5 Reasons Why Your Church Doesn't Sing Along

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Why don’t they sing? I have been in situations where those present sing with great gusto and spiritual fervor.  Unfortunately, it is not that way at every time of worship, although I surely dream that one day it will be.  There are many scenarios where people are expected to sing and while a handful actually do so, the vast majority do not for a wide variety of reasons.  From my experience there are several basic factors that keep many people from singing in worship:

1) Unfamiliarity with the Music

“I don’t know the song.” In my Methodist church, we sing the same approximately 150-200 hymns throughout the course of the liturgical calendar.  I keep a hymnal on my desk and as I use a hymn, I date the page.  For our contemporary worship, I keep a notebook of the songs and, again, date each time we use it.  My personal preference for hymns is to rotate the non-seasonal ones two to three times a year;  contemporary songs no more than three to four times per year.  A side note: if you’re going to teach a new hymn or song, teach only one on a particular day.  No matter how well all six songs you’ve chosen may match the sermon or how you believe the Holy Spirit is leading you, choose only one.

2) Difficult Music

“I can’t sing the song.” Believe it or not, some songs are more sing-able than others!  Yes, it is due in part to familiarity, but if the tune is not something the average person can pick up and sing after hearing once or twice, maybe you need to give the song a second thought.  This is especially true of the contemporary worship songs.  Just because everyone sings along with them on their radio doesn’t mean they are well suited for your service.

3)  Facility Design

Many churches chose to go with theatre style seats in a dark, windowless room with those leading the worship on the stage.  While this is intended to be “church,” the subliminal message is loud and clear: “You are the audience and I’m the worship leader in the spotlight.  Your role is to cheer for what’s happening on the stage.”  But it’s not about the worship team or choir.  It’s not about the audience.  It’s about God!  We are worshipping Him, not putting on a performance.  Your “real job” is to coach those who are gathered so that they worship the Lord.  He is the audience, we are the coaches and they are the football team running the plays.

4) Time of Service

Consider a few other things: what time of day is the worship service you lead? At 8AM you can’t expect them to sing too much and certainly not a song with lots of high notes.  Another big factor is the music education in our communities—or lack thereof.  For the most part, people don’t know how to read music.  Couple that with utilizing only words on a screen and it takes longer for them to learn the music, if they think it’s worthwhile.

5)  The Relationship Factor

I’m going to step out and potentially take a lot of flack on the last one. The primary reason that I’ve observed that many people don’t sing is a lack of relationship with the one who gives the music.  Please hear me when I say that I am not judging anyone’s relationship with God.  What I am saying is this: the person who has had their sins forgiven and found freedom in Christ cannot keep from singing.

Because I am not the woman I used to be, when I have the opportunity to praise the one who purchased my forgiveness with His life, I simply cannot contain myself. In contrast, when I see someone in my congregation with arms crossed and lips clamped shut, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to read the body language.  Look at the reformation and following: Martin Luther and the Wesley brothers taught their people to sing!  These people came to know Christ in deeply powerful and profound ways.  The Wesleys not only taught hymns to their people but used them to teach scripture and theology to a largely illiterate population.

Yes, choose carefully the songs for your worship services.  God can work in amazing ways when hearts are opened to Him through the avenue of music;  it is mysterious how the Holy Spirit uses melody to clean cobwebs from our souls!  Above all, choose with prayer.  When we make ourselves available to God and His leadership, miracles can still happen.  That’s when we can cry out with David as he did in 2 Samuel 22: The Lord lives! Praise be to my rock!”

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Mary Crowson began full-time ministry at FUMC in Somerset, Kentucky and has been Director of Music for 14 years at Pine Forest UMC in Dublin, Georgia, where she leads/resources three worship services and ten choirs. She and her husband, Rev. Don Crowson, are proud parents to Ginny and Christian.

