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Worship Music Versus Group Singing. What We’ve Gained and What We’ve Lost

Worship music has won the Sunday morning song battle – there’s no question about that. Even in big traditional services, I’ve seen choirs in robes singing modern worship songs. (Admittedly, it looks strange to have a robed choir trying to be cool).

Make no mistake, I love worship music. My wife Kathleen and I often play it in the car driving around Los Angeles, and I listen to it from my phone on the road. But I also grew up before the worship music era. Back then I grew up playing the piano in church and signing classic hymns, so I have the perspective from both sides of the fence – and here’s what I’ve observed:

Worship music has given a platform to remarkable musicians in the church. I’m amazed at the skill level of many church singers and band members. And with more and more school music programs being dropped, church is becoming a powerful draw to young people interested in pursuing music. The Fender Guitar company recently released a study that confirms that one third of the guitars sold in America are sold to members of church worship bands.

Worship music has gained the respect of music lovers outside the church as well. Numerous worship albums have been recognized by The Grammy Awards, as well as received other secular honors. Whether they identify with the spiritual aspects or not, they recognize the high quality and excellence of many Christian artists.

It’s just good music. While I do have a beef with some simplistic songs (particularly those that repeat a single line 50 times or others that aren’t even scriptural), much in the genre is very engaging. Plus there’s a wide range of worship styles which makes it even more widely received and accepted.

But I do have one issue: The congregation doesn’t sing anymore.

In most churches today, the worship time has become a concert. People love the music, but they don’t know the words, and so they just watch. I visit churches pretty much for a living, and as I look around during the services, the vast numbers of the congregation are watching the stage and listening – not singing.

I get that classic hymns are a music style of the past. Back then (many of the best were written between 1750-1910) they were the worship songs of their day. They were contemporary for the times, and many were based on popular, secular tunes. But today, I understand why they’re not so popular in the same way today’s worship songs will be less popular 100 years from now.

So the question becomes – in spite of today’s worship music often being meaningful, well done and engaging, what have we lost when a few hundred members of the congregation stand there watching 5 or 6 members of the worship team do all the singing?

Is it more important to have great music, or for the entire congregation to sing songs of praise to God? Is it either/or? Or can it be both/and?

The bottom line is that if we don’t answer the question, we may be in a position where a generation from now, we’ll completely lose the idea of congregational singing at all.

And since the Bible tells us over and over again to sing praises to God, what will we have lost?

Photo by Kristina Paparo on Unsplash

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  1. When we talk of “worship” as simply a style of music or set of songs, we turn a biblical verb into a cultural noun, changing its meaning. A cultural-noun view accepts a one-size-fits-all reimagining of the word: which also includes songwriting, recording, a set of “worship” songs, worship “leaders” as artists with a fan base and a standardized singular-style of platform presentation.

    Today’s worship experience is very similar to Christian worship pre-Reformation (CR 1517). Priests, hired singers and liturgists were the “pros” who “did worship” for and to the people. It took a major shaking of the church, the Reformation itself, to change the worship experience back into what is was meant to be: a fully participatory expression of the worshippers themselves.

    A cursory view of worship history reveals we are currently in a pre-Reformation cycle where the pros do “worship” for us and to us. As the late worship guru Dr. Robert Webber said: “Worship is not done to us or for us, but by us.”

    What will be the tipping point which will introduce a new era where worship is done by the worshippers – or perhaps where worshippers will awaken to no longer accept anything less for themselves and their children?

    1. “What will be the tipping point?” That’s a great question. I think a lot of it has to do with worship leaders themselves – who don’t really know how to LEAD worship. They’re great singers, but don’t know how to teach/lead between songs….

  2. Such a good question. I’ll be honest – while I enjoy contemporary worship, I don’t know all the words, so any attempt to sing them outside of a church service is a bit of a fail for me. But – what I do have easily in my head/heart are the songs from the 80’s that were simple and scriptural. Not as classy, but I do remember the words! Is there a middle ground??

  3. I couldn’t agree more, Phil, that, as worship music gets better or is led with more gifting and artistry, the congregation can slip into a more passive than active stance before God.

    Do we want to “dial down” the passion or skill of our worship leaders so that those of us who can’t sing like that “fit in” better? No. Gosh, I hope not. Rather than being “caught up” in their performance, how do we remind ourselves that we are here to do what they are doing – to participate in worship, not to perform.

