As a pastor who leads worship, I am well aware of every type of argument on every side of the worship wars. One important discussion is regarding the decrease of congregational singing. In a majority of congregations, people are lamenting the fact that people just don’t sing as much as they used to sing.
While I have read many reasonings on why this is happening, there is ultimately two reasons as to why people don’t sing in worship services anymore:
- It’s the worship leader’s fault.
- It’s the worshipper’s fault.
When people don’t sing in church worship services, it is either the fault of the worship leader or the worshiper.
Why It Could Be the Worship Leader’s Fault
- Using Too Many New Songs. I am not against new songs. In fact, the Bible commands singing new songs to the Lord (Ps. 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Is. 42:10; Rev. 5:9; 14:3). But worship leaders, you must realize that you listen to more worship music than your congregation. You have rehearsed this song numerous times while your congregation may hear it once a week. Use new music, but ration it out and take your time with it. I try to introduce about one new song a month and we sing it a bunch during those initial weeks.
- Singing in the Key of the Original Recording. Most recorded worship music is arranged around a vocal soloist and so the song’s key highlights that individual’s awe-inspiring range. The majority of popular worship music is sung by a tenor. When a worship leader leads the song in that original key, most of the men in your congregation can’t reach the higher notes, and most of the women have to sing those notes in the lower “gutter” part of their range. To show you how extreme this can be, we led a great worship song weeks ago that was originally recorded in Db and we led the song in G. For non-music folk, that is actually 6 notes lower in the piano. While our singers could sing the original, we dropped the key so that the congregation could also sing the song. Our singers didn’t sound as jaw-dropping as the recording, but the congregation sure did! While there are songs with a wide vocal range and some songs need to have a moment where you reach a bit musically, make sure you are cognizant of where the average worshiper can sing (and stay singing). You can even adjust the key through this free online service and give your team something more accurate (and sometimes funny) to practice with. The goal is to get them to sing to the Lord (Ps. 48:1) and to one another (Col. 3:16) – not just to hear you sing.
- Failing to Encourage Audience Participation. Encouraging people to sing is more than a call to stand up. There are certain minor adjustments you can make to encourage the people to sing (Ps. 102:22). I am constantly asking the question: “How can we encourage more congregational singing?” Here are a few things you can do that might help out dramatically:
- Brighten Up the Room. I know there are plenty of people who believe in mood-lighting a worship service, but we did a social experiment over a few weeks just to watch the correlation between how bright a room was and how loud a congregation would sing. Despite the advice and practice of many experts, we have found that when the lights are up, the singers sing out more. Maybe it is because they don’t feel like they are viewing something but participating in something. It was an eye-opening discovery for us.
- Increase the Amount of Singers. Sometimes people don’t sing along because the melody is not established. When the song is bloated with too much ad libs or harmonies, the congregant singer can’t determine what part to sing. If you can, increase the amount of singers in your choir or band and have more people sing the melody line than are singing the harmony parts. As people in the congregation hear more voices singing the part, they join in and sing more. It just keeps increasing!
- Prioritize Vocals in the Sound Mix. There is a delicate balance in ensuring the music is not too soft or too loud. Either way, people will shy away from singing. A great balance is for the entire sound to be full but not loud. This allows people to be led by the leaders but also join in while hearing those around them sing. Make sure your audio technician keeps the vocals over the sound of anything else. The words must take priority (Col. 3:16). There is a sweet spot – find it!
- Change the Stage Arrangement. This tip may be not feasible for you, but I have arranged the way our leaders are on stage to complete the other side of the circle that the congregation’s chairs are arranged. Instead of a straight line of musicians, we are attempting (even while on a stage) to try to portray it even physically as something that we are all a part. We want it to feel more like we are in a living room singing together rather than a stage and a congregation.
Why It Could Be the Worshiper’s Fault
While there are other reasons regarding how a worship leader can be detrimental to congregational singing, one element that many articles leave out is this foundational issue:
Sometimes the lack of singing in worship is because the people aren’t worshipers.
Sure, your worship leader could improve. He or she is not perfect. There are ways they could do their job better. That’s why I started with them first. But what about you? Are you doing all you can do to commit to worship? Here’s why it might not be the worship leader’s fault but instead be the worshiper’s fault.
- The Worshiper Is Distracted. We are called to enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise (Ps. 100:4), but how can we do that when we are late, frantic, distracted, and concerned with the cares of the world? Get there early. Still your heart before the LORD (Ps. 46:10; Zech. 2:13). Prepare to meet with the Lord (Ex. 19:17). Be intentional even concerning where you sit!
- The Worshiper Is Picky. You will never leave a service thinking that every song was your absolute favorite. If the words are biblically sound (Tit. 2:2; Col. 3:16), you are going to have to fight against preferential selfishness (Phil. 2:2-4). You might be in danger of worshipping with the focus being all about yourself (Zech. 7:5-6). When did worship become about what we got out of it? I have never once gone into a hospital, watch a doctor operate one someone, and think that I could do better than him. Yet in churches, people who have not been trained, have not prayed, have not studied the Word, and have not prepared assume that they know better than someone who has done all of that. Be very careful. That pastor watches over your soul and if you make that process something for him to grieve, it will be unprofitable for you – not him (Heb. 13:17).
- The Worshiper Is Unaffectionate. If you are not growing in your personal devotion to the Lord, why would you express it through singing? Too many worshipers have left their first love (Rev. 2:4) and they need the joy of their salvation restored (Ps. 51:12). You need to fan that flame (2 Tim. 1:6)! Don’t blame your lack of singing based on your hatred of the music if you are lacking a love for the Lord. Pray that you can once again sing to him with joy (Ps. 100:1-2; 84:1-2; 43:4; 98:4-6; 33:3; 42:4; 47:1; 81:1; 95:1; 118:15; 28:7; 66:1; 71:23).
- The Worshiper Is Lost. You may not be singing because you have nothing to sing about. I say this out of love and concern. Scripture teaches to examine ourselves to determine if we are actually in the faith or not (2 Cor. 13:5). If you are still dead in your sin (Rom. 6:23; Eph. 2:5), how can you spiritually sing if you aren’t even spiritually alive? Have you ever believed in the gospel? Have you put your faith in Christ? The good news is something to sing about! Embrace it!
As you gather with the church this week, are you doing your part to sing to the Lord? Everyone else might not do diligence in their roles, but that doesn’t mean you have to neglect your part. God is listening to each individual heart anyway. Any excuse that blames another’s heart in the process won’t be allowed in that defense.
Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises (Ps. 47:6)!
Travis Agnew serves as the Lead Pastor of Rocky Creek Church in Greenville, SC. His most recent book is Distinctive Discipleship. He is married to Amanda and the father of two sons and one daughter. Travis graduated from North Greenville University with a B.A. in Christian Studies and earned his M.Div. and D.Min. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, with his doctoral focus on family discipleship.