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Unlock Your Creative Potential

Whatever Happened to Singing in Church? Part 2: Cultural Factors


This is the second post in a 5-part series examining the important but rarely-discussed question of why people don’t sing as much in church anymore. You can check out the previous post below.

Part 1: Foundations

In the first post, I shared three reasons why singing is an important part of our faith. But if it’s so important, why do so many people in church seem disengaged during the music?

There are a variety of factors, and several of these are cultural. I’ll highlight three specific ones and share my thoughts on what to do about them.

1. People aren’t used to singing publicly in groups.

In modern culture, people don’t publicly sing in groups very often. There are some exceptions, such as Christmas carols, “Happy Birthday,” “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and the national anthem. But in general, it’s not something we do very often.

When people come to church and sing in a large group for an extended period of time, it might feel a little unusual to visitors and newer Christians.

What you can do about it:

Be patient with people. One of the realities of being a church musician is that you spend a lot of time thinking about and practicing worship music. By the time you introduce a new song in a worship service, you have already listened to it dozens of times, rehearsed it repeatedly, and probably memorized it.

However, the average church member only thinks about worship songs on Sunday morning. Most people need time to learn songs, and they need a lot of encouragement to participate.

2. Art and music programs have been reduced or cut in some schools.

The arts do not seem to be as high a priority in the average school system as they used to be. In some school systems, funding has been cut or entirely removed for arts and music programs. The result? Students progress through their education with little or possibly no formal interaction with the arts.

This lack of awareness and exposure to the arts—particularly singing in groups—means that in the long run, young people are less interested in participating and engaging in the arts.

But it doesn’t just affect students. It also affects parents, teachers, and the entire community. Think about all the concerts, recitals, and performances that are a part music, drama, and arts programs.

What you can do about it:

The church’s response will vary according to the situation. But on the whole, churches have a great opportunity to help expose people to music and the arts in a biblically-grounded context. Over the long haul, we will have to pick up the slack and help educate people.

What we are seeing in the big picture is the breakdown of the Western educational model. It’s not only public schools that are struggling—it’s colleges and universities as well.

I believe what we will see over the next twenty years is the emergence of a new model that is actually based on a very old one: the medieval church/academy. The cutting-edge churches of tomorrow will not only continue to use technology to reach more and more people—they will also take more responsibility for educating people.

A prime example is my own church’s Merold Institute for Ministry. The Institute is not focused on arts education, but it’s a model of what the future holds for forward-thinking churches. We will see more and more of this old/new model taking shape in the coming years.

3. Singing in the church has been professionalized.

Today’s worship services are more professional than ever. We take great care to ensure that well-equipped and talented people are leading, singing, and playing in worship services. This is definitely a good thing!

But one of the side effects of an increased focus on excellence is that there is a wider perceived gap between the gifted and non-gifted. When a church begins to raise the bar of excellence, some people will not measure up by default. When they see talented people on stage, they may feel they aren’t gifted enough, or worthy enough, to participate.

This isn’t anyone’s fault–it’s just the nature of the beast. Of course, this effect is amplified when you have auditions or other processes in place to determine who can participate on stage.

I have always felt right at home on stage with a worship team. But if I were to walk into a locker room with a bunch of football players going over game strategy, I would feel completely lost and out of place. That’s how some non-musicians feel when they come into a worship service where singing and music is such a heavy focus.

What you can do about it:

Make sure people know they are welcomed and wanted, even if they’re not a musician. It’s also important for people on the stage to set an atmosphere of humility, inclusion, and acceptance.

I’m going to pause here and brag on my church again for a bit. Our worship teams do an exceptional job of balancing excellence and diversity in an atmosphere of humility. If you’ve ever in the St. Louis area, I’d love for you to join us for a service, and we’ll grab a coffee afterward!

Whenever you raise the bar of excellence, there will be people who don’t make the cut. As a young worship leader, this was difficult because I had to determine who did and didn’t make the vocal team. But the reality is that sometimes, people’s feelings will be hurt because they aren’t included. That’s the price of leadership.

