Great Stuff — Why men have stopped singing in church

A “Great Stuff” post found over on Patheos.com by David Murrow

 

worship_band-300x200It happened again yesterday. I was attending one of those hip, contemporary churches — and almost no one sang. Worshippers stood obediently as the band rocked out, the smoke machine belched and lights flashed. Lyrics were projected on the screen, but almost no one sang them. A few women were trying, but I saw only one male (other than the worship leader) making the attempt.

A few months ago I blogged, “Have Christians Stopped Singing?” I did some research, and learned that congregational singing has ebbed and flowed over the centuries. It reached a high tide when I was a young man – but that tide may be going out again. And that could be bad news for men.

First, a very quick history of congregational singing.

Before the Reformation, laypersons were not allowed to sing in church. They were expected to stand mute as sacred music was performed by professionals (priests and cantors), played on complex instruments (pipe organs), and sung in an obscure language (Latin).

Reformers gave worship back to the people in the form of congregational singing. They composed simple tunes that were easy to sing, and mated them with theologically rich lyrics. Since most people were illiterate in the 16th century, singing became an effective form of catechism. Congregants learned about God as they sang about God.

A technological advance – the printing press – led to an explosion of congregational singing. The first hymnal was printed in 1532, and soon a few dozen hymns became standards across Christendom. Hymnals slowly grew over the next four centuries. By the mid 20th century every Protestant church had a hymnal of about 1000 songs, 250 of which were regularly sung. In the church of my youth, everyone picked up a hymnal and sang every verse of every song.

About 20 years ago a new technological advance – the computer controlled projection screen – entered America’s sanctuaries. Suddenly churches could project song lyrics for all to see. Hymnals became obsolete. No longer were Christians limited to 1,000 songs handed down by our elders.

At first, churches simply projected the songs everyone knew – hymns and a few simple praise songs that had come out of the Jesus Movement. People sang robustly.

But that began to change about ten years ago. Worship leaders realized they could project anything on that screen. So they brought in new songs each week. They drew from the radio, the Internet, and Worship conferences. Some began composing their own songs, performing them during worship, and selling them on CD after church.

In short order we went from 250 songs everyone knows to 250,000+ songs nobody knows.

Years ago, worship leaders used to prepare their flocks when introducing a new song. “We’re going to do a new song for you now,” they would say. “We’ll go through it twice, and then we invite you to join in.”

That kind of coaching is rare today. Songs get switched out so frequently that it’s impossible to learn them. People can’t sing songs they’ve never heard. And with no musical notes to follow, how is a person supposed to pick up the tune?

And so the church has returned to the 14th century. Worshippers stand mute as professional-caliber musicians play complex instruments, sung in an obscure language. Martin Luther is turning over in his grave.

What does this mean for men? On the positive side, men no longer feel pressure to sing in church. Men who are poor readers or poor singers no longer have to fumble through hymnals, sing archaic lyrics or read a musical staff.

But the negatives are huge. Men are doers, and singing was one of the things we used to do together in church. It was a chance to participate. Now, with congregational singing going away, and communion no longer a weekly ordinance, there’s only one avenue left for men to participate in the service – the offering. Is this really the message we want to send to men? Sit there, be quiet, and enjoy the show. And don’t forget to give us money.

There’s nothing wrong with professionalism and quality in church music. The problem isn’t the rock band, or the lights, or the smoke machine. The key is familiarity. People enjoy singing songs they know.

How do I know? When that super-hip band performed a hymn, the crowd responded with gusto. People sang. Even the men.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord, LCMSsermons.com, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at KNFA.net.

Comments

Great Stuff — Why men have stopped singing in church — 33 Comments

  1. Here’s a bio on David Murrow, author of Why Men Hate Going to Church and How Women Help Men Find God. Murrow also is the founder of Church for Men, which offers a 35-minute training DVD on “Ten Ways to Man Up Your Church – Without Scaring the Women and Children Away.”