    God knows I sound more like Yoko Ono singing along with the Beatles but what a marvelous image she gave us! The songs held meaning for her too. She was welcome here. She was loved. She was safe. Her participation was an act of belonging to something larger than all of them.

    There is definitely a “both/and” for us all in worship. Join in. Let the Spirit move you to forget yourself and those leading worship and to be caught up in your part of worshipping God.

    This goes not just for worship in a physical sanctuary but also for those who worship online. You are not invisible to God. Ever. If you’re in your armchair tuning into worship online, don’t simply watch worship. Enter into the presence of God that seeks to find you, move you, and transform you right where you are. Bring your whole self and participate in praising and praying.

    Worship is not something for professionals to do for you. Liturgy is the work if the people.

  4. I think there are several phenomenons at play here. After being the worship pastor at our church for 16 years, and being a vocal major, I have learned some of the following truths:

    1. As churches grow larger in size of each service, it is easy to feel “lost” in the crowd and less engaged in doing. Add to that the sometimes overly distracting lighting or screen imagery, and it can feel like sensory overload. I think anything we can do as a large church to still make some moments feel intimate is a victory. This might include cutting the music to be vocals only, or encouraging participation verbally, or stripping out elements that make us feel like it’s all about the people on stage. Using modern lighting and visual imagery judiciously and at the right moment can make or break a service. I also know that if people can hear themselves singing TOO much, they tend to not sing. There’s a balance though, because clearly, if you can’t hear yourself think, it’s too loud.

    2. We do not introduce many new songs – usually 1 per month, tops. We try to incorporate an older chorus, hymn, or something very familiar in each service. I do think the participatory side of worship has more to do with knowledge and comfort—less to do with whether it’s a hymn or chorus. If you put me in a congregation singing only hymns, I am less apt to sing. Why? I haven’t been raised singing most of the hymns, and I find them extremely wordy, with unfamiliar melodic patterns. I find holding a hymn book cumbersome because I don’t feel I can really speak to God, express my worship with my whole body, or focus on Him while I’m doing that. The point is, I’m not used to hymn-style worship, so I’m not comfortable with it. I’ve been in a huge conference where everyone (mostly millennials and younger) was singing at the top of their lungs, and it was modern worship only. I’ve also been in a service singing only hymns in which everyone was participating because it was an older crowd. It’s all about what we are used to. That’s why I get it when a church has a traditional service and a modern service. Music holds deep meaning, and what we are “born into” tends to stick for the rest of our lives.

    3. There is a difference between an “artist” song and a “congregational” song. Some songs are simply not repetitive enough, or they are not in a congregational key, or they don’t have simple enough songwriting for the sometimes musically-illiterate congregant to feel engaged. That said, there are DEFINITELY different types of moments in a service where musicians can shine (SELAH!) and creativity can come forth. It just can’t be every moment of every song. I appreciate the charismatic renewal choruses because they were easy to sing. I think many of the worship movement’s songs are also easy to sing, but some are too wordy, too broad of a range, too complex, or too artistic sounding for engagement. There is also a difference between singing for yourself or singing for others to follow. I’m not going to try to sing along with someone doing Jennifer Hudson-type runs, because I don’t have her vocal prowess. Worship leaders need to be careful about leading the congregation to sing versus acting like they are singing a solo.

    4. Generationally, there are MANY differences in how we engage in life, and it’s not just in our music choices. The younger generation tends to latch on quickly to complex plotlines, sight+sound stimulation, technology, etc. So for them to learn a new, wordy song with a complex, pop-based feel is not hard, and in fact it’s sometimes what they prefer.
    I honestly get confused with some of the youth group worship music coming out today, because it’s not made for my generation. But I am more than happy when young people are enjoying worship using a different style than I like. Our youth group jumps up and down and sings at the top of their lungs, lifting their hands, even bowing down to God, during worship music that definitely would NOT inspire that reaction in Baby Boomers. But as long as people are engaging with Jesus, I’m for it.

    5. Distractions abound! The attention spans of people have grown extremely short, thanks to that smartphone in their hand during worship. Or maybe it’s the coffee cup. 🙂

    6. People are so used to being a “consumer” versus a participator. They are used to sitting and staring at a Tv or phone screen. Getting teens and children to participate in ANYTHING other than social media has become a big challenge the world over. Teachers in schools are describing this phenomenon as a zombie-like consumerism. Businesses are having a hard time getting people to engage at work. Face-to-face interaction is growing less common, especially thanks to COVID. Now, one of the only face-to-face interactions many people have is at church. Work is online. Friends are on social. I think this is definitely affecting how people interact in a service. They just aren’t used to the setting and large crowd. It takes time for them to acclimate if they are a new believer.