22 COMMENTS

  1. Great article, Mary! Honestly, though, number 5 is the only one that I wouldn’t push back a bit on or add to :). Here’s my 4.5 cents:

    Point 1. You’re right, but there’s still too many songs in that repertoire for my personal taste. I’d keep it to 80 songs (tops) in the active repertoire, ancient and contemporary combined. This lets both the congregation become intimately familiar with the music, helping them internalize it rather than requiring a prompt. It’s the “hearing something seven times to take it fully in” rule. It applies to the gospel, it works for music. An 80 song repertoire with 5-6 songs per service leaves each song being sung 3-4 times per year. Maybe your service has more music than that, but if you’re sitting near 300 in your repertoire, for every one you do twice, one isn’t getting used that year.

    If I’m looking at the repertoire for my congregation, I’d have 40-50 “favourites” with 30-40 “accents,” and and one new song each month or so and drop one of the accents to keep the selection feeling fresh. I think that a problem many churches have is a repertoire that’s FAR too broad for familiarity.

    Point 2. One of the hallmarks of the modern worship movement is singability. Granted, there are is plenty of CCM that gets used for corporate worship that shouldn’t (The City Harmonic – Manifesto comes to mind), but I’ve found that many hymns are far less singable. Coupled with an unfamiliar style, hymns become much harder to learn for anyone that hasn’t grown up with them. Think about the awkward timing of A Mighty Fortress or the soaring range required for O Holy Night. For the most part, all that’s required to move contemporary worship into a solid congregational range is to drop the key by 1-2 steps from the high-tenor recorded version. At the same time, though, placing a worship song at the top end of the vocal range creates a feeling of upward reaching with the voice that mirrors and encourages the movement of the heart.

    Point 3. Yeah. Raise the lights and lower the volume. If I’m visiting a congregation and I can’t hear myself sing, or my throat is blowing out after two songs from pushing for volume, I’m done singing that week.

    Point 4. I’m not sure why you rolled musical education in with time of service, but okay. Both points there are mostly valid, but you contradict yourself a bit. If they aren’t able to read music, putting written music in front of them instead of using only only projected words is more of a distraction than a help in learning. When I hear people lamenting a lack of “musical education,” it’s usually people who have spent a significant amount of time being educated themselves and forgotten how much work it is. It also tends to be because they are sad that they can’t realistically bust out unfamiliar hymn number 7530 and have the congregation in 4-part harmony by the second line. It’s about inflicting their worship preference on the congregation, rather than giving the congregation their worship voice. Maybe that’s not you. It’s just been my experience.

    So there’s a blog post in the comments section. Sorry to whoever has felt obligated to read the whole thing.

    I’d like to add my own point 6, even though it doesn’t fit the genre…

    For some people singing is not a familiar or comfortable expression. They may have been told that their voice is terrible. They may be more contemplative and prefer to engage the lyrics prayerfully and intellectually. As hard as it is for musical people to believe, and we want to believe that it’s fundamental and intrinsic to everyone, they may just not like or connect to music. It’s important for us not to judge them as inferior worshipers for it, and also good if we can acknowledge them in our planning and have a number of elements of worship that will assist them in connecting their heart to Gods rather than leaving them feeling like there is something wrong with their heart.

    Anyone who read that far is either as annoyed as they’re going to get and getting ready to fire back or enjoying my writing, so I’ll drop a couple of shameless plugs in here: I have a praise team development devotional guide called Worshipping Through John available here: http://www.amazon.com/Worshipping-Through-John-Devotional-Praise/dp/0993806902/ref=tmm_pap_title_0 and am currently working on a book called The Art of Being Broken with a Facebook page that you can catch quotes and progress reports on here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Art-of-Being-Broken/1590592434493333

    • Over time, people who can’t read music can still learn to follow the melodic direction and rhythms, as well as see the structure of the song by looking at written music. Projection screens have contributed to musical illiteracy in the church.

    • I agree with jaaigner on this one. Even if you can’t read music, when the notes go up you learn that your voice goes up, etc. I even teach an entry level class each year in my congregation on how to read music for those that want to learn. And your comment had several good points, some of which I agree with. The world would be a very boring place if no one ever disagreed.

    • Hey Aaron, I’m gonna get your book, thanks for the links!

