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They aren't singing anymore . . . .

Congregations aren't singing anymore and most worship leaders haven't noticed. I discovered this fascinating blog post pointed from a Facebook post courtesy of Samford wonder-student and ChoralNet member Peter Haley:

The people in our churches aren't singing anymore - not really.

To be sure, there are many churches that have congregations singing with enthusiasm, but generally speaking, our people do not sing like their parents and grandparents did. And even worse, the leaders of those churches don't seem to know it. Let me explain.

In many of our churches today our worship has become very produced with visual enhancements and top sound re-enforcement. That's not a bad thing - it fact it can be a great thing! But when the stage lighting effects dominate the experience, the leaders on stage cannot even see the faces of their congregation. It amuses me when a leader has to put his hand over his eyes to try and see his people. Hello? Is something wrong here? Add to that a highly produced sound mix with in-ear monitors and a full stage mix in the floor monitors, and, well, they can't hear them either.

So, if we cannot see or hear the congregation, how would we know that the people have stopped singing? It would do any pastor or worship leader a world of good to spend a service just watching the people. They might be surprised - and disappointed.

The blog post goes on to examine the reasons for the decline. Bottom line: they don't know the song, can't sing it if they did know it, and they can't hear anyone else. Is anyone surprised?
With apologies to John Mason and his glorious hymn, I offer this Copeland original to the glorious tune of COE FEN (with a minor edit since the first post):
How shall I sing that majesty, 
If I don't know the song?
The part's too high - too dim to see - 
and no one sings along.
Thousands of thousands stand around
and hum, O God most high;
why can't we make a joyful sound
or shout, or pray, or cry?
We used to sing and bear our hearts;
we burned with holy fire -
Now we can't read or sing two parts
We've cast away the choir.
O God I long for something more
Come fill our church with song
Bring us again to heavens shore-
Come right this horrible wrong.
on November 3, 2010 4:37am
Sorry to beat this little tam-tam again, but it's because in church we've forgotten the first rule - reverence.  The reason we are in church isn't about us - theologians and others notwithstanding - but about God.  So when the cultural value inside the building is "entertaining" the "us" there, there isn't a lot of participation required or expected.  Oh, yes, I know; we SAY we expect people to participate - but is it really possible when, as Tom Day pointed out in "Why Catholics Can't Sing" (a bomblet of a book - got a lot of Catholic musicians bent way out of shape, and they should've been) all the sensual cues in church argue against our participation?  The lights blaze, the mikes bellow (so we're blinded and deafened) and, at least for a while in Catholic churches, the musicians and the priests practically wore holes in the floors of their churches and their vocal cords trying desperately to get people to sing as Vatican II said they should - not that there was a whole lot of connection there with the actual culture of the church in America, tending more and more to the absolute elimination of music at Mass and other liturgies ("we don't NEED that artistic stuff").  The difference now in Protestant denominations is that while they had and have great music in their history (smart music, really:  designed to help musically illiterate people remember good tunes easily without having to be able to read music), they've abandoned their history and thus, their basic culture - and the people aren't sing.  Far too many Protestant churches are "producing" worship on Sunday morning, instead of "worshiping" on Sunday morning.  While the more liturgically-oriented denominations are trying to hold the fort against the tsunami of Sunday morning productions, for every one that does you can find ten churches that have gone whole hog for the big deal every week.  Honestly, I don't know how the ministers of music manage it - for their sakes, I hope their being paid big bucks, because I know what it takes just to do our little Sunday morning Mass here in Virginia - and we come nowhere close to these mega-productions.
Honestly, the problem with the little ditty above is we're asking God to fix the problem - and it's not His problem; it's ours.  We've got to fix our "horrible wrong."  Our wrong is that not only are we no longer singing; we've forgotten the reason we should be singing in the first place - to worship and adore and praise and thank (and petition) our God, to whom our very existence is due.  We have tossed out the humility needed to do this; we have lost the reverence due our God; and our culture is in a mess because of this.  The late Pope John Paul II said that the driving factor in history was culture, and religion is the pre-eminent expression of culture.  When our popular culture has pre-empted the fundament of religion, is it any wonder that the outcome is a horror?  Is it any wonder that instead of being actively involved in what's supposed to happen on Sunday mornings, the congregations are passive and just waiting for something to happen?  It's a live version of the boob tube every Sunday a.m.
