Ten years ago, I wrote the article, 9 Reasons People Aren’t Singing in Worship. Little did I know that this article would turn viral multiple times (in one day, over 100,000 people accessed the article), be published in eight languages, read in over 220 countries and territories, be viewed on this site over 1.5 million times, become the topic of podcasts and other’s blog posts and be republished on other platforms (with permission). Obviously, the content hit a nerve around the world. Worship leaders and people in the pew are realizing that there’s a great lack of participation in worship. I believe this article finally gave people some tangible understanding of why conditions of participatory worship had gotten so bad. Many of the people in the pews were saying when they read this, “YES. That is it. Finally, someone is voicing our concerns about congregational songs becoming less accessible to us.”

Today, I want to revisit these reasons and go a bit deeper with so much I have learned over the last 10 years related to this topic.

Just like 10 years ago, today I see an epidemic in churches where congregations are not participating in congregational singing. The more I study the problem, the more I am convinced that we worship leaders are so often to blame for this lack of involvement. So often, congregations stand and just watch what is happening on the platform. This lack of participation prevents much discipleship and transformation that can occur when people are actively participating in worship, consuming the content of the songs in ways that go much deeper than merely listening to a song.

Over the years, many people have pointed out that my “9 reasons” miss some of the most vital reasons, such as people having no relationship with God. Indeed, without such a relationship, our worship will be lacking, but the intent of the original article, and this one, is looking at something we worship leaders can affect

The reasons I have outlined here, instead, are targeted at worship leaders—things we may be doing to deter congregational singing. The good news is: These are things we can counter once we recognize the problems.

I have determined that the heart of the issue is the understanding of what worship truly is and the role of a worship leader:

Worship practices grow from the underlying basic understanding of what worship is and the role of the worship leader. When those foundations are not correct, the resulting worship practices are likewise unhealthy. That is inherently a huge problem today. Many worship leaders don’t understand these foundational principles.

I believe we have an abundance of worship leaders who feel called by God to fulfill the role of worship leader, and they indeed have a deep passion for their ministry. However, so often, they have never been mentored or trained to really understand some vital foundations of worship leading and how this shapes everything they do – from the songs they select, the keys they sing them in, the lighting in the room, the level of sound, the mix for in-ear monitors, visual effects and so much more. So unknowingly, worship leaders often do things, perhaps with the best intentions, that kill participation in worship and prevent the potential transformation that could take place.

This is the premise of my teaching, in my worship training retreats, seminary class and recently released book: Get the foundations correct, and the other stuff will fall into place in a way that will truly transform lives.

SO I ask: ”What is our role as worship leaders?”

– is it to sound like a professional recording – rivaling the concert artists in look and sound? 

– is it to impress with our great arrangements and cool technology?

– OR are we prompters that help our people voice their worship? We guide our congregations in a journey of worship and do everything we can to help them be fully participative. We serve the congregation. This is the correct answer if we truly want worship that transforms lives.

I can spend hours unpacking this, but let me say that understanding that we are prompters means sometimes we sacrifice some of our preferences to better engage the congregation. That will come out more as I discuss the reasons.

 

These are the nine reasons I believe people are not singing in worship:

1

They don't know the songs.

Think about it– new songs are coming out weekly and there is an increased birthing of locally written songs; lots of worship leaders feel they need to provide a steady diet of the latest, greatest worship songs. An article was written a couple of years ago called “Worship at the Speed of Sound;” it noted the increasing pace of creation, distribution, and rise & fall in the life of congregational worship songs. Indeed, we should be singing new songs, but introducing too many new songs in worship can kill the participation rate and turn the congregation into spectators.

THE REMEDY

In extensive study and conversations with other worship leaders, it seems doing more than one new song in a worship service begins to turn people into spectators. You see, people worship best with songs they know, yet we must teach new songs; so we need to teach and reinforce the new expressions of worship in ways to make the songs familiar as quickly as possible. For instance, one very important concept is to repeat the song on and off for several weeks until it becomes known by the congregation. I recommend singing the new song three weeks in a row, laying off a week, and then returning with the song on the fifth week. By then, people are getting to know the song. (Remember that the average church member will not be there every week, and worship leaders tire of the song far sooner than the congregation.) Repetition will help the congregants make the song part of their own worship and praise.