    One way is to have a “Go for the Guys Sunday” service, like, for example, Pastor Curtis “Wild Thang” Tucker preaching from the seat of a custom motor bike during “Big Iron Sunday” at Westwood Christian Fellowship in Weatherford, Texas.

  2. Another concern is whether the near-gold liturgical color of the pastor’s mitre was appropriate for the June 19, 2011, “Big Iron Sunday” service.

  3. Most Catholic churchgoers do not sing. The cantor and three other people are perched in the loft next to the organ, singing beautifully as the parishioners gaze in silence towards the altar.

  4. LEST WE FORGET :

    Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word
    By: Martin Luther
    Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word;
    Curb those who by deceit or sword
    Would wrest the kingdom from your Son
    And bring to nought all he has done.

    Lord Jesus Christ, your power make known,
    For you are Loud of lords alone;
    Defend your holy Church that we
    May sing your praise triumphantly.

    O Comforter of priceless worth,
    Send peace and unity on earth;
    Support us in our final strife
    And lead us out of death of life.

    Hymn # 334 from Lutheran Worship
    Author: J. Klug
    Tune: Erhalt Uns, Herr
    1st Published in: 1543

  5. I talked with my brother about this. He never sings in church. He’s a Baptist, or at least worships in a Baptist church now, and says that the songs are so evanescent that he doesn’t bother to learn the song du jour because it will never be sung again, just cast aside for another unmemorable song next week. However when a hymn, that he remembers from his childhood, is sung he loves it and chimes in at the top of his voice.

    @Mark Huntemann #6

    Lord, keep us in thy Word and work,
    Restrain the murderous Pope and Turk,
    Who fain would tear from off thy throne
    Christ Jesus, thy beloved Son.

  6. @Joyful Noise #4
    It gets more and more painful.

    Does, doesn’t it!? 🙁

    When we were in grade school, everyone sang. Nobody was told they “couldn’t sing”.
    [Everyone played games outdoors, too. Nobody restricted such activity to a few on the “sports teams”.]
    We’ve become a nation of spectators…and it’s rubbed off on congregational activity, including singing.

    Fix it? Sing real hymns in SS, so that the children aren’t ready to barf at the childish ditties by second grade. (Added advantage: they know some of the hymns in church.) If your child can read, he can put away the SS coloring book and follow along in the hymnal with you. Actually, many children taught to listen instead of play, will have learned the liturgy before they can read.
    [That assumes a real and consistent liturgy, of course, which even helps the adults “do church”.]

  7. Yes it is a sad state of affairs in our Lutheran churches when the people, particularly men, refuse to sing. At least this has been my experience at my congregation.

    I did go to the website of Trinity Lutheran Church in Sheboygan, WI this afternoon and noticed that they had a hymn festival on April 28 of this year celebrating the 160th anniversary of their church. It is recorded at http://www.trinitysheboygan.org. Scroll down to View Recordings of Services and then to Trinity Anniversary Hymn Festival. You will find there wonderful singing with adult choirs, children choirs, handbells, instruments of all kinds and the congregation, especially the men singing with great joy!

  8. A former pastor of mine, years after I’d left home due to work requirements, rode his motorcycle into the sanctuary at the beginning of the service. Never would have expected it

  9. A friend of mine is Church of Christ which uses no instruments. Wow can they sing. She invites me to their once a year song night. It isn’t really a service. There is just a brief welcome to everyone and then they let the singing begin. It goes for about an hour and a half and then they have a little social. That little church is packed and everyone is singing. It is so fun.

    I think there just has to be some kind of concerted effort to teach people to sing. Diane notes a church that has made the effort. When such efforts are made, it brings great joy and fellowship to all involved. It is worth the effort.

    Okay, this is spooky. The last three characters of the captcha code are the initials of my friend who invites me to song night. Cue twilight zone music.

