Why men have stopped singing in church

  • Worship band in the darkIt happened again yesterday. I attended 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.

    Last month 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. 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 with lyrics that people could easily memorize. Some of the tunes came out of local taverns.

    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 a decade 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 three years ago. Worship leaders 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.

    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. 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 today 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, and sing 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 here is familiarity. When that super-hip band performed a hymn, the crowd responded. People sang. Even the men.

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    February 7th, 2011 | David Murrow | 312 Comments | Tags: , , , , ,

About The Author

David Murrow

David Murrow is the director of Church for Men, an organization that helps congregations reach more men and boys. In his day job, David works as a television producer and writer. He's the author of four books. He lives in Alaska with his wife, three children, three grandchildren and a dachshund named Pepper.

  • Phil Burkhart

    Unfortunately, it appears that David Murrow has presented a biased view
    based on his apparent personal tastes in congregational singing and lack
    of holistic historical study. Congregational singing prior to the
    Reformation stretches far beyond his depiction of professionals singing
    in Latin. Go to the Old Testament and move forward through history to
    see the progression to see how it got to that point prior to the
    Reformation. It was not always in a foreign language by professionals.
    It is true that the Reformers sought to return singing to the people and
    emphasized personal worship and the printing press was a great
    invention to increase public participation in worship and help spread
    the Gospel. However, projection screens, worship leaders starting three
    years ago to bring in new worship songs every week, and failing to teach new songs is not an accurate portrayal of
    the realities of worship leadership. At one time the hymns that are
    dearly loved were new and needed to be learned by people and were
    introduced by worship leaders. Then Bill Gaither and Jesus Movement
    songs came and a new wave of tunes needed to be learned. With the
    advancement of technology and the Christian music industry came a new
    wave of song writing and resourcing for the church. All of these songs
    reflect the times they were written in and some were easy and some were
    challenging to learn. There are hymns with bad theology and lyrics just
    as new songs today. And it is equally true that there is great theology
    and inspirational lyrics in them as well. The bottom line is that David
    paints a picture to support his observation that men may not be singing
    in the church as much as they once were. Are there other factors that
    contribute to this than just modern worship music? I believe so and this
    article needs to reflect the depth of those problems. Otherwise, it
    just serves as divisive propaganda for church people looking for information to support their personal preferences.

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    So readers, who’s right? Phil or me?

  • Glynn Dunn

    Reading the article, I would like to offer another reason. My ladies just got back from a Women’s conference, a well known national worship leader/songwriter was the conference worship leader. My wife brought me back a recording of some of the services, what I noticed about that conference, and a lot of our worship music today is that the music was done Unison Prime. That is the ladies matched the pitch and sang what the the worship leader did. When the majority of ladies can match the pitch the song is usually really high, so the ladies drop the octave.
    Most of the men in our churches are not high tenors, when they try to sing what the worship leader is doing it hurts, when they drop the octave it sounds weird so most just choose not to sing. I think a lot of it could be solved by changing keys.
    I do agree with the idea that we need to be careful about doing only new songs, that leads to nobody singing, not just men.
    Loving the articles and the thoughts.


  • David Jordan

    In the “contemporary worship” churches that I have visited in the last couple of years, I have looked around and noticed no men and very few women singing at all. The worshipers may have been like me, and decided not to sing because of the spectacularly oppressive volume of the worship band in addition to the unfamiliarity of the songs. I left these services thinking the music was WAY too loud, the room much too dark, and the songs far too bland and obscure. Obviously, not all churches are this way. I was simply unfortunate to choose to visit the ones that are.

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    amen brother! I’ve been having the same experience.

  • Pingback: Why traditional churches should stick with traditional worship

  • Matthew Blank

    I think David missed one key point. The “worship” songs of today are written to be sung at a higher pitch than most men can sing. This too discourages men from singing.

  • mrz80

    We often transpose songs we play into whatever key is better for most of the congregation to sing in. Helps to have a guy leading the singing. :)

  • Joe Phillips

    “The” problem may not be the rock band, or the lights, or the smoke machine, but they are certainly symptoms of the problem. Church has become a production and so-called worship is a gig for the “leaders” and a entertainment (at best) for the masses. I’m personally done with the whole crass church scene. I’d rather go to a bar.

  • Valerie Watts

    It is misleading to call organ/pipe music pre-Reformation too complex for the congregation to feel part of and Latin was used by all church-goers and they were not alienated by its use.
    I am perplexed why men in particular, would feel self-conscious about singing in church. The position of women in church history i.e.not preaching etc.should lead us to feel more conspicuous

  • Ruth Webb

    As a worship pastor this is a subject I have observed and taught on for many years.

    The Lord spoke to me very specifically in the late 1980’s… most have stopped singing for several reasons….

    1. The songs are not congregational songs. they are too difficult. KISS…Keep it simple saints. Beautiful simple melodies and chords that non-musicians can engage with.

    2. Worship is to be in Spirit and truth…big subject I am writing on….

    When it is really Holy Spirit people will engage.

    3. We are there to worship God not be entertained. Try to emulate heaven rather than night clubs. Get rid of smoke machines and get real.

  • David Gauger

    Corporate worship is different than parallel individual worship. If ideal worship is just “me and God” then true corporate worship in a church service can be deemed optional, and unfortunately, for many it is.

    I believe there are at least 2 parts to worship in church: the vertical where we address God directly with our words, songs, actions, etc., and also the horizontal corporate action where other people witness, overhear, and join with our worship as we “preach to one another” using the words of the songs, readings, etc.

    One problem is that we unwittingly make the corporate dimension very difficult for the simple fact that we just can’t hear one another in many worship settings. This effectively eliminates the horizontal component of worship. This is not a style based issue.

    I just submitted my doctoral dissertation last week on the effect of congregational volume on one’s encouragement to sing. Keep in mind, that my results are based on what my test subjects wanted to hear of the rest of the congregation, not the sound system. After all, what a congregation hears of itself is what happens when the sound system is turned OFF.

    Here is what I found. This is not opinion, but the average response of 35 test subjects which is a statistically valid number of responses.

    The ideal volume at which to hear the rest of the congregation was 81 dB. The ideal volume at which to sing while hearing the congregation at 81 dB was about the same: 80 dB. The people felt best about singing at those levels.

    At 85 dB congregational level, responses to questions like: “I felt I could worship under these conditions” and “The balance between my voice and the congregation was good” began to drop. And 90 dB and above was found to be a DISCOURAGEMENT to singing.

    Most fascinating was that the louder the congregational volume, the louder the test subjects sang. However, above 90 dB they disagreed with the statements like “I can worship under these conditions” and “If given a chance, I would sing again at these levels.” This means that while people may sing louder at louder congregational levels, they don’t like it and don’t even feel they can worship properly.

    Is this a style based issue? No. Pipe organs can overwhelm a congregation just as much as a sound system belting out a worship team can.

    Want to help people to sing? Let them hear themselves as a congregation. This involves acoustics and volume levels of all types of accompaniment.