They Just Don't Sing Like They Used To

Why Congregational Singing Has Fallen on Hard Times

Sometimes I’m asked to speak on the topic of recovering congregational singing. So I ask the question “What’s wrong?” The conversation goes like this:

“Apparently people are not singing like they used to.”

“Why?”

“We’re not exactly sure, but we’d sure like to have some tools to improve the situation.”

I’m all for improving congregational singing. In fact, I’m passionate about it. But rather than jumping to solutions, I’d like to dwell a little bit more on the problem. Why don’t people sing like they used to? If we spend some time considering the problem, our solutions may be better grounded.

What follows are some of my observations of why congregational singing has fallen on hard times.

“I Can’t Sing”: A Problem of the Soul

Roughly one in four people believes that he or she cannot sing. When asked how they know this, most people will relate a story of a teacher, a choir director, a parent, or some other authority figure telling them so. As a result, many worshipers have been stripped from a lifetime of singing. This is not a new problem. We still see the tragic results of this in some of our elder worshipers. Men may be affected somewhat disproportionately in that as boys their voices go through the awkward drop of an octave. I hope we’re doing better at encouraging children to sing through their voice changes. And yet I am amazed at how many young adults still tell me that they were instructed to just mouth the words so as not to spoil the children’s anthem.

More and more today we are observing an epidemic of people sensing that they cannot sing well enough. This may have less to do with silencing by individuals and more to do with the shaming of our pervasive performance culture. We are surrounded by music, much of it sung. Music is piped into our malls, our cars, our homes, and more and more into our churches. But in fact we are not a singing culture. We are a culture that is sung to. Most of this music is produced professionally through a series of edits that in essence artificially removes all “imperfection.” The net result of being immersed in all this “perfect” music is that we feel ashamed of our imperfection. And this shame leads many to silence.

“I Only Hear Myself”: The Problem of Poor Acoustics

Because there is often little we can do to change the acoustical environment we inherit as worshipers, we tend to devote little attention to its effects on our worship. But experience has taught me that this is often the most significant barrier to congregational singing in our churches.

I work in a worship space that can be characterized as a simple, modestly-sized meeting house dating from the early nineteenth century. Its walls and ceiling are covered with thick plaster. The floor and pews are of solid wood. The place seems sparse and sometimes proves inflexible for the sorts of things we might wish to do in worship. But it encourages people to sing.

Since this is a seminary chapel, our worship services take place during the academic week. On several occasions our space has been used by local congregations for Sunday worship while they are temporarily displaced from their own churches. During my first year here a church with a rather traditional worship style found themselves in our chapel for a season. This church considered itself to be, by and large, “non-singing.” A choir of professional quality carried the songs of this church. But when the church moved into a setting that favored congregational singing, the people found their voice. Even those who swore that they could not sing, sang. The result was transforming.

More recently a nondenominational church with a contemporary style of worship used our chapel for a month. At first the praise team was frustrated by the unpredictable acoustical effects of the building on their amplification systems. So they turned down their amplified output. Lo and behold, the congregation responded by singing out. Soon they were singing lustily. They too had found their voice.

Both congregations returned to their churches with mixed emotions. Both learned something of how their acoustics had directed them into certain habits of worship. Though they could make adjustments in worship leadership upon their return to their own worship spaces, there was also the dreaded subito piano of the congregation. In the words of James White, “the building wins.”

“I Can’t Hear Myself”: The Problem of a Noisy Culture

In North America we have been saddled with utilitarian worship spaces that neglect the needs of the singing congregation. We capitulate toward domestic hospitality with all the accouterments of drapery, carpet, and fabric upholstery. Asking people to sing in such a space is terribly inhospitable. It is sadly ironic that many worshiping communities compensate for this awkward situation with either a professional-sounding choir or electronic amplification. They seek to fill the void with sound, and lots of it.

In many medieval churches a rood screen divided the space into two rooms. On one side of the screen was the high altar where the priests sang the liturgy and celebrated the Mass. The common people could look through the screen and even sing along with the monks, but they were “screened” out of the service by this physical barrier.

