When Your Congregation Isn’t Singing: 15 Questions


1Every worship leader has the experience from time to time of a service that just seems to fall flat. The songs didn’t work, or the musicians didn’t gel, or the technology didn’t cooperate, or the congregation didn’t respond. Whatever the reason(s), even in the most passionate of congregations, there are times when the singing isn’t exactly robust.

But when that’s the regular pattern, and when the congregational singing is consistently paltry, what is a worship leader to do? I would suggest that if a worship leader is observing (over a period of months or years) his or her congregation isn’t singing, that some difficult questions need to be honestly asked and answered.

In no particular order or importance, here are ten questions a worship leader (and his or her pastor) should consider:

1. Are the songs too high? If they are, people will tune out. From C to shining C is a good rule for the average range of most singers, allowing for occasional dips down to As and Bs, and occasional peaks up to Ds or Es.

2. Are the songs too unfamiliar? Too many new songs will overwhelm people. Introduce new/unfamiliar songs at doable pace of one or two per month, with enough revisiting of those new songs that people can grab onto them. Follow up new songs with familiar songs to build back capital.

3. Are the songs worth singing? Maybe your congregation isn’t singing along because the song isn’t particularly strong, or intended for congregational use, or something that connects at a corporate level. Have a high bar for what you put on your people’s lips. A good song, at a certain level, is almost irresistible to sing.

4. Is the volume too loud? If people can’t hear themselves (or the people around them) sing, then they will deduce that their singing isn’t important, or needed, or valued, or even worth the effort.

5. Is the volume too low? If people don’t feel supported and safe enough to sing at a comfortable volume without feeling exposed and alone, then they will hold back and stay tentative.

6. Is the room too dark? Restaurants turn down lights so people feel isolated even though they’re in close quarters. Concerts turn down lights so people look at the stage. School teachers turn down lights so their students quiet down. People are conditioned to become more insular in dark lighting, and so it shouldn’t be a surprise that when churches turn down the lights during the singing, it actually has a detrimental impact on the goal of fostering congregational singing.

7. Is it all about the platform? The more pronounced the division between the platform and the congregation, the weaker the singing. The more continuity there is between the platform and the congregation, the stronger the singing. The congregation should not feel like their contribution is meaningless. Just the opposite.

8. Is the pastor un-engaged? This probably deserves the # 1 spot on this list. An un-engaged or disinterested pastor will do more to discourage congregational singing than all the other factors on this list combined. A congregation watches, studies, and ultimately emulates its pastor.

9. Is the worship leadership inconsistent? When a congregation encounters a different leader every week, drawing from different kinds of repertoires, teaching different songs, using different bands, and leading in a different kind of way, then they become defensive. The worship leadership (even if it’s shared amongst different people) needs to be consistent in repertoire, tone, philosophy, and approach, or else the congregation will tune out.

10. Is the melody clear? Call me old fashioned, but there is a right way to sing a song, and a wrong way to sing a song. A worship leader (and the vocalists and/or choir) should sing the song the right way. They should sing the melody correctly. And the sound engineer needs to make sure that melody is crystal clear. Then the congregation will know what they’re supposed to sing. (Sometimes it really is as simple as this.)

11. Are the lyrics readable? Whether you project the lyrics, or print them, or use a hymnal, or a combination of different methods, the lyrics need to be readable, in a big enough font, and presented at the right time. Badly done projection, late slides, too-small-fonts, typos, or all-of-the-above can do more to discourage singing than we realize.

12. Are the people regularly – and literally – invited to participate? Don’t underestimate the power of consistently saying things like “Let’s sing this together”, or “we’re going to learn a new song together”, or “we learned this song together last week, and we’re going to sing it again now, so please join in as soon as you’re comfortable”. Little phrases – said well – can send a regular message that you place a high priority on the idea of people singing together.

13. Have you prayed? Pray before you lead worship, with your worship team/choir/organist/instrumentalists, and ask humbly and boldly for God’s help, blessing, guidance, and power. Ask God to help your congregation see Jesus clearly, to worship him with freedom and joy, and to give you a heart of love for His people.

14. Have you tailored the arrangements to your congregation? Serve your congregation by tailoring the keys, introductions, interludes, transitions, etc. to them. Don’t just do a certain song a certain way because that’s the way it was recorded. Intentionally arrange a song to serve the actual people who will be standing before you at a given service.

