Six Reasons Congregational Singing Is Waning

Please be nice.

This blog has several million viewers every year, and many of them are not believers. They are watching your interaction with one another.

I know I am touching on several sensitive subjects in one post: the loudness of music; lighting in the worship center; music preferences; and performance versus participatory singing.

But here is the clear reality in many congregations: congregational singing is waning in many churches. In some churches it seems to have disappeared altogether.

I will try to discuss this reality from a dispassionate perspective, at least for the most part. And I don’t consider myself the expert in this area, so I asked the guru of church worship, Mike Harland, to help me understand some of the technical decisions we make.

Ultimately, though, this blog is my own, and I take full responsibility for its content. What then are the primary reasons fewer people are singing in church? Why has that act of worship before God become nominal in so many contexts? Here are six reasons:

  1. Some church members do not prepare themselves for worship. We come to judge, to check off an obligation, or to go through the motions of a habit. We have not prayed for God to do a work in us through the worship. If we do not have a song in our heart, we will not have a song in our mouths.
  2. We don’t know the songs. We sing the songs we know. That is obvious. But if we are introduced to a steady influx of new songs without sufficient time to learn them, we don’t participate. The best congregational singing includes both the familiar and the new, but the worship leaders teach the new songs until we know them and love them.
  3. The songs are not sung in a range where we can participate. Many trained musicians have a wider range in which they can sing. Most of the rest of us don’t. If we are expected to sing in a range that is beyond our ability, we won’t try. Worship leaders make the decision, intentionally or not, if they want to lead the congregation or perform for the audience.
  4. The lighting communicates performance rather than participation. We participate in singing when we can hear each other and see each other. If the lighting for the congregation is low, but it is bright for the platform, we are communicating that a performance is taking place. We thus fail to communicate that the worship by singing should include everyone present.
  5. The music is too loud to hear others in the congregation. There have been quite a few comments at this blog about the right decibel levels for music in a worship service. The greater issue, however, is whether we can hear others. If we hear the voices of others, we are encouraged to join in. If the music is so loud that we only can hear ourselves, most of us will freak out. And we will then be silent.
  6. The worship leaders are not listening to the congregation. If worship leaders truly desire to lead the congregation in singing, they must be able to hear the congregation. Some can only hear the instrumentation and platform voices from the monitors. And some have ear monitors where they are truly blocking the voices of the congregation. Congregational singing becomes powerful when it is well led. And it can only be well led if the worship leaders can hear those they are leading.

Your own perspective about this issue may be one where you really don’t care if the congregation can be heard singing. But if the desire is truly to lift all the voices before God, some things will need to change.

Now it’s your turn to comment. Be kind. Be gentle. Be Christlike.

Posted on October 24, 2016

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Eddy Foye says on

    I would say that all six of your points follow hand in hand with the first point. Hearts must be prepared before hand. As to the other points, they aren’t really valid if our hearts aren’t prepared. I’ve been in many, many worship gatherings where the house lights are dim, all songs are new to me, the keys are too high, it’s very loud and even styles I don’t like. It’s still up to me to participate or not. I think it’s too simple to blame the art form and not put the responsibility on the participant. I know that’s easier said than done and that we should consider all of these in our own context.

  • I’ve read a lot of comments since I typed in one, two days ago. When others are singing “Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh” more as filler, I just change it to Hal la lu jah and essentially change “Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh” to “God be praised!”
    I said I ran PA , in the 1980’s the worship leader I most appreciated, didn’t have the best voice; we had other worship leaders that had to have everything just perfect, but Mark simply loved to worship God. At the opening of the service he encouraged the congregation to enter into worship with Him. It was my job to balance the instrumentation and other singers. He simply loved to worship God and people could see that. It made entering into worship easy. He was to some extent, oblivious to the people around him, and to the congregation it was another teaching moment in what worshipping God is all about. I’ll take someone in love with God fully focused on Him any day over the performance driven worship leader/singers, though it sometimes seems those days are gone.
    I have no problem with dimmed lights as long as I can easily find my way back to my seat. And I have no problem singing new songs. (With so many visiting who have never been brought up in church, singing hymns could be considered singing a new song to them and bless us older people at the same time). 🙂
    This may be a different subject, the younger generations may think us older people don’t like or want to change when in fact we’ve lived through changes all our lives. Usually we are just interested in the why of it now-a-days. If that happens to be, we are wanting to reach people who wouldn’t normally set foot in a church, but they are coming now, that’s good enough for me.
    I love my church: soul are being saved and lives are being changed. <

  • I think you did well to make the point that worship is about serving God and not self.

    I was raised in a church environment in which we only engaged in congregational singing. I have visited other churches in which the “worship teams” are used and I find it difficult to focus. When a group is on stage, I immediately have the sense that I’m being entertained rather than engaged. Being a musician myself, I cannot help but feel like an observer rather than participant when I am not being conducted, but rather sit watching.