      Regarding your Point 6, yes music/singing is not everybody’s cup of tea, and we need to sensitive to that and plan accordingly. But the clear instruction of scripture is to “sing to the Lord”, so imo, we have a pastoral responsibility to encourage everyone to participate in singing as an act of worship. For some it’s more of a “sacrifice of praise” and out of their comfort zone than others. 🙂

      • You’re absolutely right, Rob. I’ve preached the same thing. I’ve also pushed the use of worship postures that are out of a lot of people’s comfort zones as a sacrifice of praise. A lot of what we do in the church is “pendulum work,” though, particularly for those of moderate traditions. When I look at the people who I believe are likely to click through to this article, I believe that I see an overwhelming majority who will have music as their core worship language. I wouldn’t tell someone that they shouldn’t push their comfort zone to sing, because God clearly enjoys it, but I would tell leaders who sing naturally that they need to be conscious of those who don’t.

  2. Interesting post with some good things. I just want to pose a challenge.

    Worship isn’t a performance and God isn’t an audience. God is our source in which we live and move and have our being. Music in corporate worship is only as valuable inasmuch as it serves the liturgy and gives dimension to the Christian story. As theologian Simon Chan says so clearly, “We worship because we are a people shaped by the Christian story.”

    We must, must, must get away from the performer/audience understanding of Christian worship. That’s a new thing, and in the context of American commercial music, it’s destructive to worship in the church.

    Anyway, there are a lot of these posts going around. This is my answer. 13 Solutions for a Church That Just Won’t Sing.

    http://www.theologyinworship.com/2015/01/07/12-solutions-for-a-church-that-just-wont-sing/

  3. I think another reason is that some people honest to goodness do not like to sing. I’ve always felt really bad about that… when I became a Christian and I was told that there was going to be eternal singing of praises to God in heaven, heaven seemed less appealing because I generally don’t like singing. I like listening to music. I like reading Scripture. I like serving God through other means, but not singing. Sometimes people forget that “worship” is all day, everyday, and that people don’t have to do that through music.

  4. I think another reason is that some people honest to goodness do not like to sing. I’ve always felt really bad about that… when I became a Christian and I was told that there was going to be eternal singing of praises to God in heaven, heaven seemed less appealing because I generally don’t like singing. I like listening to music. I like reading Scripture. I like serving God through other means, but not singing. Sometimes people forget that “worship” is all day, everyday, and that people don’t have to do that through music.

    • Believe me Tiffany, once you’re in heaven, you’ll LOVE singing & praising God all day long. You must remember not to keep comparing heaven w/what your life here is. It’s not even close. It’s indescribable & is not given much description in the bible, either. The New Earth is, but not actual Heaven.
      Regardless, I certainly wouldn’t worry about it. This lowly earth we inhabit now, is a very far cry from what your wildest dreams could ever be, about eternity w/God & Jesus in heaven.
      Everything will be changed w/in you. You will have no problem w/singing, worshiping & praising God all day long. No one will. 😉

  5. I believe your premise on facility design for number 3 is flawed, but you make great points with the coaching metaphor.

    Number 5 covers most of the real issues behind numbers 1 – 4. You’re right, it’s not a judgement. But a lack of zeal for towards the Lord will lead to a lack of zeal in our worship. That’s not a universal truth, but it’s definitely the case in a many of situations. That’s why the bottom half of your #3 point is so important…leading, coaching, etc., helps people to see the God they show up to worship!

  6. Nice summary. No. 3 is what I call “platform bias”. In addition to the message it sends, the approach drives conventional acoustical designs to dampen and devalue sound coming from the audience. Should anyone risk singing, they get little if any feedback from the room – the kind of reflections that encourage us to sing in the shower – and can feel acoustically isolated – as if they’re singing solo. The natural tendency is to withdraw and lower one’s volume. Acoustics, like most design elements, have ministry implications. I’ve explored this and related issues at Buildings Speak

  7. Hey Mary thanks for this article! Great insights. Re: Point 1, I consider “new” songs an investment in the spiritual formation of the congregation. For a contemporary praise & worship service, I’d do a heavy rotation of the song when introducing it (maybe 3 consecutive weeks), then plan to use it regularly afterwards for a season.

