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Why they DO sing on Sunday…

May 27, 2014

As a worship minister, I find myself faced with all kinds of pressure to meet people’s expectations when it comes to what happens on a Sunday morning. I can always count on various requests for music coming my way. “Why can’t we have more rockin’ worship songs so I can sing, clap, raise my hands, and get filled with the Spirit?”, or, “Why can’t we have more traditional hymns so I can sing, clap, raise my hands and get filled with the Spirit?” Notice the ONLY difference there?  Yep…

Of course, these aren’t the only issues being faced in the Church today as it pertains to the musical portion of worship. (NOTICE: Music is only ONE FORM of worship, and not THE FORM of worship. It is always wise to remember that your entire life is meant to be an act of worship, not just what you do or don’t do on Saturday night or Sunday morning.) There has been a trend in the Church for the past two decades or so which has led to a paradigm shift in how music is handled. There are those who feel this shift in worship music has been quite detrimental to the communal structure of the corporate worship experience (corporate in this sense speaks to worshiping together as a body of believers, not leadership or organizational structure), causing many to stop singing altogether.

Thom Schultz is one of these who believes this is true of today’s worship gatherings, and said as much in a blog post entitled “Why They Don’t Sing on Sunday Anymore” that has been circulating amongst the worship leadership forums I happen to frequent online. While I understand his point of view, I do not necessarily agree with it. In order to explain my thoughts, I’ll post his here as well. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide for yourself where you stand on this issue. Frankly, it is yet another worship war with no end in sight. All I can say is, my people DO sing each and every Sunday, and I will attempt to show why.

Thom’s words will look like this

My words will look like this

Looking around the church last Sunday I noticed that the majority weren’t singing. And most of those who were singing barely moved their lips. The only voices I actually heard were those on stage with microphones.

That’s been the case for years now–in churches large and small. What used to be congregational singing has become congregational staring.

Even when the chipper “worship leader” in contemporary churches bounds on stage and predictably beckons everyone to “stand and worship,” the people compliantly obey the stand command, but then they turn into mute mannequins.

What’s behind this phenomenon? What happened to the bygone sounds of sanctuaries overflowing with fervent, harmonizing voices from the pews, singing out with a passion that could be heard down the street? I suspect it’s a number of unfortunate factors.

Spectator set-up. Increasingly, the church has constructed the worship service as a spectator event. Everyone expects the people on stage to perform while the pew-sitters fulfill the expectation of any good audience–file in, be still, be quiet, don’t question, don’t contribute (except to the offering plate), and watch the spotlighted musicians deliver their well-rehearsed concerts.

First off, I am saddened that Thom appears to experience this on a regular basis. Church was never meant to be a spectator sport. The emphasis on any given Sunday at most every Church should be for participation to happen. In my experience, however, the “spectator set-up” has to do with two factors.

1. the way in which the worship team (leader, band, vocalists, and techs) choose to present their worship offering. If we want people to join us in worship, we need to make worship accessible to them. This includes choosing singable songs, setting them in singable keys, and effectively teaching them to the congregation.

2. the willingness of those who are in the seats to actually get beyond themselves and participate. The whole “come in, sit down, shut up, and if you like it put some money in the plate” mentality is sinful and must be surrendered to God. 

Professionalism. It seems it’s paramount for church music to be more professional than participatory. The people in the pews know they pale in comparison to the loud voices at the microphones. Quality is worshipped. So the worshippers balk at defiling the quality with their crude crooning. It’s better to just fake it with a little lip syncing.

While there are some who might “balk at defiling the quality with their crude crooning”, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with striving for excellence in worship music. Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 14 both state the body of Christ to be “one body, many parts.” This means each of us is designed with specific talents and gifted with specific spiritual gifts in order to serve effectively in the body. The “come one come all” mentality equates to a “mediocre is good enough for God” mentality, which again, is sinful. God deserves our best, and that means the worship team should strive for excellence in all they do. From nailing the guitar part to singing in 3 part harmony to making sure the audio mix is good to putting the words up on the screen at the right time, professionalism shows a desire and passion to give God the absolute best we have to offer. 

