I’ve written several posts talking about ways that we as worship leaders perhaps unknowingly produce spectators in our corporate worship times. Mike Harland, director of LifeWay worship wrote an excellent article discussing some of these issues and others.
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?
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.
Some may be sick of hearing “we’ve never done it that way before” but some of us are equally sick of being told we must change or we just don’t love Jesus.
For some of us, the best thing we’ve ever done is walk out of contemporary worship permanently. Finding a good hymn singing church has been so freeing.
And before you say only old people like traditional, it was our younger family members that got fed up with “Jesus is my boyfriend” music first.
I agree with almost all of this article. However, I’ve served mostly in churches with a “blended” worship preference, and I can tell you from experience, even if every song is one they know, the volume of the band is soft and the keys are perfect for singing(nothing over the D just above middle C), folks are still not singing. 2 more things are essential.
1. The leaders must be up front singing.
I served in a large church where the elders and pastors would stand in the back and watch to see if anyone sang. In essence what they were saying was, “I’m not going to sing, but I am going to hold the worship leader accountable if you don’t”. It’s simple, people follow their leaders, if they’re not singing, it doesn’t matter if you hire Chris Tomlin and Michael W. Smith, they won’t sing. Yes, you are on the hook senior pastors and elders, and shame on you for blaming the worship pastor for not getting the congregation to do something they don’t see you do. If you and your elders don’t sing, they won’t either. Start with that, and I believe your congregation will sing even if the volume, keys, songs and familiarity are all wrong.
2. There are no more “singers” on the platform.
It’s true people want to hear people singing around them and yet none of them want anyone to hear their own voice. The fix for that is so simple… put more singers on the platform with mics. Once you have more than 9 voices on the stage, the congregation won’t be able to distinguish them as a different group of voices than their own. (I know this is “old school”, but as fast as things are going these days, this should be the coolest new hippest idea. Has anyone noticed how important choirs are these days in pop culture? It’s a shame we’ve run all the choir directors out of churches for insurance sales jobs in favor of the “guitar slinger”(new organ) We’re behind the times(as usual) and now the younger generations are as vocal in their dislike of anything that doesn’t suit them musically as the older generations.(they learned it well) So anything other than a bearded, t-shirt wearing 20 something up front leading worship by himself holding a guitar isn’t acceptable… do we see this kind of thing in pop music much anymore?????)
Oh, and 3.(I know I said 2)
The soundman has to mix for worship rather than performance. When people sing, their own voice drowns out about %90 of everything else. It’s a simple fix, simply have the soundman sing along while they’re mixing to determine what the congregation needs to hear so they can sing.(what?? your soundman isn’t a musician???? that could be #4)
I’m very glad my wife sent me the link to this site. Great insights, thanks!
I especially like your point about environments that encourage spectating more than participating. After visiting a few churches that seemed not only to encourage spectating but in which the musicians seemed to be part of the spectacle, I wrote an essay called, “Ignore the Tour Guides, If You Can.” Here’s the opening, if you’re interested:
“The first year we moved to the Research Triangle area, we went to a few pretty good concerts—local bands, obscure enough that few of them even have names beyond the venues in which they play. The shows were well rehearsed, and the bands played well: good musicianship, fine stage presence, sometimes powerful voices. The audiences reacted positively; we clapped in time with the music, sang along where we could, and applauded when it was appropriate. Our responses were polite and respectful, if not enthusiastic.
“The only problem was, these weren’t concert events. They were worship services.”
Thanks again, and I look forward to reading more of your blog.
I agree completely that as the production side of the music coming from the front increases, you have to be careful that people don’t quit singing. Very very important.
1) They don’t know the song. I agree completely and this is why we only do 1 new song per month and I try to post it on our church worship blog and encourage people to download it and learn it … you can even buy songs as a gift on iTunes and burn it to CD’s for people! I have a whole post on it on my blog.
2) They can’t sing the song. I take a little issue with this because we all have different registers and not all can sing harmony. I used to have a low alto that I would often encourage to take lead on and put it in the worst possible key for me, that was the best possible key for her and for the portion of the congregation that has her range. The problem is that I need to sing it in a key comfortable for me when I lead. If it’s uncomfortably low for me, the passion and energy are missing and people can tell. I’m not quite convinced there really is a range that is best for congregation overall. I think having a limited range of notes (tessitura) is more important, but that’s a songwriting thing, and going from low to high does really give that song extra punch (think of matt Redman’s “blessed be your name”) so again, this one is harder for me
3) They can’t hear the room singing. Bingo. This is so huge. In our old sanctuary 100 people sounded like 100 people. Upside down boat with big rafters. It was a nice balance of live versus dead acoustics. We never put the drums in an isolation booth though, so we always had issues in there (no such thing as “perfect” acoustic … went to Carnegie hall and it’s great for classical from audience perspective, really hard for performers and rock music in there? terrible for everyone) We have a room that is about the same size but with low, reflective ceilings and in there 10 people singing sounds like 100. Again, if you fully isolate drums or just have guitars, it could be even better! In our new facility (huge steel structure) the sound goes up and just stops so 100 people sounds like 10 people. Ouch! It sounds like no one is singing. It’s a temporary situation of meeting in the lobby until we can get into the main room, but I know we are going to need to design the room to be dead on the back wall to control PA sound, diffused on the sides to keep from ping ponging and live on the front wall and ceiling angled down at the congregation so they will hopefully be able to hear themselves better. I know lots of congregations with the same problem. Don’t fight your room. Keep tweaking it to make it better for the congregation!
Volume wise, you want high enough to really bring energy, but not so loud the crowd can’t hear themselves singing. People want to get lost in the ambience, not pick out their individual voice. Again, dead on top is really tough for that one.
Lights wise, I think lights turned low is good for intimacy and less self conscious, so you may have to play with it a little to find the right balance. I know some who are more apt to engage physically when they feel like they aren’t on the platform themselves at high noon with the whole town a watchin’ ….
4) not expected to sing. Key problem here. We have lots of drum appella (my word) and a cappella times to offset this.
Indeed, lots to lose. What a fabulous article! Thanks for sharing!!
I have hearing problems and can only use my hearing aids, turned off, to enter a church when the music starts. At that time the music is so loud it hurts my ears and I have to leave. Seems it is an ongoing problem. I have found this in Las Vegas, NV, and in Detroit metro. Even my family who are younger have noticed but the noise continues. I love to learn new worship songs and thoroughly enjoyed worship at my daughter’s house in Canton, MI on Sunday mornings. We would worship for at least an hour. Was such a surprise! We didn’t have to be whipped into a frenzy!
I like a lot of things in this article. I especially agree that church has become a “spectator sport”. People just come to see the “professionals” perform. It is really sad, and we must change that mentality in order for the church to be people, not a program.
However, I disagree with the section of this article that talks about how to deal with church members being slow to change. I am sick and tired of catering to members whose motto is “We’ve never done it that way before”. There is a reason God’s biblical blueprint includes and emphasizes shepherds as leaders. Sheep will not get where they need to go by themselves, without shepherds. The core issue with church members who are being shown what the Bible says about praising/worshiping God and don’t like it comes down to whether Jesus is truly Lord (the one who owns them). We need to quit sugarcoating things, patting them on the hand and telling them that it’s alright to drag their feet. The Bible calls them “stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears…always resisting the Holy Spirit!” (Acts 7:51). It’s time to stop baby-sitting!
I agree that to get the congregation more involved in the singing is to sing songs people know, or an easy one to sing, turn the volume down so everyone can enjoy the music and not be blasted out of the place. A good spiritual song can set the tone for the service, and most mininters I’ve talked with agree.