  10. Singing together also provides a psychological kick of getting people to feel closer to each other.

  11. @Diane #9 — Our church is at the other end of Sheboygan County, southwest of Sheboygan. Click my name for our church website … and nose around the Sunday School area of the site, and see what we teach our children during the year: Hymns, liturgy, and portions of the catechism set to music by Phil Magness. It’s working in our church, too. Slowly, but surely.

  12. Your experience isn’t true in all contemporary, band-led worship services, as I’m sure you realize. Those who attend our contemporary service enjoy participation. Part of our success is the band–they realize that their job is to lead singing, not perform a concert. We are blessed to have a music director/band leader who is a firm Christian who realizes this.

    I hope that your statement, “In short order we went from 250 songs everyone knows….” wasn’t meant to be as complete as implied, because “everyone” would be those who grew up using the traditional Lutheran services in the hymnal, and could indicate that there is little presence of new, unchurched, people who have been drawn into the place of worship by the Holy Spirit working through the people of the congregation. We are not called to grow biologically, but by witness and the power of the Holy Spirit. He, by the way, can work His calling in any Christian worship service that presents the true Word of God through called pastors who follow Christ as Lord.

  13. @Erich #7
    It never ceases to amaze me how clear this is when you speak with the Baptist laity for 5 minutes, yet how oblivious to this their pastors insist on being. It’s like they demand that the new, cool, and trendy HAS to be what their laity want more than anything, and if they want it, then it must be good for them. Neither is true! My brother, also a Baptist, is constantly complaining about the lousy music in his church. I try to explain to him it’s just an outgrowth of their theology, but the LCMS congregations in his area, unfortunately, are not drastically different. My parents have the same problem in their “community church.” My dad doesn’t even go on sundays (he does retirement home outreach instead) because he just feels like a round peg in a square hole. I propose this is exactly what the vast majority of evangelical churches are doing to anybody who doesn’t love every piece of crap that comes off the CCM press.

    In the churches where the hymnals were thrown away and traditional repertoire discarded, the laity are spiritually starving. Ironically, in the LCMS, with all our wealth of resources, many roll their eyes when an “old” song gets trotted out and giggle with glee the moment they hear something from KLove. I get it when the youth do this: they haven’t been around long enough to see the disposable nature of much of the pop they think is great now. But the adults should know better. They know they love more and sing better the sentimental gems from the vault, but too many treat them as if absence makes the heart grow fonder. This, to me, highlights one of the dangers of an approach to church that caters to youth interests. The only thing I can conclude is that the old Adam does not naturally love music that points him to Christ. Wise pastoral and musical leadership seeks this above all else, and persevers through the inevitable whining.

    I work in a VERY musically diverse LCMS congregation as the music director. We sing mostly old hymns, when I can get away with it. But since I am competent enough with the praise teams, it seems that so many think they can finally get their doxological wishlists granted. You should see some of the stuff that I get requested to sing/perform/add to our repertoire. The requests clearly show a complete lack of critical thought when it comes to the role of music in worship. It sounds cool, it’s “Christian,” and it really “ministers” to me! It’s like we’ve adopted hook, line, and sinker, the Evangelical criteria for what makes a good worship song: 1. Is it new? 2. Does it sound cool? 3. Do I like it? 4. Does it make me feel good? 5. Is it “Christian”? 6. Is it on the radio? 7. Is there no blatant Islam, Hinduism, or Satanism in the lyrics? What can one do to help Lutherans stuck in this mindset? End rant.

  14. @sue wilson #15
    Sorry, Sue, but in my former CoWo years I find your positive experience to be the exception rather than the rule… and I’ve also found that those notable exceptions eventually begin to succumb to the rule that David referenced before.

    For your church’s sake I hope you can walk that VERY fine line between trend and true worship, but I speak for experience when I saw that CoWo more often than not loses that balance.

  15. I think all this gender bullying is a terrible thing. In my church neither men nor women sing.

  16. From the main post: “People can’t sing songs they’ve never heard. And with no musical notes to follow, how is a person supposed to pick up the tune?”

