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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  • Evelyn Wake says on

    I come from a faith tradition of congregational singing without musical accomplishment. When I was growing up, all of us knew how to read music, and sing in parts. It was the part of the service that I most enjoyed, and I know this to be true of most members of my church. Over the years, we began having pianos and/or organs in our churches, and this ability of reading music and learning different parts, has been mainly lost to younger generations. When I married, my husband’s church did not have hymn books with the music included, only the words. I was not happy at that church and eventually returned to my own. Today, our members are mainly seniours, as the church is next door to our seniours’ housing complex owned by the church. Some of our members are from other denominations, who come because it is accessible and their former church is not. Our congregational singing is not what I fondly recall from my younger days. A members’ meeting held recently, found that most of us prefer the old familiar hymns, and find it difficult to sing the new ones in the hymn book. So, our song and worship leaders are making an effort to have most the hymns be those we know best. I feel fortunate to belong to a church that listens to its members.

  • Scott Allen Sipe says on

    As usual with conversations regarding this issue, the responses are myriad and quite disparate in content. I’ve been a performing artist and a worship leader in numerous worship settings for 30+ years. For myself, apart from doctrinal content and musical style, the most fundamental issue is with worship itself. The congregation IS the choir. Congregational singing is the point. The problem is the evangelical church’s slide from holistic, corporate worship to performance. Every point made in the article is accurate, and I’ve seen each and every one at one time or another. (I’m ministering in a different church almost every Sunday, so I’ve honestly seen it all.) God is not interested in the amazing performances of the worship team. God is not amazed by our performances, in music or in life. He is satisfied in the performance of His Son and overjoyed in our submission to Him. I believe God fully enjoys the sweet sound of praise and adoration coming from the blended voices of those he has called, regardless of whether those voices can sustain a high Bb. I do believe the members of the worship leading crew should commit to excellence, but when that striving results in the focus falling more on the stage than on Christ, something is terribly wrong. I shudder when I hear, (all too often), “wow…wasn’t that an AWESOME worship!” I know it has more to do with the performance of the worship team than an acknowledgment of God’s grand mercy and grace. This IS NOT about whether we should only sing hymns or Psalms, and it IS NOT only about whether we should have drums or consider trashing the organ. It is about the direction of our focus in corporate worship, and the context and content of our sung praise.

    The question may very well boil down to this: who(m) is the genuine recipient of our praise?

  • Nick Stuart says on

    All good reasons.

    Too loud is a definite problem. What is the point of congregational singing if the congregation can’t hear itself sing? Point of fact, my company requires wearing hearing protection where the sound level is 85 db or greater. For years I was able to use the sound pressure meter on my cell phone to determine that the level in our services was 100+ db (the meter pinned at 100 db). In the past year or so it’s been pulled back to an average of 83 db (from where I sit, at the furthest possible remove from the speakers so I have to assume it’s higher the closer to the speakers one gets). The Worship Leaders are ABSOLUTELY ADAMANTINE in their insistence that it has to be at this sound level.

  • Steven Bradshaw says on

    Do you think this list applies to student ministry worship services?

  • I think there are churches where the idea is more of a performance, and certainly some of the songs we do are “Performance” songs. There are just some worship songs out there that I want to do because of their message that I know my congregation will never be able to sing but….They have a message I want to convey… NOW… something that I have never heard before is the fact that CCM especially worship music is really in it’s infancy. Just look at the complexity of many (not all) worship songs today as compared to even 10 years ago, and look at 20 years ago for an even better example….We can’t. (in my opinion) judge a toddler (contemporary worship) to a fully mature set of songs (hymns) that have CENTURIES of people building upon the genre. I do know that our church reaches a group of people that a traditional church won’t… Now in 30 years when I am 70 I pray that I can be in the back of the church as a new set of worship leaders has taken over with the newest way to engage the culture of the day with liturgical rap or whatever it takes.

  • Peggy Monahan says on

    #7: When there are multiple singers onstage in the Worship Band, and only one pf them is singing, it communicates to the congregation, “this is my solo.”

  • Tim Talbot says on

    I’m so pleased that your point No.1 is your point No.1. Getting our hearts ready to sing is essential. I have struggled to get the right balance of hymns and songs for our congregation and think I have finally got it right with a 50-50 balance of hymns for the hymn-lovers and more recent songs for the younger generations. We introduce new songs slowly, and do them as a special to start with then invite the congregation to join in the song over the following weeks. At least the reception among our people is now more positive.

    However, I would add that one of our previous song-leaders had a tendency to do dreary unfamiliar hymns and this resulted in the attendance being down whenever he was leading the songs. Lively, well-known hymns seem to appeal to everyone, and it is wonderfully uplifting hearing a crowd belt out I Stand Amazed in His Presence, And Can it Be, Victory in Jesus, and such.