    Regarding Point 5, I’d suggest the average attendee needs to be taught/reminded/inspired that singing is part of participating in Biblical worship. Psalm 100 – Come into His presence with singing. Thanks for launching the conversation!.

  8. There’s a huge, growing crop of songs out there. Once upon a time, the cream of the crop got into hymnals and lived on in believers’ mouths and memories for many generations. Contemporary worship abandoned this time-tested practice without developing a strategy to replace it. Inevitably, potential cream gets pushed off-stage for the next new songs—usually not written for group singing anyway, but for “performance” (what used to be called “special music”). There’s no way to pass the baton of classic, easily-sung cream without an intentional mechanism for doing so. A year from now, the best among today’s congregation-friendly tunes will be lost, basically forgotten both by those in the pew and by the talented music team leading them. What the present trend has offered the church is a short-term worship experience with no enduring content for worship memory.

  9. This is news to me. I’ve never been in a church that was not full of worship in song & praise.
    I returned to a church that was quite small, in comparison to one I had left it for, b/c the worship in the small church was just so much more ‘filled’ than in the much larger one. There is no ‘uniform’ w/it. (as in the larger church) The worship in the 2nd service is different from the first w/adding at least 2 other songs & even doing the same song(s) differently, than in the 1st service. I’m so taken in w/the Spirit during worship, that when I go to the early service, I stay on for the worship into the 2nd service. There have been times it’s been so powerful, we didn’t have a sermon! Just full, glorious worship!

    Words to all songs are on 2 screens, so everyone can see them & when a new song is introduced, the Pastor, (who is also the music worship leader) signs it for everyone & goes over the chorus w/everyone together & then starts the song from the top & encourages everyone to sing along. He will then repeat the song in full again. Everyone is singing it by that point. Then he moves on to a familiar one. Many are songs you hear on Christian radio stations. Others are hymns at times mixed in & others are his own that he has written. Of the different churches I’ve been to for different reasons/events, this little church has a worship 2nd to none!

    I’ve no idea what churches you’re attending, but they need a worship ‘wake up’ call, for sure! 😉

  10. In many churches one of the main reasons why people don’t sing is because the band is so loud they can’t hear themselves sing. It’s more of a concert than a service.
    I have been a Christian since 1982, and i have yet to experience worship that consistently includes silence longer than 10 -15 seconds, or a “fellowship” time that doesn’t have recorded music throbbing away in the background, or even a reliable time of prayer where there isn’t at least a piano meandering around so we are spared the discomfort of real quiet. Yet we talk endlessly about the “still, small voice”. No one can hear it anymore.
    As far as the music goes, I find most worship services to be large youth group services, where hymns and rich church traditions are treated with a condescending smile and a roll of the eyes.
    And I am getting really bored.

  11. I think the main reason people don’t worship is in your point #5. If people are intimately pursuing to know and love their God, then they will want to worship. And they’ll be driven to push beyond the distractions. (Something we all need to learn to do!)

    But I think there’s also huge lack of teaching about worship – about the scriptural basis for all the whys and whats surrounding it. After 20 years in music/worship ministry, I dove in head first to find out all the Bible teaches about worship. And I was blown away by how much I didn’t know! I became passionate to share what God was teaching me from His word with others, so I wrote a worship study called “Worship and the Word”. (BTW, Worship Leader Magazine chose it as a Best of 2014 and is now giving away the eBook for free to subscribers for a limited time. You can learn more about it here: http://pamelahaddix.com/worship-and-the-word-about-the-book/.)

    We will always face a spiritual battle, since the enemy hates hearing the sounds of us worshiping God. But if we’re aware of it and prepared for it, we can experience intimate personal worship with the God who’s drawing us into His presence. I’ve also written a short eBook that I give away to subscribers on my worship blog at http://pamelahaddix.com/ called “4 Keys to Intimate Sunday Morning Worship”. We can win this battle!

    Thanks for raising this topic! It’s one that needs to be talked about more!

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