15. Is Jesus at the center? If our worship is only possible because of Jesus, and if the scriptures really are all pointing to Jesus, and if the Holy Spirit really is always glorifying Jesus, and if the worship of heaven is now and evermore will be centered on Jesus, and if the deep need of every person in our congregation is nothing more and nothing less than Jesus, than the principle responsibility of a worship leader is to exalt Jesus. Choose songs that exalt Jesus. Do everything you can to point away from yourself, your name, your fame, your platform, and your presence, and point to Jesus. You will be moving in step with God Himself, and over the course of time, through faithful and pastoral leadership, you will see (and hear) a congregation more enticed to sing to the “heavenly anthem” that “drowns all music but its own”.

Made to Make Much of Something Great

Last month, I was asked by two very different groups to teach on the topic of worship. The first was a women’s bible study (about 70 women) who were having a day-long retreat in Bethesda, Maryland. The second was my church’s newly re-launched men’s ministry, about 75 guys who get together once a month.

Both of these groups had their meetings on the same day. The women in the morning, and the men in the evening.

My goal was to intersperse teaching and singing over the course of an hour, helping to lay a biblical foundation for why we worship God, and how that looks. I leaned heavily (i.e. almost entirely) on the writings and teachings of John Piper and Bob Kauflin, since they have contributed immensely to my understanding and theology of worship. Bob’s seminar from the 2008 Sovereign Grace Worship Conference, “Praising God with the Psalmist” was a model of how I felt this should look.

My title was “Made to Make Much of Something Great”, and I talked about four ways we do that in corporate worship:

  • By desiring God.
  • By singing to God.
  • With our bodies.
  • With our minds.

You can listen to the teaching below. If you’re a reader/listener of John Piper and/or Bob Kauflin, you’ll probably recognize most of this stuff. This is how I tried to cram it all into about 45 minutes.

Sing to the Lord

I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13:6)

Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! (Psalm 95:1)

Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. (Psalm 96:1-2)

Oh sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things! His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. (Psalm 98:1-2)

I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. (Psalm 104:33)

Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre! (Psalm 147:7)

Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly! (Psalm 149:1)

Notice a theme? Time after time in the Psalms, we’re commanded to sing to the Lord. This is important for several reasons.

First, notice that we’re commanded to sing. Singing isn’t merely encouraged in scripture – it’s commanded. God’s people are to be a singing people, a musical people, and a noisy people.

Second, in case you missed it, our singing is to be directed God-ward.

But this isn’t always so easy:

We get distracted
If you’ve seen the movie “Up”, you’ll remember the scene when the talking dog, Dug, is in the middle of talking to Carl, when he’s distracted and suddenly blurts out “squirrel!” Oh, how often we get distracted by the squirrels when we’re in the middle of singing to the Lord.

We get self-conscious
Yes, we’re commanded to sing corporately (“…in the assembly of the godly”), and our singing has the effect of “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16), but each one of us is individually called to direct our singing to the Lord. So pay attention and enjoy the people around you, but at the same time ignore them. You’re not singing for them or to them.

We forget we need Jesus
There is not a single second when an astronaut, performing a space walk, is not completely dependent on the perfect integrity of his space suit. Without it, he’s hopeless on his own. Similarly, there is not a single word we can sing to the Lord without being completely dependent on Jesus Christ, our mediator, our great high priest, and our way to the Father.

C.J. Mahaney phrased it this way at the 2009 Sovereign Grace Worship Conference:

“…we must never leave the impression during corporate worship that we do not need a mediator. There isn’t a moment where I don’t need a mediator. In light of the Father’s holiness and my sinfulness, I cannot approach him directly apart from Christ.”

When we gather to sing to the Lord, we can only do so because of and through Jesus.

We think our voice isn’t good enough
Each member of the body of Christ is gifted in different ways. This is how God arranges it (1 Corinthians 13:3 says “God arranged the members of the body, each one of them, as he chose…”). Some are more gifted singers than others. Some are trained. Some are tone deaf. But God wants us all to sing to him. This is comforting and encouraging to all of the average singers among us, and should be humbling to those who are more gifted.

We think it’s just singing words
David said in Psalm 108:3: “My heart is steadfast, O God! I will sing and make melody with all my being!

When we sing, we’re not only supposed to articulate praise with our lips, or make melody with our vocal chords – but “sing and make melody with all (our) being!” Does our singing look like that? If not, we have some growing to do.

So the next time you sing, sing to the Lord, with eyes fixed on him, a heart grateful for Jesus, and a voice raised unashamed. And ignore the squirrels too.