The Slow Killing of Congregational Singing

Here is a great historical irony. Fifty years ago choirs ruled the church. Usually, they were supported by a very loud organ. To be frank, many choir members were performers, and when the choir was large they drowned out the singing of the congregation. So, sadly, the very people appointed to help the congregation sing actually smothered congregational singing. Bit by bit, choirs disappeared. I think most churches didn’t mourn the loss. 

Here’s the irony: we then replaced the choirs with song leaders (or, what we inaccurately call ‘worship leaders’). Over time the number of song leaders grew and grew until they became as big as a choir. Then we gave the song leaders full-volume microphones and electrical instruments, and many became performers. When the music team was large and the microphones were turned up they drowned out the congregation. So, sadly, the very people appointed to help the congregation sing actually smothered congregational singing.

Here’s the irony. The number of song leaders grew and grew until they became as big as a choir. When the music team was large and the microphones were turned up they drowned out the congregation.

A few years ago I wrote an article entitled, ‘The Slow Death of Congregational Singing’ (The Briefing, April 2nd, 2008). I now believe my title was too generous. In fact, what we are witnessing in our churches is ‘The Slow Killing of Congregational Singing’.

I’ve just returned from another National Christian conference. Never have so many people complained to me about the singing. So, I am motivated to write again. Or, to use a more appropriate metaphor, to bang the same drum—but louder.

Paul tells us in Ephesians that we should be, “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs…” (5:19). Similarly, in Colossians we are exhorted to, “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (3:16). Singing is a corporate activity with a dual focus. We sing “to one another” and we sing “to God”. But now in many (most?) churches we are sung to by the musicians.

In the past I’ve been reluctant to accuse our worship teams of being primarily performers. I now believe I was wrong. Evidence suggests that most are performers, and the needs of the congregation they are meant to be ministering to are forgotten. Why do I say this?

Signs of Trouble

First, they don’t look at the congregation they’re meant to be leading. The musicians can, perhaps, be excused here but not the song leaders. I tell preachers I mentor there is nothing more important in delivery than eye contact. People must know that you are talking to them, and you must be able to see that they are attentive to your words. This is also true for the song leaders. Indeed, they need both eye and ear contact. Are people singing the songs they’re leading? In most cases I observe that it’s irrelevant to the song leaders whether the people are singing or not. Why? I conclude because the singing event is primarily about them.

Second, they sing new songs but don’t teach the new songs. At this conference it was announced that the next song would be a new one. At that point, the role of the song leader is to teach this song to the people. Mind you, I wonder if any of those leading singing are trained to teach new songs? This is important because a number of new songs are difficult to sing. But we were not taught the song. The band just began to play. If we were able to eventually pick it up, all well and good. If not (and in this case it seemed that many didn’t), no problem. Why? I conclude: because it’s not about the singing of the congregation it’s about the performance of the band.

Third, the amplifiers of the instruments and microphones are so loud that, normally, the only voices heard are the voices of the song leaders. Rarely is the volume turned down so that the congregation can be heard. Why? I conclude because it’s not about the singing of the congregation, it’s about the singing and performing of the band. 

Fourth, the song choice often doesn’t take into consideration the makeup of the audience. Thoughtful song leaders would ask questions like, what songs do these people know? What songs do they enjoy singing? What songs are appropriate for this occasion? Are the words edifying and do they tell us the gospel story? Too often, the songs chosen seem to be the songs the band know and enjoy singing. Why? Because it’s not about the congregation.

Fifth, what does a music team do if they become aware that the people they are leading are not following? What do they do if, for whatever reason, the people aren’t singing the song? The answer is, they do nothing. Indeed, they are normally unaware of the fact because, as I said, their focus is not on the people to whom they are ministering. I remember some years ago we were singing a song (or meant to be) and for some reason the projector wasn’t working and none of the words of the song were on the screen. Since it was not a well-known song, nobody, apart from the song leaders were singing. We were half way through the third verse before any of the leaders realised that they were the only people singing. So, why don’t the musos stop to encourage and enable the people to sing? I conclude because it’s not about the singing of the congregation it’s about the performance of the band.

Why don’t the musos stop to encourage and enable the people to sing? I conclude because it’s not about the singing of the congregation it’s about the performance of the band

So, why does it matter and what do we do? It matters because congregational singing is such an important part of our weekly gatherings. Rob Smith and I develop this point in our book, The Songs of the Saints (Sydney: Matthias Media, 2017). If people seemed inattentive to the sermons, we’d be concerned. If people weren’t saying ‘Amen’ to public prayers, we’d want to rectify that. If the only voice heard in the recitation of the creed, or the public confession of sins were the leader of the gathering, then we’d remind people that this is a corporate activity. But if many people aren’t singing in church then we’re happy to permit this to continue. After all, we don’t want to offend the song leaders.

What to do? I’m calling for a moratorium on ‘worship leaders’. I attended a conference overseas recently. The singing was led by one woman with a microphone (not too loud) accompanied by a piano. More than 500 people were present and we heard each other singing. In a sense, the people were the real choir, and that’s how it should be. We don’t need 10 people on stage, all amped up to the max. We don’t have to follow the model of Hillsong and Planetshakers. In too many churches, and at too many events, the voices of the people have been hijacked and buried out of sight and sound. It’s time to reclaim our lost voices in congregational singing.


 Photo: pexels.com

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