  • The issue that we seeing being left out in this discussion about music is that of the theology behind the song writer(s) as well as the professionals that perform them. Many times, the theology behind the song is not sound and can mean something completely different than what churches singing them might think it does. Much of the theology behind many of the popular song writers and performers is now based on Word-of-Faith, Prosperity Gospel, and Dominion Theology.

    At the church we belong to now, the preaching is solid and expository, but they have little discernment with the music. If we know the theology behind a song is not theologically solid we simply cannot and will not sing. Instead, during such songs we will stand or sit (depending on what the congregation is doing) and pray. We are and lovingly attempting to share our concerns with our pastor based on scripturally solid concerns.

  • Thom–I agree with your list and know Mike Harland to be an excellent resource on this topic. As a veteran minister of music, I see the same thing occurring in many churches and I would either add to your list or enhance your list with the following ideas for your consideration:

    1. When I was growing up, my model for ministry was my Minister of Music. The model today for most young worship leaders is that of the Worship Artist. The new “Ministers of Music” for this generation are Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, and Lincoln Brewster. I have nothing but respect for these men and their music but they are not the same type of leader under which I learned. They primarily lead worship concerts, not worship services in the local church. Therefore, I agree that the worship service looks, feels, and sounds more like a concert but that is also due in part to what is being emulated by younger worship leaders. Because of this, often the music is too loud and the platform lights are too bright.

    2. I agree that singing too many new songs has an adverse effect. In my observation, I have found that young people have the capacity to learn the music at a faster rate than older people–therefore, I think using more songs quicker is a bit due to boredom–the rate of change is so fast in everyday life, that nothing has time to sink in! It is incumbent upon the worship leader to pace songs so that all generations can participate.

    3. Going back to the keys of songs being used and the range being unattainable for the average congregation. Again, the Worship Artist is being emulated and those songs are being sung in a range for the soloist, not a congregation. Additionally, in most newer songs (and even choral anthems that use soloists), the parts of high tenor or low alto are preferred. There are very few songs for bass or high soprano. My own daughter has “discovered” Sandi Patty songs because that’s about all there is for truly high female voices!

    4. The congregation doesn’t know why it is supposed to sing. In an effort to accommodate people, we’ve stopped teaching many important things–doctrines, beliefs, etc. I also believe, in recent years, that there has been so much emphasis on the sermon, that the result has been that either people think the congregational singing is simply the “warm up” for the preacher or it’s not integral to the worship experience. I think that music and sermon (plus prayer, response, etc.) is a “both/and” not an “either/or” type of experience.

    5. One last musical observation–when I was a child, it seemed like most kids took piano or guitar, etc. The arts programs in schools were in full swing. In today’s culture, however, many schools have dropped fine arts programs, families don’t have time or resources for private music lessons and society doesn’t hold those values in high regard at that level. Therefore, it is my observation, that in the days of hymnals, a decent portion of the congregation was at least familiar enough with music to potentially sing parts, follow the musical line, etc. Today’s culture and music is more centered on rhythm and with fewer students (and now adults) having taken any type of music courses/lessons, the congregations are much more musically illiterate. I believe this contributes to a less than stellar participation in congregational singing.

    There is a part of me that wants to say that we are now beginning to pay for our sins regarding worship from the past 20+ years. We’ve tried so hard to make things easy for people to attend, participate, etc. plus we have, in many cases, segregated our students and children that now churches struggle to worship in a multi-generational format, utilizing a variety of music. Ministers of music have in some cases, abdicated their responsibility as guardian of the worship culture of the church and allowed untrained people to lead worship for youth and children creating a huge disconnect between the primary worship service (that may be choir led, etc.) and the auxiliary services (youth or children) that is more band driven. Subtly, we are communicating that worship style is generational and if you’re young, then you tolerate the older form of worship. The problem with this is that, when I was growing up, it didn’t matter if I liked the worship style or not. My parents made sure I was there. Today, if a child or student doesn’t want to attend, the parents don’t enforce attendance–participation in church is optional and typically only when it is convenient.

    I know this is long but this is not just a sensitive subject, I think it is a critical one as well. Depending on what happens to the church in America over the next several years, the ramifications of the lack of congregational singing could potentially have dire effects on the Millennial and Digital Generations.

  • Bradley McCarty says on

    So… What I can take from this is that it is all HIGHLY subjective?

    • Actually, no. You can take away that corporate worship is all about the Body (i.e. “corpus” in Latin) worshiping together as a whole and that ANYTHING that detracts from that worship is wrong. In the discussion here, we are discussing one aspect that is causing problems for corporate worship in an increasing number of churches: music.

      This is not about style. This is totally about worship. There are many, many people who have left churches (and many who have left church entirely) because someone else decided that they needed to get between the worshiper and his/her God.