Blare. The musicians’ volume is cranked up so high that congregants can’t hear their own voices, or the voices of those around them, even if they would sing. So they don’t sing. What would it add? The overwhelming, amplified sound blares from big speakers, obliterating any chance for the sound of robust congregational singing.

It is important here to point out the potential pit-falls of this statement. “Blare” can be a valid issue, as the sound pressure levels may indeed be too loud. However, it can also be a stereotypical response to a different style of music. The sound, if mixed correctly, should sound “full”, but not be “loud”. This is a training issue I constantly stress with our techs. Everything needs to be heard, including the people singing in the congregation.

Perceived volume is always an issue in church as well. I remember serving at a Nazarene church in the early 2000’s. They replaced a set of smaller speakers with a set of larger ones, and still set the volume at the same level. The audio tech received 3 times as many complaints about the loudness of the music, simply because the speakers were bigger! I also remember serving in a small Christian church where the band (all in direct boxes with headphone monitors) was always too loud and the bass (which I play) was always too boomy. BUT… fire up the pipe organ (which was louder than the band!) was just right… In our situation, we run about 87 decibels with peaks of 93-94, which is just a little bit above the noise threshold on a busy night at the Olive Garden. Our people can hear themselves, we can hear them, and it gives everyone cause to sing together.

Music choice. Sometimes people refrain from singing because the songs are unfamiliar, hard to sing, or just cheesy. Sometimes worship leaders choose a song that may thematically tie into the day’s sermon topic, but it’s unsingable. Sometimes worship leaders choose lame songs written by their favorite songwriters–themselves.

Funny thought on this: Why are hymns so well-sung in many churches?  Because they are FAMILIAR. How did they become familiar? Because they were TAUGHT and SUNG REGULARLY. If you want your people to sing, TEACH THEM THE SONGS!  We bring in 5-6 new songs per year, and usually hang onto about 3-4 of them for an extended period of time. When teaching them, we play them in consecutive weeks, even past the point where the band is sick of rehearsing them. Why? When the band is sick of it, the congregation has just about got it down. This is the gospel truth my friends…

As mentioned earlier, don’t choose songs that are not congregationally friendly, or if you just have to have that song, adjust the arrangement to make it singable. Change the key so ladies aren’t in the stratosphere and guys aren’t in the basement. Play it enough that it becomes familiar! Some new songs are cheesy, and have bad theology. NOTICE: Some hymns are the same way!!  I mean, why would we sing “Bringing In The Sheaves” today? Does that actually have a context outside the farming community in the 21st Century church?

One other note here: “Lame” songs are in our hymnals,”Lame” songs are on our favorite Christian radio station, and yes, “Lame” songs are being written by local worship leaders all over the world. However, AMAZING worship songs are being written by local worship leaders all over the world as well. How do you think Jack Hayford, Bill Gaither, Chris Tomlin, Matt Maher, and Paul Baloche got their start?  By writing for the local church. Even if it doesn’t match up with your particular favorite style, don’t discount the sweat equity that may have gone into writing that song you dislike so much. 

Sooo… bottom line here: Why do the people at my church sing with all they have each and every Sunday regardless of the flavor of song we’re leading?

1. because we actually lead the song by taking the time to arrange it, put it in a singable key, rehearse it to the point where they can pick it up more easily, and teach it several weeks at a time.

2. because we give our best to God by practice and preparation, knowing it is His job to create the return on investment, otherwise known as His blessing of our efforts to give Him our best.

3. because our people are learning to put aside sinful prejudice and personal opinion for the sake of kingdom building. Example: Not only did I see an 80+ year old couple belting out The Stand by Kristian Stanfill last week, I sat behind them during the message, and the wife was using HER PHONE AS HER BIBLE!!! Doesn’t matter the age, everyone can learn and implement something new!

4. Because, at the heart of the matter, our church understands that we exist to love God and love people. That means personal preference has no place to stand. Building the kingdom is more important than having the music done our way. God’s plan is higher than our desire.

And THAT, my friends, is why they DO sing on Sunday at GPCC. My hope is your people do too.

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