What we're overhearing…
Two years ago Mike Harland wrote one of the most widely read and commented upon articles on this blog. Below is a re-post of that article.
My role at LifeWay Worship gives me the unique opportunity to see and hear about what many different churches are doing in their worship and music ministries. Granted, most of what I experience happens in Southern Baptist churches, but more and more I see other evangelical churches and I have an observation to share...
The people in our churches aren't singing anymore - not really.
To be sure, there are many churches that have congregations singing with enthusiasm, but generally speaking, our people do not sing like their parents and grandparents did. And even worse, the leaders of those churches don't seem to know it. Let me explain.
In many of our churches today our worship has become very produced with visual enhancements and top sound re-enforcement. That's not a bad thing - it fact it can be a great thing! But when the stage lighting effects dominate the experience, the leaders on stage cannot even see the faces of their congregation. It amuses me when a leader has to put his hand over his eyes to try and see his people. Hello? Is something wrong here? Add to that a highly produced sound mix with in-ear monitors and a full stage mix in the floor monitors, and, well, they can't hear them either.
So, if we cannot see or hear the congregation, how would we know that the people have stopped singing? It would do any pastor or worship leader a world of good to spend a service just watching the people. They might be surprised - and disappointed.
I have several theories as to why many churches have stopped singing. This is my very subjective opinion - or as I say sometimes, my humble opinion which, of course, I highly regard. I've even made a suggestion or two after each one.
They are not singing because:
They don't know the song.
I love new songs as much as anyone else. As a matter of fact, I believe it is Biblical to integrate new songs into our worship. As we grow in our faith and mature in our worship expressions, new songs find their way into our worship and bring new clarity to our faith. But, in many churches, there is such a focus on the latest new song that the familiar is overlooked. People like to sing songs they know and songs that resonate with them. I recommend using new songs, but slowly and deliberately. By the time a worship leader brings a new song to the church, he or she will have lived with it for weeks and grown in their familiarity with it. The worshippers in our churches should have the same opportunity before springing it on them on a Sunday morning.
They can't sing the song.
The single most common concern voiced to me these days is that the songs we sing are too high for the congregation. Do people sing lower than they used to? I suspect not. I think the problem rests in the way a song gets to the church these days. Many songs go straight from the Christian artist's recording to the worship service. Often the key sung by the artist translates right into the arrangement sung by the church. And very often it just doesn't work. (Non-musicians bear with me as I talk a little shop here.) The melody is often in the upper register of the tenor voice which makes it too low for sopranos. So they are forced to sing alto (something they don't like to do), or sing in their upper register (watch out if you're sitting in front of them!) or, sadly, drop out. Bass lines are out of style, too, so right off the bat half of our people are out of luck. Worship leaders should guard against putting songs in their own power range and think more about how (and if) the congregation can sing it.
Do people sing lower than they used to? I suspect not. I think the problem rests in the way a song gets to the church these days.
But it goes deeper than key. Often newer songs have rhythms that don't lend themselves to congregational singing and rather than struggle, the worshipper will just quit. They may love the song - they just can't sing it - especially if they barely know it. As they become more and more familiar with a song, they can handle harder rhythms. But we often don't give them a chance before moving on to a new song. If a certain song is vital to the worship because of a unique message you might make an exception and use the song. But the reason many of our people have stopped singing is these type songs have become the rule in many places.
Another reason they can't sing the song is one of the few downsides of the PowerPoint generation of worship practice. They may never see the notes to a song and be forced to pick it up over time by rote. Problem is, by the time they catch on to it, the worship leader again, has moved on to new songs and no longer sings the one they struggled to learn for some time. (By the way, there are many positives PowerPoint has brought to our worship too!)
They can't hear the room singing.
This may one of the most important observations so far. The typical person in the pew is not in love with their own voice. But if they can be part of something larger, where their individual voice is not distinguishable they will sing their hearts out. In today's rhythm driven worship so dependent on sound reinforcement the decibel level often gets pretty high. When that happens the individual worshipper can hear only two things - the sound coming through the system and their own voice. They cannot hear the sound of the congregation singing - the part they can "hide" their voice inside. So, they stop singing.
There certainly are times when the volume in an exciting energetic service can get on the loud side. The problem comes when it is constantly at that level. If the individual cannot hear the whole room singing, they will feel like they stick out - in fact, they do stick out to themselves. And that is the average worshipper's worst nightmare and happens when the sound is too loud, especially if the band, choir, and vocal team are blaring.
Occasionally I am asked what a church can do to improve their congregational participation. If I could only make one suggestion it would be this - turn your sound down and sing with a variety of accompaniments (including a cappella). Let your congregation "win" when they sing and watch their confidence (and their singing) get better and better.
