We may not be able to turn the tide in the rest of our culture, but with intentionality over the next generations, we can change the culture of singing in the church. This is not a non-essential of faith. This is not adiaphora. This is important stuff. If the ancient principal of lex orandi, lex credendi is true, if how we believe is determined by how we worship, then we must learn to sing well, just as we must learn to preach well and to pray well.
An Inaudible Introit
Churches don’t sing anymore.
We know, already! For the love…
A quick trip down Google’s memory lane reveals that the internet has been talking about this regularly since at least 2012.
And everyone seems to know why.
Because nobody knows the songs.
Because it makes men uncomfortable.
Because it’s just a performance.
Because we don’t love Jesus enough.
There is truth to some of these points, none to others, but most of them miss the foundational problem.
There is one basic, fundamental reason that congregations no longer sing.
Nobody sings anymore.
A Closemouthed Call to Worship
Okay, so there are folks that sing here and there. But by and large, we are no longer a culture of music-makers. Nope, instead of making music, we consume music. We might croon along with our favorite jams, but we don’t really, seriously, make the music ourselves anymore. While appreciating music once meant developing the ability to “do” music, it now means that we obsessively listen to recorded music, possibly of a few various popular genres.
We listen to a semi-musical product, but most of us don’t ever do any real music-making, especially that isn’t a blatant attempt to reproduce what we hear on our favorite recordings.
My friend Richard, a professional musician and Ponder Anew reader, recently told me this:
Born in 1951, we had songbooks along with reading, arithmetic, and spelling books. We were singing Stephen Foster’s “Nelly Bly” in second grade. Our fourth grade teacher handed out small booklets and we learned “Love Lifted Me.” The 5th/6th grade elementary chorus in our very rural school district sang the Mozart “Alleluia.” Men’s clubs like Rotary had songbooks and songleaders and sang at every meeting. Hymns were a part of Sunday School as well as church. We sang at summer camp—not just church camp, but Scout camp as well. Things have changed!!! I suspect singing is no longer heard in many of those venues.
I suspect it isn’t, and if it is, it’s probably poor imitations of popular music, which suffice it to say, isn’t a genre brimming with natural vocal expression.
Now, more than ever, people just claim that they can’t sing at all.
Any music teacher realizes, of course, that this is pure crap. Anyone with a functioning voice can learn to sing. Some will sing better than others, but anyone can learn to sing. In my previous career teaching K-4 students in a public school, I taught over a thousand kids, and I never had a student with a mustard seed of willingness that I couldn’t teach to sing pleasantly and on pitch. But if they grow up never hearing anyone actually sing live, if no one in their family can sing apart from a recording, if they don’t have an encounter with singing in school or church, they won’t know this. We can do better.
It royally hacks me off when I hear a pastor or so-called “worship leader” say things like, “Some of us can sing, and others of us just make a joyful noise” or “Even if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, just do your best.” I’ve heard this nonsense in most churches I’ve belonged to, and I get that its intended as encouragement, but it doesn’t work. If you’ve never been even informally taught to sing, you’re likely going to believe you’re one of those tone-deaf folks. And are you going to try? Not likely. And you’re certainly never going to come away with the idea that your singing is of any value in corporate worship.