    7. It’s an “AGT” “The Voice” generation that has been programmed to observe and vote on popularity. Again, consumerism.

    All in all, I agree with what you said, and I think there are definite steps we as worship leaders need to take to ensure that we are facilitating the worshippers (congregants) to engage with God, instead of “putting on a show.” There is a time and place to catch someone’s attention with creativity or inspiration, as long as it leads them forward to God. At the end of the day, if His presence is there, people will respond.

  5. I have served as a worship pastor and am now a Senior Pastor. I grew up singing hymns. Turning to page 42 to sing the first and third verse. New songs, old songs, Psalms or anthems, I love it all! I believe it comes down to the leader though. As a “worship” leader, my assignment is to lead people into a place of worship. To bring them out of the reality of this broken world and into the reality of God’s Kingdom. I can’t do that singing at or performing for a congregation. I am always singing for and to God and inviting others to join. Bottom line- I don’t think it has as much to do with the song as it does the heart it is being sung from. This is a great post and something we should all be cognizant of in our services.

  6. I think too many people think worship is music. We have made it an idol and no longer put effort into meaningful prayer, the reading and teaching of the Word, etc. We have equated music with worship, and that is a big mistake.

  7. In the workshops and talk groups I’ve
    led, I’ve heard many WLs say they were told by the pastor: “do not talk, try to teach or read scripture. Your job is to make it look and sound like worship industry YouTube videos. That is your job.”

  8. Great article and great comments from others already. I’ll add that we need more choirs! My church does all the “pop/contemporary” worship music with a band and lead singers, but we often add a choir singing group harmonies. I’m the choir director at my church, and I tell the choir that they are an extension of the welcome team. It very clearly makes a difference in the congregation’s singing. They join in with the choir!

    The choir also offers the lead vocalist the opportunity to step away from the mic for a bit. Even without a choir, if a worship lead vocalist just does less singing, the congregation steps up! But I don’t mean stop riffing either! Go ahead and praise the Most High with tons of notes if you want to; pour out cascades of riffs between the main melodic lines, and let the congregation sing the main melody. That’s way more participatory than one lead singer sticking to the melody, filling the sonic space, and leaving no room for the congregation to contribute.

    Lastly, I love when, mostly at certain more traditional churches, the choir performs an anthem or a special guest vocalist or musician makes a musical offering that’s meant to be experienced by the congregation. One of the most spiritual and God honoring musical moments I ever witnessed was at a small, dark, jazz club in LA listening to Abe Laboriel lead his quartet in some wild improvisations. Abe is a believer and he started praying and praising right there. I wasn’t singing along, I was just watching him praise God with his whole being. It was worshipful and it blessed me. If something like that in church is considered “performing,” then I’m all for it.

    1. Great points! I love choirs as well and when done right, choirs can still be very cool. I wish more churches felt that way…

  9. 100 percent agreed! I still remember songs from the 1980s and 1990s not just because I learned them as a kid when you memorize things better, but because very frequently, they were lifted straight from the Bible, from Psalms and other books.

    Plus, we’d stick with songs for quite a while. Today’s obsession with “sing unto the Lord a *new* song” has songs rotate in and out so often that I can barely learn the texts – and there’s a new song again. And there is a difference between learning a song or singing it from the heart – with eyes closed.

    @Phil: “particularly those that repeat a single line 50 times or others that aren’t even scriptural” – agreed, even more so with those that have too much text. That sometimes is haphazardly put together and doesn’t even rhyme. Which doesn’t help memorizing it, see above.

  10. I am just astounded by that observation and dismayed that it has come to this. Thank you for raising it. Maybe they’re worshipping on the inside…I don’t know, but it’s hard to bring a sacrifice of praise when it costs you nothing

  11. As a music teacher of 30+ years, I have seen the effects of this in my classroom. Combined with the fact that fewer numbers seem to be attending church, my students have poorer singing skills. In spite of being exposed to music everywhere, they haven’t been exposed to frequent group singing and the content of those great songs.

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