They think they are not expected to sing or needed in the worship.
I've been to many churches where everything about their worship space - lighting, sound, and stage scream loudly, "We don't expect you to participate - sit back, relax, and enjoy your worship ride."
How does that happen? When your congregation is sitting in the dark, and the performers on stage are in the latest theatrical lighting effects, you are saying to them they have come to watch something. So, that's what they will do. I like the atmosphere lighting can provide - but be careful here. What does your stage arrangement say about what you expect your congregation to do? If they are sitting in the dark in a theatre type room with a blacked out ceiling and tour-like stage lighting affects, singing songs they don't know, accompanied by a loud, artistically styled mix of sound, and a feature "artist" throwing in every vocal lick under the sun, well... you get the point, they are not going to sing - because, in their hearts, they know you don't want them to.
They smell a rat. Okay, here's where I start meddling. The reason I'm so passionate about this point is that in one season of ministry I was guilty of this attitude and here it is: I had an agenda.
I had to be broken before I learned that you cannot plan and lead worship with an agenda. And my agenda was that I had come to rescue the church from their traditional worship. I was "transitioning" them to more current styles of music and more contemporary responses of worship. Every Sunday, every song, I was training them to worship the way I thought they were supposed to worship - with the music I liked and the energy I thought we had to have. I thought if I could "do my thing" that God would show up and vindicate my leadership. Then they would crown me savior of the church and declare a feast in my honor.
When people didn't like something, I wrote it off as their problem and declared that they just didn't "get it." I justified that attitude by explaining I couldn't be bothered with the "nay sayers." I was focused and so I continued my quest of changing the music style of the church. I was in a battle and I was going to win! And let me tell you from experience, people will not follow a leader with an agenda like that one. And trust me on this, they will smell that rat every time.
I had to get to the end of myself before I realized that I couldn't simply lead a church through a musical change and accomplish worship. I had to become a spiritual leader, one that had spiritual credibility, and not a spoiled musician that would write off any person that didn't get the groove. I had to serve people and take extra care with those who were struggling with new songs and new worship experiences. I had to get to the place where I realized God had not called me to lead worship - I was called to lead people. I had to die to my "bag of tricks" and start praying and leading with a spiritual focus. I had to start building bridges and climbing walls - I even had to blow up a few walls that I'd built myself.
They will never say it this way - but people in a church can tell when their leaders are taking them somewhere they are not sure they want to go. They can smell a rat. And if you have that agenda, no matter how noble what you are doing may seem, you will not be leading God's people. You'll only be leading a cause.
So just what does this cost us?
I heard someone say recently, "What difference does it make? Do people really have to sing in order to worship? Why can't the singers sing, and everyone else just listen and worship?" From this line of thinking we could easily get to the place of saying that non-participation in corporate worship is not a hindrance to the worship experiences of a church. But is that true?
And passive worshippers, I'm afraid, leave our buildings Sunday after Sunday to live as passive Christians in a world that desperately needs them to be anything but passive.
I would suggest that losing this time honored part of church practice has cost us far more than we realize. The Bible clearly describes two types of worship experiences for the believer - private and corporate. No matter what is happening on the stage, the individual can worship in a corporate setting even if the body as a whole is not participating, that's for sure. But I fear when we create a passive environment in corporate worship where the only expected response from the whole is to listen, then we lull our people into being passive about all the aspects of the corporate experience including how they listen, and most alarming of all, how they respond to the call of God on their lives. And passive worshippers, I'm afraid, leave our buildings Sunday after Sunday to live as passive Christians in a world that desperately needs them to be anything but passive.
But in those places where the entire congregation is active in every regard in the corporate experience, they hear more, express more, and understand more about what God is saying and expecting in response. And I'm convinced they respond more to Him and His call on their lives. And when it's over they are more encouraged and ready to engage a world that desperately needs to know the unique nature of our Lord, the One we worship, Jesus Christ. Isn't that the goal of the corporate worship event?
So, if you ask me, turn up the lights, and turn down the sound - pick songs and hymns that proclaim God's truth and reveal the character of Jesus Christ. Use resources that let the people excel in their corporate expression of praise and not just fit the style and strengths of your artistry. And don't waste energy trying to embrace a demographic of people when all you really need to do is embrace Jesus. The styles and trends of the culture where you live will take care of themselves if you will do that one thing.
And serve your people - love them, let them lead you, and you will slowly earn the right to lead them. Pray about everything and ask God to change hearts, starting with yours. Jesus modeled it perfectly - he started where people were and showed great patience as He served them and put their needs above His own.
God help us - and may His church start singing again.