    For that matter, how do people who cannot read music manage? By listening, of course. I’ve seen an old German Lutheran hymnal that had only words, not music.

    @Mrs. Hume #11
    I visited a Church of Christ congregation in Texas some time ago. There were no instruments. Everyone sang lustily, and in 4-part harmony!

  17. @Miguel #16
    It’s like we’ve adopted hook, line, and sinker, the Evangelical criteria for what makes a good worship song:

    My solution: I don’t listen to “Christian radio”…

    @Carl H #19
    For that matter, how do people who cannot read music manage? By listening, of course. I’ve seen an old German Lutheran hymnal that had only words, not music.

    Only one? When I was given a hymnal “with music” for confirmation, they were new in our church. And truth to tell, the old little ones w/o music were easier to carry around.

    Listening implies hearing a hymn more than once. In traditional liturgical churches, this will happen as the hymns change with the church calendar but not on the whim of Pastor or organist.
    Garrison Keillor has a great piece on Lutheran singing (but I’m afraid it isn’t true any more). 🙁

    “But nobody sings like they do.

    If you ask an audience in New York City, a relatively Lutheranless place, to sing along on the chorus of ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore’, they will look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this among Lutherans they’ll smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!

    Lutherans are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony. It’s a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Lutherans to sing in harmony. We’re too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you’re singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment.

    I once sang the bass line of Children of the Heavenly Father in a room with about three thousand Lutherans in it; and when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.”

  18. @helen #20
    Helen,
    Thanks for the quote from Garrison Keillor. I’d heard it before but forgot it. It is truly a glorious thing to be at an event or church with Lutherans singing in harmony. I’ve been to the Good Shepherd Institute in Fort Wayne a few times and they have a hymn festival in the evening. The acoustics in Kramer Chapel are outstanding-no carpeting or padded seats anywhere. Oh, did we sing our hearts out! Truly heaven on earth for a little while, anyway:)

    In Christ,
    Diane

  19. @helen #8
    At one time, Helen, Lutherans were known for singing in harmony, even in the Divine Service. That’s not just the imaginings of Garrison Keillor. My grandchildren knew much of the liturgy by kindergarten. That’s from using the same liturgy every week rather than the pastor trying to come up with new responses every service to show how talented he is. I’m no fan of Creative Worship either.

  20. @helen #20

    Helen, when I replied to your previous post, I hadn’t read far enough to realize that you also mention Garrison Keillor.

    I think it is important that pastors explain to their congregation why some contemporary music just isn’t acceptable. It doesn’t take long to realize how many of the CoW songs are all about “me” rather than what God has done for me. I think people can realize the difference when properly instructed.

  21. @helen #20
    Good for you. I don’t either: Listening for more than five minutes has the potential to send me into a hysterical fit. Too much that just irks me. But it just seems that as soon as you start using a praise band, every KLove or Air1 listener in the congregation thinks that they’re finally gonna get to hear all their favorite heterodox entertainment choices on Sunday morning. It just grinds my gears.

  22. @sue wilson #15

    . We are not called to grow biologically, but by witness and the power of the Holy Spirit.

    We are told to do both. God gives children and gives His Holy Spirit. He gives us everything. If He gives us many children, then sure we may be grateful for His giving us such tremendous blessing, but we may not boast of it. Likewise, He may bring many to faith through some of His servants, but they may not boast either. We do not save. Jesus saves.

  23. @sue wilson #15

    .

    We are not called to grow biologically, but by witness and the power of the Holy Spirit. He, by the way, can work His calling in any Christian worship service that presents the true Word of God through called pastors who follow Christ as Lord.