So here's the challenge, fellow church musicians:  If this truly concerns us, what are WE going to do about it?  What are WE going to do, within the context of our own denominations and individual churches, to bring people back to the first principle of why we have worship in the first place?  We have no grounds for complaint if we participate in this kind of thing and/or do not push back when it goes too far.  Remember, the pastors and administrators are probably more concerned about getting bodies into the place, and perhaps too little concerned about what happens once they're there (at least in terms of first principles).  It's up to us to remind them and the congregations why they're there in the first place.
Ron Duquette
Ft. Belvoir, VA
on November 3, 2010 8:20am
As part of one of my church music classes here at Samford, I'm working on a presentation to give to an undergraduate Music In Worship class. I've set up two large criteria for discernment: aesthetics and function.  We first must determine what 'good art' is, and the implications that has for the worshiping community that we help to lead. Nathan Corbitt provides some basic tenets that I think we can all agree on in his book, Sound of the Harvest:
  • Christ-Centered
  • God-Centered
  • Spirit-empowered
  • Music expressive of and edifying to the church as a community
Once those foundational principles are established, we move into the realm of aesthetics, where almost no one's definition will match another's.  I would refer to you Frank Burch Brown's Inclusive Yet Discerning and Charlotte Kroeker's fantastic text with essays from leaders in different traditions, Music in Christian Worship.  
In his Jubilate II, Donald Hustad poses the question of music as "functional art." We have preludes, but what purpose do they serve- filler music while everyone talks about the ballgame from the night before, or preparatory melodies while we center ourselves for worship? We all have goals that we aspire to, but some of them, for better or worse, aren't always reachable within worship services, or congregations. We have to take what we're given, and, over time, try to push the congregation towards a greater awareness of the aesthetic and functional aspects of worship. Two other texts that I would recommend: Gary Furr and Milburn Price's The Dialogue of Worship, and the late, great Erik Routley's The Divine Formula.
on November 3, 2010 4:45am
I agree! As a (former) choir director/organist for a Catholic church, I can attest those congregations are the worst  offenders. Part of the problem is the music in Catholic hymnals demonstrates how NOT to compose a song.
on November 3, 2010 6:32am
Thanks for posting this thought-provoking blog post. I'm happy to serve in a congregation that sings well, and I attribute that to the leaders of the church who have guided it from the organ, choir and pulpit. There is certainly a strong sense of humility and awe that comes from participating in worship, but having to strain to hear my own voice above the voices of others.
on November 3, 2010 7:30am
Much of the issue with using 'pop' musical styles for worship is the fact that popular music has become a spectator sport!  When my parents were young (early 20th C) the popularity of music was measured in the number of pieces of sheet music of a certain piece that were sold.  During my youth in the 50's that changed to how many records were being sold!  Music went from something in which you participated into something that was passive.  And our culture has become passive.  We would rather watch a college or NFL game on Saturday or Sunday than go out and throw the football with our kids. 
Thus the selection of the pop idiom of a produced show is a lousy pattern for liturgy ... which is defined as "the work of the people".  Give them a passive task, and they don't sing.  How many tunes that your kids love on their i-Pod do you hear them humming around the house.  None!  They can't.  Because pop music hardly has a tune any more. 
While music in church needs to move on, it needs to move in a logical progression from where it's been.  Organs and choirs have been used in church over the centuries because they work to get folks singing.  As a Welshman I go to gatherings of my fellow Welsh-Americans to sing the hymns of the great Welsh revivals of the 19th century.  We do the work ourselves by singing in parts.  Try going to a Gmanfa Ganu (Welsh hymn sing) and see  participation in action.  The tunes are singable ... the theology solid and the average guy can participate in a thunderous chorus of praise and thanksgiving.  It's still a good model. 