The Reformers were adamant about removing barriers that divide leaders and common folk in worship. Clearly the people were to carry the liturgy. They were to touch the holy things, hear the Word proclaimed, and sing the songs of prayer and praise.

Such a physical barrier has little chance of being reintroduced into our worship. But we have unwittingly welcomed barriers of sound into our places of worship, with much the same effect. Rather than being entrusted to carry the song, our “common folk” are invited to sing along. Rather than providing “folk” songs suited for the untrained singers of the congregation, much of our energy is focused on sophisticated choral music or complicated pop-style songs. And if this encroaching repertoire is not enough to signal to the congregation that their voices are secondary, we now can (and do) amplify our lead musicians to the point that the congregation can scarcely hear themselves, if at all. They are, in essence, being screened out.

“I Don’t Know the Song”: A Problem of Leadership

Finally, many people say they do not sing in church because they do not know the song. Many blame this lack of knowledge on the perceived musical illiteracy of our culture. We certainly are experiencing a decline in musical literacy. But on average, people are a good deal more musically literate (that is, able to read musical notation) today than they were a century ago. And it can be argued that congregational singing in the Reformed tradition was for the most part stronger in 1907 than in 2007. Furthermore, in parts of the world where there is truly little or no musical literacy, congregational singing is stronger yet.

So why is it the case that people “don’t know the song” today? Much of this is rightly pegged on our surrounding culture. As we already mentioned, our culture is much more passive in the way we encounter music. Group singing doesn’t happen much. Other than in church, we may sing together an occasional “Happy Birthday” or the national anthem. In a culture where people don’t sing much, it is more difficult to learn the songs of the church.

But has the leadership in the church unconsciously exacerbated the problem of the people not knowing their songs? Some time ago I was doing research on the decline of congregational singing in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands. Scarcely fifty years ago these churches arguably produced some of the strongest congregational singing both in terms of broad participation of congregants and sheer volume. What caused the decline?

My studies pointed to the obvious effects of secularization and depopulation of the churches. However, I missed one of the most basic contributing factors to a decreasing knowledge of the church’s song. Could one of the culprits have been a new hymnal produced by the church in 1972? In many Reformed communions, the people heretofore had sung only the 150 psalms and fewer than 100 hymns. This proved to be a manageable canon. People knew practically every psalm and hymn in their worship book. Suddenly the church was presented with a complete reversification of the psalms and a nearly five-fold expansion of the hymnal. No longer was the hymnal a canon to be communally imbibed. It seemed more like an expansive anthology to be sampled.

What I am suggesting here goes very much against the grain of what I was taught to do and be as a professional church musician. I still think it is important to constantly be learning new songs. But where I have observed a diligence in church music leaders to explore an expanding repertoire, I also detect that many of these songs are not settling very deeply into the souls of our congregations. Whereas I was taught to disdain the congregation that only knew their “forty favorites,” I find myself more and more wishing that congregations might thoroughly know and sing forty songs. Ten years ago I instructed seminary students to keep a running tally of the hymns they chose so as to avoid repetition. Now I feel more inclined to tell pastors and church musicians to judiciously plan for adequate repetition of a core number of psalms and hymns so that the people will actually know and enter the song.

Recovery

This little jaunt through the woes of congregational singing need not end here. Knowing something of why people don’t sing will aid us in the recovery of singing. This is not to suggest that recovery means a return to the way things were done before. The world has changed and will never be the same. But neither should we
wallow in despair. Let us instead move forward to help people say, “I can sing!” “I can hear everyone.” “I can hear myself.” “I know the song.” Come, let us sing a song to the Lord!

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For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.

Excerpt

For Further Reading

John Bell’s book The Singing Thing (GIA, 2000) is an excellent place for further reading. In a very winsome way he works through all of the issues mentioned in this article.

—MT

Martin Tel (martin.tel@ptsem.edu) is the C. F. Seabrook Director of Music at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he directs the seminary choirs, facilitates the music ministry for daily worship, and offers courses in the area of church music.