What Happened To Singing In Church?

Kyle Smith


Photo by NATHAN MULLET on Unsplash

This is the first post in a 5-part series examining the important but rarely-discussed question of why people don’t sing as much in church anymore. This post will lay the foundation. The rest of the series will look at the cultural, environmental, leadership, and musical factors that have contributed to a decline in congregational singing.

I’m addressing this issue because worship services are one of the most important meeting points for art and faith. I hope you enjoy our journey into the world of worship leading and church music. You can check out other posts in the series below:

Part 2: Cultural Factors

I started leading worship in the late 1980’s when I was a teenager. I grew up in a small country church in southern Missouri, and we only sang hymns on Sunday morning. Back then, you were called a “song leader” instead of a “worship leader.” I would work with my friend Chris, who was a phenomenal pianist, and every Sunday we would pick out a few hymns before the service.

Today worship services in growing churches are much different. There are various kinds of media, bands using click tracks, complex sound and lighting systems, and lots of planning and rehearsal.

This is neither good or bad—it’s just the way that we “do church” today. Change is inevitable, and the church must adapt its methods and strategies according to what works best in a particular cultural setting. If you don’t adapt and change, you die.

Why I’m writing about this

That being said, one of the side effects of what I call a “production emphasis” in modern worship is that people don’t seem as engaged in singing. One of my jobs as a writer is to make observations and report on what I see. What I usually observe in any type of modern worship setting is a large percentage of people who aren’t singing, aren’t engaged, and are doing more watching than participating.

If there’s one thing I have learned in my decades of experience with worship ministry, it’s this: everyone has an opinion about music. When people are discussing this topic, they often respond with pure emotion instead of calm, reasoned, rational thinking.

I am declaring this series of posts a “no-drama” zone. I will do my best to lay out the reasons I believe people don’t sing as much in church anymore. More important, I want to offer what I hope are some intelligent, reasonable solutions.

You might ask why I’m writing about this in the first place. There are several reasons:

  • I care about pastors and worship leaders, and want to offer my thoughts on why people aren’t engaging as much these days, and well as give some ideas for solutions.
  • Congregational singing has been an important part of “faith expression” for thousands of years. I want to know why engagement has declined in the modern church.
  • I rarely hear anyone in church leadership circles talking about this issue.

If you’re a pastor, church leader, worship leader, worship team member, or a Christian who has an interest in creating more engagement in worship gatherings … this series is for you. If you don’t fall into any of those categories, you’ll at least learn a few things about church music.

Before we get into specifics reasons for the decline of congregational singing (and some solutions) in the rest of the series, it’s important to lay a bit of groundwork and briefly look at why singing is an important part of worship in the first place.

Why does singing matter?

Singing as an element of worship has strong roots in biblical practice and church history. But to keep things brief, let me share three basic reasons why singing in church matters:

1. Singing is a way to express our worship.

The Bible is filled with examples of people worshiping through song.

In Exodus 15, Moses and Miriam lead the Israelites in a song of praise after crossing the Red Sea. The longest book of the Bible, Psalms, is the worship songbook of ancient Israel. In Luke chapter 2, we find songs by Mary, Zechariah, and the angels during Jesus’ birth narrative. The book of Revelation contains a number of hymns that play an important role in the book’s structure.

These are only a few examples. Singing plays the same role in our lives as it did for God’s people in times past: it’s a way for us to express our love and devotion to our Creator.

2. Singing has a teaching function.

You would be hard-pressed to remember the main points from a recent sermon, but I’ll bet you can easily sing more than a few worship songs by heart. Why? Because music has built-in devices like rhythm and rhyme that help it stick in our memories.

Worship songs have an important role in teaching us about God, Scripture, and even ourselves. For that reason, the worship leader has an important teaching role within the church.

In some ways, it surpasses the responsibility of the pastor. The pastor is speaking words to people, but the worship leader is selecting songs that people will then sing back to God and one another. They’re literally putting words in people’s mouths, and that’s a huge responsibility.

3. Singing helps build community.

When people sing and make music together, it unites them emotionally. This is why people who were in bands, choirs, or musicals in high school and college generally have great memories of those experiences. Music is such a powerful force that it can draw diverse groups of people together.

In the church, there is also a spiritual component at work. Something special and unique happens when God’s people set aside their individual differences and come together to worship Him through music.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder, a fantastic (and very readable) commentary on Revelation:

Moses sings. Miriam sings. Deborah sings. David sings. Mary sings. Angels sing. Jesus and his disciples sing. Paul and Silas sing. When persons of faith become aware of who God is and what he does, they sing. The songs are irrepressible.
– Eugene Peterson

For these reasons and many others, congregational singing is an important art form, as well as a vital way to express worship and community.

If you want to explore the role of music in worship even further, check out my master’s thesis, Worship Leadership in the Bible. It’s not light reading, but it’s filled with helpful info about the role of music in worship.

In the next post, we’ll look at several cultural factors that have impacted singing in church.

Let me hear from you. What do you see as the main benefits of singing in church? Are there some others I neglected to mention?

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St. Louis, MO

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