This leads me to another important point: How we introduce new songs in worship is vitally important. Here is a resource describing effective ways to introduce new songs to better engage our congregants in worship.

Additionally, to help the congregation prepare for worship, we should encourage personal worship during the week and give our people tools to prepare for the congregational singing. In this way, through social media and other church communication channels, we are helping our people come prepared for worship, including helping them learn these new songs. The book has numerous ideas on how to do that, such as sharing Spotify playlists or YouTube lyric videos.

Another consideration is the size of your church’s song list from which you plan worship. The number of songs on that list can greatly affect congregational participation related to this point of people not knowing songs. Song lists that are too large lead to too little repetition. I deal with this extensively in the book and also in this post.

2

WE ARE SINGING SONGS NOT SUITABLE FOR CONGREGATIONAL SINGING.

There are a lot of great, new worship songs today, but in the vast pool of new songs, many are not suitable for congregational singing by virtue of their rhythms (too difficult for the average singer), or they encompass too wide of a vocal range–in other words, the span between how high and how low they go is more than the average singer can reach. We must consider the average singer—not the “vocal superstar” on stage. Additionally, some songs may not have lyrics suitable for a song to be used in gathered worship. Remember, just because you hear it on Christian radio DOES NOT mean it is suitable to use in corporate worship.

Note that if you are seeking to engage an intergenerational congregation in worship, you need to be even more conscious of song difficulty, as older congregants may have more difficulty with songs that are strongly syncopated.

THE REMEDY

Select only songs that have reasonable ranges (probably no more than an octave and a fourth) and have memorable, easy to sing, melodies without excessive syncopation.

 

3

We are singing in keys too high for the average singer.

When we pitch songs in keys that are too high, the congregation will stop singing, tire out and eventually quit, becoming spectators. I see this all the time. Worship leaders often sing songs in the original artist key, and so often, those keys are way too high for the average singer.

THE REMEDY

Here is a CRITICAL UNDERSTANDING:

Our responsibility is to enable the congregation to sing their praises, not to showcase our great platform voices by pitching songs in our power ranges.

A worship leader’s calling is to help the people sing with all their being, even at the sacrifice of some things we, as musicians, would prefer. Worship is not about impressing the congregation with our extraordinary vocal skills; rather, as worship leaders, our task is to enable others to worship.

When we understand this servant role rather than the performer role, it will shape our worship ministries in a way that really transforms our congregations.

Here’s the bottom line: The best range of the melody is the C to C octave; however, many melodies extend beyond an octave. The extended basic range of the average singer is an octave and a fourth from A to D (with an occasional Eb). I mentioned earlier that singing too many new songs is one of the two most important understandings for what is happening today to encourage spectatorship; singing in too high of a key is the second and probably most abused of the nine. It is critical that worship leaders grasp this concept.

I have many resources on this blog and in the book to help with this, including a chart of over 250 popular worship songs and their best congregational keys. The top 100 CCLI songs are updated each time a new list comes out. There are also tutorials on how to determine the best keys for yourself. In our worship leader training courses, we spend time diving into this concept.

4

The congregation can’t hear (or perhaps see) the people around them singing.

This complaint comes up often–music is too loud in worship. It physically hurts the ears. There are definitely times that we want to raise the roof with a great sound of voices and instruments. There are times we want to let a cappella voices fill the space. There are levels everywhere in between we want to utilize to express our worship. However, when the band and singers get too loud, we once again encourage a performance environment rather than participatory worship. Music that is too loud also negates the biblical imperative that worship should be vertical (congregation to God) and horizontal (congregant to congregant) in nature:

Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:19–20).