    I think it’s interesting to note that many early church leaders preferred simple congregational singing over instrumental “performance,” including John Wesley:

    “I have no objection to instruments of music in our worship, provided they are neither seen nor heard.” (John Wesley)

    As you rightly pointed out, we need to prepare our hearts and minds to serve, rather than be served; to engage, rather than seek entertainment.

  • Terry Huffines says on

    These are helpful observations. I have also noticed in some congregations a lack of understanding and appreciation of worship. Some folks forget that “God is the audience and we are the performers.” I have heard numerous people say they don’t sing in worship because they don’t have good voices. Many church members seem to worry about what their neighbors will think rather than directing worship toward God who loves to hear us make a “joyful noise.”

  • There is much truth to this article. I enjoyed the comments as well. There is responsibility on both sides. The worship leaders could be more intentional about including the congregation. The congregation can prepare their hearts and remember we don’t watch people worship, we ourselves are worshipers. I am proud to be a part of a church whose goal is to interact with both generations of believers (old and young) and who encourage participation in the worship by having everyone who can, to stand and sing praises to God. We post the set to be sang on Facebook to inform our members of what we will sing. (Most everyone has a Facebook page these days). When each person enters the church they are given the order of the service along with the songs to be sung. We post the words of the song during worship. We also have soundmen monitoring the volume of the praise band’s vocals and instruments.
    I say all of this to say, most of the reasons congregational singing is waning can be easily fixed. The true church wants to worship. They just need to be given the opportunity to do so. When we are intentional in leading the saints in praise, when we do not quench the Spirit, and when we remove distractions (we ourselves can stand in Gods way) we all can experience God in a real and personal way.

  • We sing a cappella and do not use instruments. Because of that, all people can sing, we keep the volume at a level that you can hear the leader but not over the congregation, and we sing all kind of songs, hymns, and spiritual songs.

  • Thom,

    I guess our church is a bit out of the norm…

    We offer two different worship environments (Blended with Choir and Orchestra and more traditional trappings, and Modern with Praise Team, Lighting, darker room, higher volume, etc) Both are done with excellence in preparation (Spirit and Production) However when it comes down to brass tacks in comparing the engagement in the two services, the Modern Worship service participants are much more highly engaged and sing whole heartedly often overwhelming the volume being produced from the stage!

    As our Modern service just completed its first year of existence we have had the advantage or being VERY sensitive to the above mentioned challenges in the article… We are VERY careful in teaching the congregation the songs we sing, as well as providing friendly keys, constantly talking about engagement, and bringing one’s worship which leads to discussion about the personal disciple of preparing ones heart for worship, as well as many other factors.

    The greater challenge has been in our blended (more traditional service.) We are in the process of discipling the congregation beyond attendance as a consumer, to the place of being a member of the greater worship team (Body of Christ) and engaging as an active participant in the exaltation of our great an wonderful God.

  • One final comment: part of the reason congregational singing is in decline is because participatory singing as a social activity is in decline (in the culture as a whole). With the exception of overly enthusiastic college students (and some times high schoolers), folks just don’t get together to sing–when was the last time you were at a dinner party and you broke out in song together?

    In the distant past (pushing 100 years ago now), singing together socially was a thing. That’s been on the gradual decline for a long time now for a host of reasons (I primarily blame recorded music in general with Autotune carrying the worst of the burden).

    We see this refusal to sing publicly/socially played out on Sunday mornings and we try really hard to blame it on the things happening in the sanctuary (particularly the things we don’t like–for some of ya’ll it’s volume and lighting; for me, it’s any song with a choir and lots of harmony–I just don’t know how to follow along, so I typically drop out and do my best to mumble along).

    But there’s a huge social shift going on regarding music outside the church walls–it’s almost exclusively always a performance. We shouldn’t be surprised when folks bring that unconscious cultural baggage with them to our services.

  • !. The words have to be good
    2. Modern songs have bad words and bad melodies. Many are neither memorable nor singable.
    3. Old time classics like “Amazing grace” should never be tampered with just like you do not tamprer with Shakespeare.

  • When I was growing up, we went to church every Sunday (twice). With each hymn, my father, who had lost part of his hearing and was completely tone deaf, would sing every word at the top of his lungs…completely off key. I was embarrassed and one day I asked my mother, “Why does Daddy sing like that? Doesn’t he know it bothers people?” My mother, without looking up from her work, simply said, “Honey, he’s not singing for them.” Even as a kid, I got it. There’s really no excuse for non-participation in any portion of a worship service including the musical moments. God gave my father tone deafness and he gave it back 100%. Let’s not let lighting, loudness, or lethargy get in the way of what we’re in church for – to worship God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mite.