Perhaps what we forget most in trying to be 'relevant' in church is that church was meant to be different ... a place where we can get away from the world and take stock of our lives.  There is no better way to do that than to sing ones prayers.  And the fact that is it different than what is heard daily on the radio is a positive, not a negative!
on November 3, 2010 10:24am
One of the biggest contributing factors is a word which recurs throughout the blog post you linked to: song. When did we stop having hymns in our churches and replace them with songs? Songs are in most cases intended to be sung by one person. Even the Lutheran church, which has as solid a congregational singing tradition as any, refers to hymns in its liturgical rubrics as songs
on November 3, 2010 11:13am
I have echoed your thoughts in my oft-repeated polemic where I bemoan the fact that music has become a commodity since the popularity of recorded music technology.  Not that I don't appreciate being able to put on a CD and listen to music! i do. But we've come, as a culture, to think of music as something we buy rather than part of our birthright as humans.  A big reason I love being a church musician is that I get to participate and encourage group singing, often in the only place that many people experience it in their lives except for singing "Happy Birthday!"
Michael and Thomas, I agree that some new hymns are not well-written congregational songs.  I've worked five years in the Catholic Church, one in the Methodist, and now one in the Episcopalian denomination.  We used OCP materials in my Catholic churches, and I found that some of more recent hymns (and by that I mean since the '70s) work well for congregations and have become favorite hymns.   Some really don't: lots of leaps, phrase entrances on weak beats, text underlay that's too tricky.   Yes, the old hymns are old because they lasted as congregational songs and are valuable because of that, and they have a place in our hearts because of that as well.  But I think we have to judge a song's value as a hymn on an individual basis and not by genre alone.
I'm now in the interesting position of being the "Renewal Group" leader.  I cringe a little inside when people call it the "Praise Group" because of the reputation of that music, and in good part because of the reality.  I haven't been part of the "Christian contemporary" music scene in the past, but have had to learn some of the repertoire because it's part of the culture of this group. I should say that I'm in my 40s and have very eclectic musical tastes, have sung and directed plainchant propers, medieval part music, pop, jazz, folk, New and experimental music--really a little bit of everything.  There are some contemporary Christian/Praise songs, like "Lord, I lift your name on high," that I find to be good congregational songs.  But I don't choose only from the "Praise Song" repertoire because much of it is more appropriate as performance pieces rather than congregational song.   I choose songs from gospel, Southern Harmony, as well as singable folk-rock songs.  Sometimes I'll use "contemporary Christian" or obscure songs I find on YouTube and present them as "anthems--" for the music group to sing and play and the congregation to listen to. 
I think Peter's point is very valid about listening to the congregation.  It may be too fundamental to mention in this forum, but I'm much more successful "getting" the congregation to sing when I actually listen to them.  Yes, we are leading them in song.  We don't want to slow everything down to a dirge because we're following the congregation.  But often I've found great success in shifting my tempo ever so slightly to "lock in" with the congregation.  It's a fine line between leading and something like thinking of myself as their accompanist.  I fear I'm not articulating this well, but it all comes down to listening.  This also means being aware and particular about amplification.  We want the congregation to hear us but we don't want to overpower them.  And they need to be able to hear themselves.  I seem to notice that if there's a certain amount of complexity and volume in the music group, the congregation can switch into "audience" mode.  We want to make beautiful music, of course, but we need to keep our role as supporting congregational singing always primary in our minds.

Of course we also need to think like teachers and introduce new songs, teach songs, play introductions to songs, and arrange our accompaniment all with the goal of supporting congregational singing.  There's always a tension between "the songs we know" and new songs; people want both, and it's our job to balance those two so the congregation feels confident to sing.  Language also matters; if songs are announced, we can say "please join in singing," rather than "please sing along."
Whew, this post touched a vein, obviously.  I do think of congregational singing as the aural aspect of the body of Christ. We can blame the congregations for not singing, and some pre-Vatican II folks in the Catholic church still balk at "having to sing." Some of them are never going to sing.  But many people do want to sing.  Our role in supporting that is important.  A colleague of mine put it this way: We are performers, but not entertainers.