Each year I see more and more people commenting about this topic online. Either their church isn't singing and they don't know how to address it, or they're a keyboard warrior telling people how they're "doing worship wrong" and that our churches are going down the pan.
I find that quite judgemental, and not particularly tolerant of the differences that make the church the beautiful, diverse expression that it is.
So here are my reflections on why people may not be joining in, along with some tips in case you'd like to try and change that culture.
A few years ago, I had a master song list of literally several hundred songs. You might too. Picking a set list was a joy because I had my pick of any favourite song from the last few decades. I thought that churches with a small master song list were unnecessarily restrictive and missing out on the rich breadth of songs available. And then something changed. A work colleague came to the Alpha Course and joined our church. After a couple of months it occurred to me that she probably hadn't heard the same song twice. How was she supposed to engage in worship?
I now maintain a master song list of around 30-40 songs. This is the right number for our church based on the number of songs we do in a typical service. Your requirements might be different, but either way – consider cutting the number of songs you circulate at church. The more familiar the congregation are with the songs, the more easily and willingly they'll sing along.
There's no rule around this one... it really depends on the culture of your church. Common arguments sound like this:
"Your volume is so loud, people can't hear themselves sing. So they don't bother to join in."
"Your volume is so quiet, people are self-conscious about singing. So they don't join in."
Only you can answer this one. It depends on your congregation. At our church, we run the sound quite loud in the 'big' songs, where a typical congregation member can probably only hear one or two people around them, but in the more worshipful moments you can hear the whole room singing. That balance works well for us, but your mileage may vary.
Once again, I've read heated arguments about this on the web – and, if I'm honest, in my own church family too. Recently, in the same week, I had verbal complaints from people saying it was too dark, and others saying it was too light. Here were the actual complaints I received:
"Church is all about community. When it's too dark, we can't see each other and we're failing."
"It's so light during the worship that we feel self-conscious about worshipping freely."
Now, strictly speaking the first complaint isn't about singing – it's more about the in-between times – so the answer for us is to further fine-tune what we're already endeavouring to do in our services – we dim the lights during the sung worship, and bring them back up again for MC- and preacher-led segments of the service. Your approach may look different depending on your culture and your demographic.
By now, you've seen what I'm doing here. Your context will determine your needs, but here we have two extremes, and different people will have different preferences.
I have previously had a congregation member ask me why we sing such short, annoying, repetitive songs. Hymns are, after all, richer in content and beauty. Obviously, I smugly invited them to read Psalm 136 and ask if it was good enough for the Psalmist, why it isn't good enough for them? (I didn't do that. But I wanted to.)
I have also had people ask why the songs we sing are so difficult to sing. This I think is more common, and as today's songwriters explore melody writing and alternative musical genres, melodies are getting trickier to pick up, more syncopated, and the range from the lowest note to the highest note seems to be getting wider and wider. There are far more two-octave songs now than I ever remember when I first started out in church. An octave-and-a-half was consider a stretch back then.
What can you do about it? First of all, not every new song is right for your church. Please make a playlist of all your favourites and enjoy them in your personal worship time, but show some discernment when choosing what to introduce for your congregation. Second, change the key of the song. The original artist key probably isn't the right key for John and Jane in the congregation. Try to place the melody a few notes below C (maybe a G or A) at the lowest, and a few above a high C (a D or E) at the top end. That covers a lot of people.
Here's a challenging thought. In Biblical history, we saw God engaging with his people in a way that engaged with their culture. For example, during the Exodus, God's chosen people lived in tents, with a light on a lampstand, a washing basin, etc. So God instructed the construction of the tabernacle, and it has the same familiar tentiness. God dwelt among his people in a way that was familiar to their way of life.
A few short decades ago, community singing was a popular entertainment pasttime. Families would gather around the piano to sing carols at Christmas. Bars and social clubs were locations where community could gather together to sing. Nowadays, children are barely singing at school. (*OK, this is conjecture. But from what I gather, it's a declining trend.) So when the church gathers together and we invite them to sing, this is no longer a sacred expression of an otherwise familiar cultural activity – it's an alien activity. A friend recently posed the question "What is it with Christians and Sunday karaoke?"
If the culture changes in such a way as it's completely unnatural for crowds to sing, but they do love to go to a concert, then we might reach the point where people come to church to hear Christian bands singing Christian worship songs. Can we make peace with the idea that this is a sacred expression of an otherwise familiar cultural activity? I personally hope we don't reach that point. But once we get past fury and outrage at the very suggestion, it's an interesting exercise to consider the possibility that this might be where we're headed, and how the church might choose to respond.