Reading further in the Lifeway article on the role of music in church, it notes reasons many in today’s churches don’t sing.  Most are the fault of the church’s worship leader.

Knowing what to sing

The first is that folks don’t know the music.  Our church used to sing a lot of new choruses.  But then we’ve got several Christian radio stations.  When I lived in Massachusetts, there were none.  We didn’t hear many new choruses.  There, it would take several times singing to get the words down.  If you have a choir, teach the chorus to them and let them support the congregation at first.

Today, our church has the opposite problem.  The new worship pastor likes to use hymns as well.  The old folks love it, but the young people didn’t grow up with them, and it’s both foreign words and strange music.  Again, having a choir helps support the singing.

It’s too hard

The second reason is the range.  A lot of choruses are sung in the same key they are played on the radio.  By a Tenor.  Today’s choruses tend to be written for high voices, but most of  the congregation are middle to low voices, and a fairly small vocal range.  When the song exceeds their ability to sing it, they will quit singing.

Sounds like a concert

The third reason is that we present the music as a concert.  Many churches don’t have choirs, but only a worship band.  Often the music is loud, like a concert, in a warehouse situation, and even if the person did sing, they couldn’t hear the other voices around them.  It sounds like they are singing alone, and if they feel they don’t have a good voice, they’re not comfortable singing alone in public.

The solution would be to lower the volume of the instruments, or sing a capella some.  Sound management in the room (dampening, amplifying congregation sound, etc) can also help.


When people don’t sing, it’s because the music leader is picking music the congregation doesn’t know, or because they feel like they’re singing alone, or they don’t see how their singing adds to the sound, there being so much else from the band.

To improve congregational singing, the simplest is to have a choir, and to tone down the instruments some.

Mike Harland has written an intriguing article on the state of congregational singing in modern churches.  It raises questions about the role of music in the church.

Congregations not singing

His job as a xxx at Lifeway has led him to an understanding that”people do not sing like their parents and grandparents did. And even worse, the leaders of those churches don’t seem to know it.”

He notes that “worship has become very produced with visual enhancements and top sound re-enforcement.”  Not that it’s bad, in an of itself.  It actually helps the singing if the words are up on the screen, and not small words in a hymnal down in your hands.  It lets them “lift their voices” to the Lord.

The problem is when the it turns into a performance, and the musicians start treating the congregation like an audience.  In those cases, the music gets in the way of worship of God.


In every discussion about church growth and vitality, the conversation will inevitably turn to the role of music, and which style to use.  The speaker mentions a particular megachurch that started with 3 guys in a living room that also played guitar, and that brought a crowd and soon the 3 became 300 and then 3000.  The implication is that music brought and kept the crowds.

That’s really a false assumption.  There are thriving  churches with country music.  There are robust congregations that sing hymns.  There are active parishes with robes that sing chants.  Some use orchestras, some rock bands, some a piano and organ, some a CD player.  Some are a capella.

When music gets in the way

Matt Redman’s “The Heart of Worship” was written after his home church, Soul Survivor, in Watford, England, topped singing. The congregation was struggling to find meaning in the busyness, so pastor Mike Pilavachi decided to get rid of the sound system and band for a season.  “When the music fades, and all is stripped away…” was more than a good lyric.  It was how the church reconnected with the heart of worship, how the church family learned to be “producers in worship, not just consumers.”

Reconnecting the music

Eventually, Soul Survivor Church added back the music, but with purpose. The music was then to support the congregational worship, not an activity that mimicked worship.
Source: Crosswalk.com Song Story

I’ve been thinking through what it means to be church, what size is appropriate, and what forms are most useful for particular peoples.  This came in part from a lecture by David Garrison on Church Planting Movements, where an essential form of church can be constructed and rapidly reproduced (sometimes several generations a week).  The following weekend, Rabbi Sam Nadler, President of Word of Messiah Ministries, came to give training on planting a Messianic congregation.  Christmas eve, I an Episcopal midnight mass.  Neither of these models match what I see in my current congregation of 2700.*  Even the home congregation’s Christmas eve vespers service was atypical of them.

While shopping this week, I picked up Dan Kimball’s Emerging Worship.  Since it was Kimball and on the topic “emerging” I knew it would be different from my current experience.  I’ve only skimmed the book, but here’s what’s already working minmy brain:  What is the difference between big box church and what can be reproduced in smaller churches with very little budget?

By Big Box, I mean the megachurches that do everything, especially those that do everything for the attender.  There are some very large congregations that act like nimble smaller churches. 

For example, Central Christian Church (Henderson, NV) is quite large – the 3000-seat auditorium is filled 3 of its 5 services, and nearly so for the other 2.  They have 2 satellite campuses, and one of those has multiple services.  Yet they seem to spawn ministry easily to match needs.  They use ordinary people int he congregation to spawn new acts of service and study.

But more common is the auditorium church, with Disneyland parking lots to hold the thousands that come to their arena seats and watch the jumbotron of half a dozen professional singers and a well-paid preacher give just enough Gospel to make them feel good.  They pay a nominal admission fee (not quite the tithe) and go home, feeling good that they’ve met their minimum weekly requirement.

Kimball likens this to taking the car to the minimart service station – get a full tank of gas & a cup of coffee, and then on your way until next week.  You’ll come in periodically for the oil change (seminar) or periodic maintenance (conference).  But that’s all the level of participation that’s required.

I’ll take that analogy one step up, to the full-service Super Big Box (WalMart, KMart, Meyers, etc.)  There’s a gas station, true, but also a restaurant, coffee bar, bank , eyewear, electronics, books, food, etc.  It’s a one-stop experience.  In the variety of churches, I’ve seen snack bars open the public, Starbucks franchises, bookstores, DiscoveryZone kids’ playspaces, music schools, etc.  I applaud these services, and have used each at least once. (The Starbucks had a dollar-a-cup self-service honor station! Would that work outside the church?)

The question I will explore in the coming days is what alternatives are available to the Bix Box, and what Big Box practices are good and reproducable.  (Let’s not discount their value simply in reaction to the excesses of a few.)


*Note:  I’m not the pastor, but an active layman in that congregation, and a worker to strengthen other congregations.

On a facebook post today, pastor/teacher/student leader Alvin Reid quoted Jim Elliff’s call to worship leaders to “Raise the believers’ understanding of the beauty & power of God, & let emotions follow, not lead.”

In reply John Guetterman wrote:

Amen! singers singing the beauty and power of God from the place of divine revelation. This is the glory of corporate worship when we see Him as He is and we are invited into the realm if the spirit through the open door. We need singers who sing from encounter! We need preachers who preach from encounter! This is our hope for our nation to change… Read More… That God would raise up burning and shining lamps leading many to Jesus in this hour! People who have stood in the council of the Lord who speak from the place of knowledge that transcends understanding… We need the Spirit of Revelation. We need the Spirit of Prayer… We NEED GOD!!!

I remember attending a church that led our denomination in baptisms, a supposed indication of the power of their preacher as an evangelist.  However, when I got to know some of the members, I learned there was little followup, little understanding of what the Christian life was all about.  They were led by the emotion of the moment, and a number of those were rebaptisms (“The first 3 times weren’t real, but this time I know I’m saved!”)

You can’t sustain a church on emotion.  People wear out and quit if they live on the evangelism sugar high.  Teaching the congregation the truth of God, leading them to full understanding of their salvation, helping them see the beauty & power of God is what will set them afire and send them out as witnesses.  Their worship will remain beyond the benediction, their testimony will resonate at the restaurant, and their service will be sustainable, because it is all for the glory of God.