    The complaint against some songs, activities, services that fall under the profoundly vague label of contemporary is that they are stripped of the content of the Word of God. The liturgy is entirely comprised of direct quotes from the scriptures. Hymns are generally detailed and specific in content. If you have ever heard Wolfmueller and Goeglein evaluate a song line by line, then you know how very empty many songs can be. They are not clear like our LSB hymns are. The content is so vague as to allow the hearer to believe it means what he wants it to mean.

  24. Having recently transferred from Bethany Naperville to a congregation that engages contemporary music (in fairness they also have tradition and “blended” services) I feel like, after a year, I am able to speak with some credibility. I might suggest that what men (and many women too) are stripped of isn’t simply the “doing this together” but a real opportunity to offer our praises to the Lord. Lifting up our praise in song is an important part of our worship and I, for one, simply cannot as I don’t know the songs, melodies, etc. And it is true, the songs are on a rotation never to be seen again after one weekend on the screen. If one considers 4-7 hymns as a rather significant part of the Divine Service (as I do), then an enormous piece of the worship experience has been taken away. And this is on a June Sunday. What of Easter? Good Friday? Reformation Sunday? on and on…

    If the past is prologue then contemporary church music will pass away as fads never last. But how long will we wait?

  25. @Paul #29

    If one considers 4-7 hymns as a rather significant part of the Divine Service (as I do), then an enormous piece of the worship experience has been taken away.

    And from whom has it been taken?

    Very often it has been taken from our children and youth. These are people who never had the chance to learn and appreciate the hymns of the church. These are the people who never had the chance to share in that common vernacular with many other Christians including their own parents and grandparents. It is dishonest to say that youth reject traditional worship. The truth is that is was preemptively rejected on their behalf, before they ever got the chance to really taste it.

  26. Norm states that, “Reformers gave worship back to the people in the form of congregational singing. They composed simple tunes that were easy to sing, and mated them with theologically rich lyrics.” If only the authors of the LSB could have done the same! While the liturgy is wonderfully set in LSB, it is still, after several years, quite difficult for me to sing well. I’ve not had any music training since eighth grade which may play a part, but I suspect the majority of worshipers everywhere fall into a similar category. While I’m certain that the LSB liturgy could be sung easily by the choirs of any Concordia college, that is the wrong target audience for the liturgy.

    When I grew up it was TLH 5/15/Matins/Vespers every service with little change. It was so memorized that I rarely cracked open the hymnal to the liturgy except to read a psalm. The LSB requires that I follow closely and try to follow the music as best as I can. I do know others have more trouble with this than I do. OTOH, our pastor’s wife can sing the whole thing very well!

    But why don’t men sing? For me I think that during my teenage years what with puberty and all, the voice cracking and all that became embarrassing so I know I sang at a much lower volume than as a youth. However, I worked through that and enjoy singing again–when I can do so well. Unfortunately, some men never recovered and are still rather mute during the service. For my part, I had an “upper room” teacher, Roger Schepmann who recently retired from pastoral ministry, who had a real love for music and for four years I received a pretty good musical training along with others in the classes around mine. Of course, not everyone finds singing to be their thing and even his instruction was lost on some in the grades 5-8 range.

    While we may fear getting into a rut, the fact is that the roof will be raised with an easily sung and familiar tune. Some of the newer and more complex tunes are nearly mute in our services. Over time they may get more familiar but if they’re only sung once or twice a year, I doubt it. There is a reason the choir practices! The rest of the congregation gets one shot at some unfamiliar tune.

    Simple, easily sung tunes are the key, IMO.

  27. A friend is Pastor of one of our smaller congregations. When he wishes to introduce a new hymn, he prefers that the organist first use it as a prelude or offertory music, so the the melody becomes somewhat familiar before the congregation attempts to sing the words.
    And then the hymn needs to be sung several times with in a short span so that it becomes learned.
    We are not all musicians but we can all sing the hymns if we are willing to just relax, open our mouths and not worry too much if every note is perfect! (That’s for the choir.)

    We should remember that we are singing to God and he can cover wrong notes, too. 😉

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