This passage brings up an important point that is vastly overlooked today. Gathered worship has a horizontal and a vertical element. Not only is our worship directed to God as we offer Him our praise and worship, giving thanks for all He has done. It also requires us to “speak to one another” in declaring His worth, testifying of His goodness, etc. Gathered worship has a communal aspect that differentiates it from personal worship. In addition, I have found that experiencing the people around me in worship can encourage me to worship more wholeheartedly. It is moving to come to worship and see a family present that just lost a loved one, and see them worshipping with all their might; it really encourages those around them. Seeing a grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter standing side by side, boldly singing songs to the Lord together motivates others to worship wholeheartedly. The communal aspect of corporate worship cannot be understated. It is vital to our lives to have that interaction in worship.

Too often, in many instances of “contemporary worship,” churches transform their times of gathered worship into personal worship for the congregation at best and spectatorship at worst by turning the lights down, so you don’t see anyone around you, and by having the sound so loud you cannot hear those in your area. Essentially it denies the existence of the corporate body journeying together in this act of worship when you cannot see nor hear your fellow worshippers. There have been times I have had congregations turn and face each other as they sing a song of testimony, declaring the worth of God to each other to help them recognize that we are in this together. We can exhort, encourage, comfort, and so much more in the gathered horizontal aspect of worship.

In churches, where the lights are so dim in the congregation that you are not aware of those throughout the room and the music is so loud you cannot hear yourself sing, let alone others around you, following this plan leads to a true sense that the “audience” has come to a performance, and thus, they stand and do not participate.

THE REMEDY

Find a maximum sound level that encourages strong singing but does not drown out the congregational voice. Also utilize times of a cappella singing and times with little accompaniment that would encourage the voices to sing out. Dim the lights, if you like, but leave them at a level that people can see those around them worshipping.

5

We have created worship services, which are spectator events, building a performance environment.

I strongly advocate setting a great environment for worship, including lighting, visuals, the inclusion of the arts, and much more. However, when our environments take things to a level that calls undue attention to the leaders on the platform or the cool technology, and distracts from our worship of God, we have gone too far. Excellence — yes. Highly professional performance — no.

THE REMEDY

A word about LIGHTING AND FOG (or haze): Just as awe-inspiring architecture in old church buildings can set a great environment for worshipping God, lighting (and the use of haze) can help create a sacred space when used with care and moderation–especially in architecturally-plain worship spaces.

We need to determine what is helpful in setting an environment for people to worship and what causes distractions, such as calling attention to the cool lighting effects or perhaps even annoying moving light in the eyes of the congregation. As worship leaders, we need to be wise in utilizing these gifts in a way that enhances, not distracts, from worship.

I believe we often worship the components of the worship service rather than to truly worship God. We fall in love with our cool arrangements, set lists, awesome guitar licks, set designs and amazing lighting.

6

The congregation feels they are not expected to sing.

As worship leaders, we often get so involved in our professional production of worship that we fail to be authentic and invite the congregation into the journey of worship. Often the people in our congregations are not sure when they are supposed to sing and when it is intended for them to just listen.

THE REMEDY

“Inviting the congregation into the journey of worship” has several aspects. We must facilitate the experience by (as I have already mentioned) singing familiar songs, introducing new songs appropriately and singing in the proper congregational range. Further, the things we say, our gestures, and our modeling from the platform all play a role in inviting the congregation to worship.

I had a friend ask me one day if I thought he was supposed to be singing in worship on a particular song the previous weekend. I asked him to explain what he meant. He said that their songs are mostly led by a male (who is their worship pastor), but on this particular song, one of the ladies in the group took the lead at the beginning. The lyrics were on screen, but none of the other vocalists were singing, and they were all looking at the lady who was leading the song. I commented that I think they probably intended for the congregation to sing, but the singers on the platform were suggesting to everyone with their actions that they were to just stand and listen to the lady sing. None of the other vocalists were singing. All of them were looking at the one singing.

I always instruct vocal teams at times like that to continue singing and engaging the congregation (looking out at the congregation rather than the singer) without holding the mic to their mouths. The lady leading would be the only one heard, but people see that everyone is singing, and they would assume that they are expected to sing as well. As worship teams, we need to be sure we are not relaying contrary messages.

There are other times we may need to verbally encourage or invite them to sing. The blog and the book go through many additional ways to help your congregation feel they are expected to participate wholeheartedly in worship.