    • Have you ever read W.A. Criswell’s autobiography, “Standing On the Promises”? It contains a photo that always makes me laugh. It shows Criswell sitting on the platform at FBC in Dallas with Billy Graham, and the two of them are sharing a hymnal. Graham’s mouth is wide open, obviously singing with gusto, and Criswell looks like he’s trying his best not to cringe. W.A. Criswell was musically inclined, but Billy Graham has never been able to carry a tune. Like you said, he wasn’t singing for them!

  • Jim Watson says on

    I don’t come at this issue from the point of view of the worship leader (or team) or the pastor. I look at this issue from the point of view of the person sitting in the pew.

    “Some church members do not prepare themselves for worship.” Certainly, there is an element of the congregation for which this is true. Many of those people do not know how to worship because of past bad experiences. Many of those people do not even know Jesus. The worship leader is supposed to help lead them into worship. And, the worship leader cannot use the lack of preparation of the individual as an excuse for not leading them. If hearts cannot be affected by the leading of worship, what is the point of leading worship? (Just an aside: Tempo is important, too. The music should start with slower songs with smaller range to warm the singing voices before picking up the pace and expanding the range.)

    “We don’t know the songs.” This much has always been true. If the worship team needs to practice the songs, how much more do the less musically inclined people need such practice?

    “The songs are not sung in a range where we can participate. Many trained musicians have a wider range in which they can sing.” I see that as less of a problem when there is a mixture of voices on the worship team. It has been my experience that female worship leaders often sing too high for male congregants to sing along and vice versa. If males have a male example to follow, more men seem to sing.

    “The lighting communicates performance rather than participation.” Personally, I find that the other cues that it is a performance rather than participation send that signal loud and clear regardless of the lighting. But, if we have to take the lights up and down, we should be asking why we are doing that. Actions without clear purpose leave those actions open to all kinds of interpretations (and misinterpretations).

    “The music is too loud to hear others in the congregation.” If we are going to sing as a congregation, we do need to be able to hear each other. But, I think Dr. Rainer was a little too mild in this statement. I have been in churches where the music was so loud that I could not even hear myself.

    “The worship leaders are not listening to the congregation.” If you are leading people, you need to know what your followers are doing. And, as the saying goes, if no one is following you, you aren’t leading. And, if you aren’t really leading,you are failing at your stated purpose for being there.

    I would like to add one thought about the worship music. Let me preface this by saying that I love music, and my taste is quite eclectic. But, there are some songs that just don’t lend themselves to congregational singing. And, when such songs are introduced into a corporate worship experience, they present a stumbling block to many people. When that happens, a worship leader should be asking themselves why they are doing that. I can guarantee that the people in the pews are asking that question.

    • Graham huxtable says on

      1. Many modern songs are more suited to individual performance than congregational singing. This is because the tune is not the same throughout the song and makes it difficult for the congregation to learn.
      2. Many modern songs do not address issues that face society. Most of them focus on praise and worship.
      3. Traditional hymns have been sung for ages, particularly at funerals – The Lord’s my shepherd; What a friend we have in Jesus; Amazing Grace are just a few.
      4. Congregations sing songs they know.
      5. Some modern songs are old or contemporary tunes with Christian words. These go down well in our congregation. We sing the benediction to the tune of Eidelweis!
      6. I agree that songs should be sung to allow the congregation to worship God together. It is not the time for the band to perform and sing louder than the congregation.

  • Much about “Christian worship culture” has become entertainment based. The music may be the area where this is seen the clearest. Maybe this is part of the reason there is not one example of Christians using an instrument other than their voice in corporate worship or any instruction to do so (Please do not mention the harps or trumpets in Revelation. I am speaking of Christians on this earth in a normal worship assembly.).
    Maybe the Lord would be pleased if all returned to the NT pattern of a cappela singing. It would not eliminate all the problems, such as hearts prepared to worship, but it would eliminate many.

    Colossians 3:16 – Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

    • Stuart Allsop says on

      Heath, you say: “there is not one example of Christians using an instrument other than their voice in corporate worship or any instruction to do so “. I’d be inclined to disagree with that. There are several, albeit indirect. Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19, and a few others others encourage Christians to sing Psalms (as well as hymns and spiritual songs). If you read the book of Psalms that these scriptures refer to, you’ll notice that many of them do in fact include precise instructions on which specific instruments to use for that song. Psalm 150, for example, says that we should use a broad range of instruments in praising God, including trumpets, harps, lyres, timbrels, strings, pipes, and cymbals.
      Even if that were not so, it simply isn’t logically valid to argue that Christians should not so something just because it isn’t mentioned in the Bible: the bible makes no mention of automobiles, for example, so does that mean that Christians should never go to church by car? It makes no mention of cell phones, so does that mean you should never call your pastor on his cell phone? It makes no mentions of Internet websites, yet here we are posting comments on a Christian internet website….

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