Why men have stopped singing in church

This is one of the most thought-provoking articles I have read about congregational singing in quite a while. As musicians we appreciate the freedom we now enjoy to learn and teach an infinite number of great songs in our gatherings. We are no longer limited to the several hundred in our now passé hymn book. But what is the impact of this change, particularly for men? This post suggests many things we should perhaps take heed of. It reminds me of the benefits that come from sticking to a smaller playlist for a term, as people get to know songs better. Let me know what you think.


Worship BandIt happened again yesterday. I was attending 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.

A few months ago 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. They were expected to stand mute as 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 that were easy to sing, and mated them with theologically rich lyrics. Since most people were illiterate in the 16th century, singing became an effective form of catechism. Congregants learned about God as they sang about God.

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 twentieth 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 20 years 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 ten years ago. Worship leaders realized they could project anything on that screen. So they 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.
In short order we went from 250 songs everyone knows to 250,000+ songs nobody knows.

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,” they would say. “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 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, sung 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 is familiarity. People enjoy singing songs they know.
How do I know? When that super-hip band performed a hymn, the crowd responded with gusto. People sang. Even the men.


You may also enjoy:

How Church music can welcome newcomers                    When should we sing that song?
Image created by Sarah Danaher with a Canon EOS 5D MkIIpiano-stairs3

15 thoughts on “Why men have stopped singing in church

  1. Good article. I think the more elaborate and performance-driven the arrangements become, the less participation you have. We talk about this all time with our worship teams. We really need to check our heart and motives for wanting to do what we do. And some of the “cool” worship songs that we like are not really congregational worship songs, many are actually hard to sing or follow. We have to be careful about that too. And like was said, there’s a place for those too. But simple is better when it comes to congregational participation. It’s hard to keep it simple with all the technology and cool stuff available, but the benefit of participation is a huge part of good corporate worship is unbeatable. There’s nothing like the energy level in that participatory worship environment. Otherwise, we might as well call it a concert and then there’s no confusion about what we’re there for…


    • Yes! We should save those difficult to sing songs simply to present for people to listen to….and save everyone a lot of standing about, when they could sing a more singable song and feel like they are contributing. Sometimes hard to convince musicians of this. I always like to survey nonmusicians about the songs we sing, for a more objective opinion.


      • Amen. And that’s a good idea getting the non-musician’s input. See if they enjoyed the experience as much as the musicians did. 🙂


  2. One of the problems I see and hear is that there is less music training from childhood on up. It used to be most homes had a piano, and many establishments had live music, and private plus school music lessons and programs were all part of the education. Now music is more of a ‘listen to’ rather than a ‘participate in’ art. We need to work more on educating people about quality music and less on dumming down church music so much of the time! I am lucky to have a husband who sings with gusto! Of course, his dad was in barbershop, and the whole family sang in harmony on car trips – so it was natural for the men in his family to sing!


  3. Great post! Love, love love worship music and praise to the Lord…and yes, I love singing songs I know, too! Also, we used to sing favorite phrases in our true worship songs over and over and over, so we could learn them…now? Not so much! I miss it!!


    • Yes I am certainly rethinking ways to roster songs differently next year. I may even take the time to print copies of lyrics for our oldies….or those who would like a copy to keep/ponder


      • In Kids Church we sing lively songs for worship time and put motions to them, so of course, kids love that, and when you get your whole body into it…easier to remember!! Ha! Then for prayer time we slow down with heartfelt songs, where kids can stand, kneel, sit, raise their hands, and come to one of us for prayer!

        At the church I attend on Sunday nights…we sing hymns, which is what the pastor knows, and I grew up with…great lyrics, but since I work with kids, teens, and young adults, I prefer more contemporary Christian songs!!

        But, since worship is all about Jesus…I know He loves our worship no matter what song we’re singing…if it’s all about Him…and from our heart!!! Amen!


  4. Ros – you mentioned limiting your play list for a term. Is that what you do at your church? How does it work?

    It seems like as we keep adding more and more new songs (or old ones), we end up singing a rather large range of songs, and some songs get sung 3-4 times over 2 years (even if they’re excellent songs!)


    • Yes, that is what I’m trying to do more and more so that newcomers aren’t confronted by an infinite number of new songs (to them) in their first few months at church. So for example, we break the year into four terms, punctuated by school holidays. I will select about 30 songs and keep repeating them as the songs for that term, in different combinations. That way people get to know them well. Have tried to do that a little this year, but will try to be more disciplined with it next! We have two services in Sunday. Generally 4 songs in the morning, 5 occasionally….and 3 at night (which I don’t think is enough, but that’s ok).


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