7

We fail to have a common body of songs.

With the availability of so many new songs, we often become haphazard in our worship planning, pulling songs from various sources without reinforcing the songs and helping the congregation take them on as a regular expression of their worship (see section above on They don’t know the songs). In the old days, the hymnal was that repository–we planned our worship services from this denominationally-approved song compilation.

THE REMEDY

Today, we need to create song lists to use in planning our times of worship. (Check out the blog and book for more on this). On an additional note, with the vast number of songs available and no denominational clearing house to create a body of acceptable songs (the hymnal of previous days), every church may have a vastly different repertoire of songs today. When there is little commonality and a believer moves to another location and joins another church, they may not know the songs used at the new church, and they will be severely disabled in their worship. To offset this, churches should strive to have a large portion of their diet composed of songs more commonly sung in churches across their country. In countries where songs are reported through CCLI, one can consult those lists (we have those updated lists published on this blog). Providing a diet of appropriately filtered songs from these lists will help ensure that churches have more of a common body of songs. Note that it is imperative that we filter those songs–both the lyrics and the music, before introducing them to our worshipping communities.

8

Worship leaders ad-lib too much.

Often, vocalists begin to ad-lib, singing something other than the melody of the song. While this may sound great, it often leads the average singer in the congregation to become confused and try to follow the singer off the melody. They will often quit singing when they discover they cannot follow the ad-lib singing.

THE REMEDY

The lead singer should keep the melody clear and strong. The congregation is made up of people with limited ranges and musical ability. When we stray from the melody to ad-lib, people try to follow us and end up frustrated and quit singing. Some ad-lib is nice and can enhance worship (especially in instrumental sections of the song), but don’t let it lead your people astray.

There was a time I told worship leaders that ad-lib was fine when the congregation was singing a song that they knew really well. Later, I was in a large East Asia country as part of a corporate worship experience with a couple of hundred people singing out with all their being. They were singing, How Great Is Our God. The worship leader began to ad-lib on the chorus, and suddenly the congregation was no longer singing with might. People were searching to find the notes the leader was singing, trying to follow him in his ad-lib, but were unable to achieve it. The song just lost its power. Now, I recommend that the melody is always strongly heard by the congregation so that no other parts are overshadowing it.

9

Worship leaders are not connecting with the congregation.

We often get caught up in our world of amazing music production and lose sight of our purpose to help the congregation voice their worship. We lose sight of our shepherding role as worship leaders.

THE REMEDY

Let them know you expect them to sing. Quote the Bible to promote their expressions of worship. Stay alert to how well the congregation is tracking with you and alter course as needed.

Further, I believe there are two aspects of connecting with the congregation that are necessary to lead them well:

The first relates to our time on the platform. In situations where the lights are bright on the platform and the house lights are dim or off, you may not be able to see the people you are leading. Using in-ear monitors often isolates you only to hear the band and vocals, but no congregational voices, so you could be leading a congregation you can neither see nor hear. That makes it impossible to really connect with them. It would be best if you remedied this by adjusting the lights so that you can clearly see the people you are leading and by either removing one of your earbuds or adding congregational vocals in your in-ear mix so that you can hear the congregation sing.

The second area relates to off-stage life. Spending time doing life with the people in your congregation through fellowship, discipling relationships, mission project involvement, and so on, will help you connect on a deeper level as you lead them in worship. Having a green room mentality of being the superstars on stage will only lead to creating a spectator mentality in the congregation. As your people get to know and love you through your time interacting with them, they are more willing for you to lead them in worship–not only in their normal worship expressions but also those that are outside of their comfort zones.

Once worship leaders regain the vision of enabling the congregation to be participants in the journey of corporate worship, I believe we can see a great increase in congregational participation.

ACTION STEPS

Think through these nine reasons people are not singing in worship. Do you find that you are guilty of some of these things? Consider beginning work this week on really engaging your congregation in participative worship. You will find lots of helps to get you on track on this blog (check out the top resources) and in The Worship Ministry Guidebook.

 

Learn more about how to turn your congregation into active participants and understand how to transform lives through worship.