      As members of the congregation feel increasingly disenfranchised, congregational singing is only one of the casualties. This is generally accompanied by (or followed by) a decrease in congregational giving. Then, there is a decrease in congregational attendance. And, eventually, the praise team is playing to an empty house.

      At that point the worship leader needs to realize that he has led the congregation to go worship somewhere else (or nowhere at all). There is nothing subjective about ignoring the congregation. It is historical. It is repeating on a large scale. And, ignoring the problem does not make it go away. It simply makes the congregation go away actively, financially, spiritually, and then physically.

  • I’d like to try to offer some practical responses to your post:

    01. On any given week there will be “some church members do not prepare themselves for worship” sitting among others who have, in one way or another, prepared themselves for worship. I think it would be good to explore what we think “preparing ourselves for worship” entails. For some people – people with young kids, people who worked the night shift just before church, people who are going through a really rough time – just getting to church is something we should be thankful that they have accomplished. We should not assume that a person’s spiritual condition is always reflected through external expressions of worship.

    02. People need to learn the new songs. Of course they do. So you repeat them. You find the songs on youtube and post the link on your website or on your church bulletin so people can go hear it during the week. You talk about why you are doing this new song, why it stands out and why it’s worth learning.

    03. Not knowing that a song key is too high or too low for the people your are leading in worship is usually just a product of inexperience regarding melodic placement. I’ve known many musicians over the years who had not even considered the “key” of the song when it comes to public singing. They simply did the songs in the keys they were written in by the original artist. Adjusting keys is something that needs to be learned.

    04. Lighting is often a product of financial resources. Really professional lighting set ups are very expensive, and the layout of the auditorium within the larger building plays a big factor. If your auditorium has light coming in from outside through windows, (or if it doesn’t), that all factors in to lighting choices. Depending on where your church is and who is attending it, having the lights up can be good or bad. A bright room can help you feel like you’re part of the larger church, but it also allows for a lot of distractions because you can see everything around you. Having the room dim can eliminate some distractions, but it can serve to isolate people. Each church should figure out the proper balance for them, based on the people who attend that church. There is no one size fits all way to deal with these kinds of things.

    05. My personal opinion (and it is only an opinion) is that when you have to start handing out ear plugs to people as they walk into the auditorium, you’ve probably taken the volume thing too far. But that’s just my opinion.

    06. As for in ear monitors. From a technical standpoint, they are extremely helpful, especially in a smaller setting where you are trying to use a full band. Enclosing the drums and using in ears vastly reduces stage noise and helps to deal with the volume level issues everyone always complains about. If you aren’t hearing the church singing, you simply install a couple of wide throw condenser mics above the congregation and feed them into the in ear monitors for the worship leaders/musicians, as needed.

  • Wrote this a couple years back for my personal blog, then republished it via TheWorshipCommunity just a couple months back, & in it I push back against some of the ideas above, which have been naturally floating around in some of my circles for a while:

    I actually said most of the points in your article myself a number of years back, until I encountered a number of different churches with 1.) bright light/concert-style production, 2.) loud loud music, 3.) music sets of at least 50% original music, 4.) songs keyed well above what would usually be considered “congregational”, & when I either worshiped at these certain churches, or guest-led, I’ve NEVER EVER encountered such passionate, worshiping congregations in my life – & I’ve been to several hundred churches, from tiny 25-member rural chapels, to 30,000 member mega-churches. I was so amazed each time I encountered one of these congregations that I dug in to find out what made them take congregational singing so seriously, & in each case it was this: the church, as a whole, worked hard to foster a culture of worship. It was taught (both practically, theologically/doctrinally, & instructionally) from in every area of ministry from stage to one-on-one discipleship, & everything inbetween, by not only the worship leaders, but teaching pastor, & anyone else given the authority to teach. The importance of worshiping God, & how to worship God, & how their church worships God, was taught on regularly, right alongside the Gospel, the Kingdom of God, the Trinity, & any other central tenant of our faith, as an important part of the whole. What I’ve found at churches where corporate singing in practically minimized & people don’t engage: lead pastors/teaching pastors are often intimidated by their worship pastors/leaders, so they don’t give priority to teaching on worship, & rarely allow the worship pastor to instruct (well, little more than “Hey guys, let’s stand up & sing!”) as well. That said, some of your points are good things to consider – we need to be aware of how those things may influence our congregations, but I don’t believe any of those but point 1 are the real problem… the problem goes much deeper than that. Until more churches teaching pastors/lead pastors recognize that it’s WORSHIP that we were created for, & NOT simply “hearing a sermon”, & begin implementing practices which encourage a culture of worship, you can change 2 through 6 & see no practical change on a Sunday morning

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