Monday, July 21, 2014

The (Sun)Day the Music Died

Over the past month or so I have read several blog posts and articles that focused on the theme of singing in church worship services. At least two of them shared the same title- Why Does No One Sing in Church Anymore? I thought the authors made some interesting points, but that they were a little over-the-top with their hyperbole. Still, they left me curious. I grew up loving a song entitled How Can I Keep From Singing? Could it be true that participatory singing in worship is at an all time low? I decided to explore the question in my own church.

The church I attend, like so many others in USAmerica in 2014, features a praise band to lead the music in worship. Our band is made up pf very talented (and in some cases professional) musicians, and the music is simply brilliant. On July 13, the band was at the top of its game. Drums, percussion, two guitars, a bass. two keyboards and four vocalists on microphones blasted their way through a four song set of the latest worship songs. Normally, I am a singer. I am loud and proud, belting out songs and keeping in mind David Crowder's theory that singing praise to the LORD is not about singing well, it is about singing loud! But on this Sunday, I decided to become a spectator. I wanted to see if the congregation- about 1000 strong- was actually singing along with the band. It didn't take me long to determine that they were not. I could look around and see hands raised but lips were not moving. I could not hear anyone around me (besides the gorgeous voice of my wife) raising their voices in praise. At one point our worship leader and the vocalists on stage dropped out so your could hear the congregation in full voice- and there were crickets. The crowd was clapping, moving and responding in very enthusiastic ways- but they were NOT singing. As someone who spent a lot of years leading group singing at camp, youth group and in worship, I was fascinated by this phenomenon. I wanted to decipher the reasons no one was singing. These reasons may or may not apply to your church. But if you have a praise band and do really contemporary music, I suggest you try my experiment. Based on the articles I read, it seems to be a growing problem, not just one in my church. Here are 3 thoughts I had...

  1. The congregation is no longer necessary. When I was growing up in church, singing primarily to organ or piano accompaniment, the entire dynamic of hymn singing was very different. The music was not as loud, so you could hear the people sing. There were no "golden voiced" mic singers leading the way, just an unamplified choir, perhaps a choir director, and a preacher who sometimes couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. The only singers were the congregation. You heard the people around you singing praise and you wanted to join in. This was especially true if you sat in front of the elderly woman who loved God with all her heart and sang at the top of her lungs each and every song- horribly out of tune! You wanted to sing loud. And the mosaic of voices from the gathered body of Christ was always a blessing to me. In one of the last youth groups I served I grew so unhappy with the lack of singing in our worship times that I ditched the praise band and went back to a single guitar and just the voices. The difference was amazing. I love contemporary worship in so many ways, but now we are too often drowning out the masses to the point that their voices no longer matter. I do miss hearing God's family sing together.
  2. The songs are often unsingable. There are so many beautiful songs of praise being written these days by some very gifted composers and publishing companies. The music soars and the lyrics move me. But there is a problem. For the past 10 years or so, worship music and the Christian recording and radio businesses have been inseparable. Many of the current worship songs are absolutely gorgeous- and never meant to be sung by a large group. The melodies are unpredictable, which is wonderful for radio and terrible for group singing. The lyrics are deep and thought-provoking, but the phrasing is often difficult. It is easy to find ourselves lost listening to the professionals sings while we simply lift out hands in praise and think to our selves "what a beautiful song." This happened during my experiment. Our worship team did an amazing song that absolutely no one sang along with because it was NEVER meant to be sung with the congregation. It was meant to be sung TO a crowd. And that's what wound up happening. It was also a song that no one knew. Which brings us to point number 3...
  3. We have come to believe that in church music, new is always better. This one may be more specific to my church, but I am sure if your music is contemporary you either have or will struggled with this one too. One reason no one sings anymore is that we never know the songs! It seems the worship leader (every contemporary church has their very own Chris Tomlin these days) introduces about two new songs every week. We sing them 2 or 3 times over the following month or so, and then it's on to something else. By the time you learn a song it's labeled a golden oldie and filed away. The Sunday of my experiment we sang 4 songs and 2 of them were brand new. One I had heard once, the other perhaps twice. Please understand- I loved the songs. But people rarely sing along with unfamiliar words and tunes. When the team does on some rare occasion break out some familiar hymns of praise, the difference in the congregation's volume is amazing. People SING Amazing Grace, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, God of Wonders and Shout to the LORD. And I mean SING!!! There are not many songs being sung in my church today that people will be walking around the house singing because they learned it in church- we just don't sing them often enough. When I led music I wanted the songs to become part of the fabric of our group. We don't give songs that opportunity very often anymore. Too many worship leaders are buying into the myth that new is always better. No one goes to a rock concert and shouts, "Play that song we don't know!" It's something to think about.
I have a few other thoughts, but I'll stop there. This is not meant to be a condemnation of contemporary music or worship. I just want us to think about what we are doing to congregational singing, which from the time of the Psalms has been a crucial part of worship. For years the church sang songs that were hundreds of years old. Now we seem to have discarded most everything written before 2000. My own personal tastes are wide and varied. I love the contemporary sound. I love how gifted our praise team is and how much that style of music can move us. I know I could go to a different church with a more traditional feel and sing the old hymns, but then I would miss the celebratory feel of the more contemporary style. I guess I want it all! Somehow we need to find a way to strike a balance and rediscover the voice of the gathered family of God in worship. Otherwise, in years to come the famous question from Les Miserables will already have an answer. "Do you hear the people sing?"  No- I can't. 

Because of Jesus,


  1. I noticed this at our church yesterday and I was baffled. I think your ideas are accurate. I'm in the choir of our church and we have some contemporary songs that we sing from a more modern hymnal and several of those are hard to sing or the notes are different than the way they are sung on the radio.

    The songs the congregation sings, or don't sing, are from the old hymnal. We don't even have an overhead projector! So they are not contemporary, nor do we have any big time musicians. We have the piano, the organ, Drew on an acoustic drum, and our music minister on an acoustic guitar. We are very much not contemporary with our music and yet people were still not singing or singing very softly. I've always sung loud and proud, so I was baffled by them not singing. In a more contemporary atmosphere I understand it, but at our old fashioned church I don't get it. And it makes me sad. Any thoughts on all this?

    And more importantly, how do we change it?

    1. Very interesting stuff, Andrea. I guess I assumed churches using more familiar music and fewer instruments were not facing any of the same issues. Wrong again! As to how to fix it...that seems to be a best seller waiting to happen. I do not know. But I know we need to keep trying. Singing is good for the soul!

    2. Singing is very good for the soul and I don't plan on stopping any time soon. :-)


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