In those moments, we must remember that we not only have a musical responsibility. We also have a pastoral one. If someone is not a good fit for a team, our job is to help direct them to a ministry or place of service where they can contribute in a meaningful way.

If you’re going to work with musicians or artists, you have to accept that there is always going to be a certain amount of personal drama and hurt feelings. It’s just part of the artistic personality. Some people are going to get their feelings hurt no matter what you do.

There’s another layer to this issue. We need to understand that some people in the congregation do not connect with God through music, and that is perfectly fine. When these people don’t seem to engage, it’s easy to feel we are doing something wrong, or they are upset with us. But sometimes, it’s just not the way they engage with God. Music is not a spiritual touchstone for everyone.

Liabilities or Opportunities?

It would be easy to see these cultural factors in a negative light. But every challenge represents an opportunity. When the culture shifts, the church must respond. Will we see the realities before us as liabilities to be avoided, or opportunities to seize?

We have an opportunity for the church to usher in a new renaissance of the arts. We are poised with the talent, technology, and cultural savvy to make a huge impact. The question is the same one it has always been: Will we rise to the challenge?

In the next post, we’ll look at several factors in the church environment that can impact singing, as well as the opportunities they represent.

Let me hear from you. What do you think about my analysis of the cultural factors impacting worship in the church today? What other factors would you add?

About Kent Sanders

I help people unlock their God-given creative potential. I live with my wife and son in St. Peters, MO. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or YouTube.

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  • Kent, so many great points here in this post! Well done!

    As a former musician, I think style comes into play a bit for me. I’m not saying you have to have the church singing Iron Man (I’ve seriously seen that happen!!!!), but I think the same style, all the time is a bit boring and dull. Very unartistic (at least to me).

    There are some songs flat out make me uncomfortable. Especially the songs where the lyrics make it indistinguishable if the song is about God or someone’s boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse. There are also more women than men in church. Combine those two together, and it’s no wonder I’m feeling a bit awkward.

    • I’ve never played Iron Man at church, but I have played Sweet Home Alabama. If you listen really closely, you’ll hear some Tesla licks thrown in for good measure 😉

      • Iron Man also had trippy Pink Floyd projections on the wall too of a robot of course. I still have nightmares about it, if I’m honest 😉 hahah

    • “Former” musician, Jim?? 🙂

      • Well, I can play…but it’s a hobby now vs. playing all the time 🙂

  • I currently play in a praise band and I agree with Jim about some of the music being dull. It’s like we’re stuck in U2’s shadow and don’t know how to get out from under it. Many of the songs have the same chord progression, are in the same key and go on and on.
    From as musical standpoint, that is boring.

    I go back and forth on song selection. I’ve heard that the key should match most people’s vocal range so they will feel more comfortable singing along and not be too complicated. Sometimes I think that moves us toward bland, superficial songs that don’t make us think about what and who we are singing about and to.

    I love this series and look forward to the next installment

    • Thanks, Eric. I appreciate you taking the time to comment. I hear what you are saying about copying U2’s sound. One of my students recently described modern worship as a math equation, where we add in the components and tracks that create a song or performance.

      I don’t think is unique to worship–it can also apply to sermons, programming, events, curriculum, etc. as churches are more and more using stuff that has been created by other church, usually larger ones. I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. Churches have been doing this for many years with Sunday school curriculum–using lessons that have been created by someone else. I wonder why we expect pastors to write fresh sermons every week, but we’re OK with teachers using someone else’s lessons.

      Back to music — from a pastoral and worship planning perspective I definitely understand why it’s better to use songs that are stylistically the same, use fewer songs in the rotation, use simpler songs, etc. It makes the planning and process a lot easier. But it does remove some of the creative element.

      • I think a simple acoustic set is a great way to avoid some of the issues mentioned above. Do you ever do that when you play Eric?

        • I really enjoy the simple acoustic sets. Kind of a change of pace from a normal full band.