Why we don’t sing


Sandy, I am delighted of course that you are with me on so many things. And I hope you will also be pleased to know that I am with you completely on the goodness and value of singing. (In fact, the only thing I wouldn’t be with you on is the need for that ‘but’ at the beginning of your second paragraph. But let’s not quibble.)

As for why we don’t sing more or better, and in particular why your men aren’t singing, I think the Bible also points us to the answer.

“Is anyone among you suffering?” says James 5:13. “Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing.”

Singing is the natural activity of the cheerful human heart. When our hearts are moved with joy and thankfulness and the celebration of victory, it is only human that we sing. Even the most macho of modern boofheads will roar out the team song when the game is won.

Why is it then that our culture—and I mean modern western culture—doesn’t sing? And why is it that singing is also struggling in our churches (as opposed to ‘music’, which is taking over our churches)?

I can only conclude it is because we are sad.

I don’t mean just personally, although that is doubtless true, to an extent. I mean that as a society, we have lost some of the joy of being truly human because we have drained God and the gospel from our culture. And we cannot help but be affected by this as modern western Christians.

GK Chesterton makes this point in his essay on ‘The little birds who won’t sing’. Writing in the early 20th century, he muses on why it is that in earlier times, when ‘religious faiths were strong’, the common folk would sing as they went about their daily work. Reapers and sailors and weavers and blacksmiths would all have their songs. But, asks Chesterton, “Why is a modern newspaper never printed by people singing in chorus? Why do shopmen seldom, if ever, sing?”

In typical Chestertonian fashion, he goes on to write some suggested choruses for bankers to sing as they go about their work:

Up, my lads, and lift the ledgers, sleep and ease are o’er.

Hear the Stars of Morning shouting: ‘Two and Two are Four’.

(‘The little birds who won’t sing’, On Running After One’s Hat and Other Whimsies, Robert M McBride & Company, New York, 1935, p. 81.)

Unsurprisingly, his banker friends tell him it will never work. He meets with the same failure in his attempts to get the lady at the local post office to sort the mail to a stirring anthem.

Here is Chesterton’s conclusion:

And at the end of my reflections I had really got no further than the subconscious feeling of my friend the bank clerk—that there is something spiritually suffocating about our life; not about our laws merely, but about our life. Bank clerks are without songs not because they are poor, but because they are sad. Sailors are much poorer. As I passed homewards I passed a little tin building of some religious sort, which was shaken with shouting as a trumpet is torn with its own tongue. They were singing anyhow; and I had for an instant a fancy I had often had before: that with us the super-human is the only place where you can find the human. Human nature is hunted, and has fled into sanctuary.

(Ibid., pp. 83-84.)

The very fact that we Christians do still sing makes us strikingly different in our world. That we don’t sing more lustily means that the godless sorrow of our world is still too much with us.

23 thoughts on “Why we don’t sing

  1. Well said Tony. I believe that joy is something we have to actively pursue, just like other spiritual fruits like patience and self-control.

    Arch Hart has suggested that something like 25% of men are clinically depressed in the US, and the rate is growing. Joylessness is everywhere, even in the church.

  2. Yes I agree. And..

    Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.

    Isn’t part of the answer more prayer & resting in God’s grace and sovereignty? Rest for the weary stuff, cut out reliance on ourselves.

    The stuff Chesterton picks up about work is dead right – sit on a train in peak hour and you will not see much joy on those faces. Christians need to speak life & light into that culture with the gospel.

  3. I agree with you Tony, but just to ruffle a few feathers…

    I can think of two other reasons people (especially men) don’t sing in church.  Firstly, a lot of songs sung by churches these days barely give you something to honestly proclaim.  I may not feel like pledging my unswerving faith at the end of a week filled with my faithlessness towards God, but I could enthusiastically sing a song about God’s greatness or His mercy.  A lot of the old hymns (well the ones that have survived to be sung today) give the congregation something irrefutable to proclaim.  A lot of modern songs aim to stir our emotions and leave us empty of substance.

    Another reason many men don’t sing in church is that a lot of the songs chosen in many churches are not really congregational songs.  They are songs written and sung in keys better suited to the female voice. 

    Bring back more hymns and get rid of all the Hillsong! (ahem… am I allowed to name names here?)

  4. I am an odditiy in many churches.  A “young person” who loves the old hymns more than those other songs.  I’ve always been curious as to what gives them their staying power, both as a musician and a Christian.  And I’ve come to believe its a little of both music and faith.  A hymn like Day by Day or Great is Thy Faithfulness or A Mighty Fortress has intense Biblical backing and doctrine and foundational belief built right into the words.

    Musician Chris Rice has put out a few CDs and piano books that are arrangements of some of his favorite old hymns.  In the front cover of the piano book, he talks about growing up in a church where these hymns were regularly sung and the words became ingrained in his brain.  As he grew in years and faith, he began to realize the great doctrine that he had been learning all those years; the great Truth he didn’t even realize he was singing each week.

    While working in a local church as the church musician, I’ve always tried to find hymns that follow the lectionary readings of the day.  More than one member has said the readings and the sermon made a bigger impact, and stuck with them during the week when the hymns so perfectly fit with the spoken messages.  I didn’t always get it right and everyone wasn’t so happy all the time, but I still try.

    On a second note, I agree with Liz’s second point.  Many churches are getting away from those “old stogey hymns” and leaning towards Christian pop praise songs.  Those songs are great to listen to, but much harder to sing.  The hymns are easier to pick up with their repeated phrases and simple two-part forms.  A person unfamiliar with such a hymn can start singing it sooner than with some of the praise songs.  It is easier to join in and catch up with how things go.  That’s just musical theory and analysis!

  5. I remember hearing that the only Army in the world that does not sing while marching is the Australian Army.  So I wonder whether the non-singing culture is entirely Western or whether there is some additional factor for Australians?

  6. Is the lack of joy in church related to our lack of hope and joy in preaching?  Are we too scared of being other-wordly (lets be happy cause there’s pie in the sky when we die) or to this worldly (there’ll be caviar and beer while we’re here).  Does our preaching give people something to be joyful about?

  7. There are probably many reasons for some members of the congregation to remain silent during the hymns. I would like to offer my observations and suggestions.
    i)Often the accompaniment is inadequate….for a number of non-musicians to be given the best support, you need a highly competant pianist or organist who is totally confident in leading the music. Guitars and drums are quite inadequate as they do not provide the necessary harmonic depth on which good group singing depends. It would benefit a congregation enormously if the church were to invest in a quality instrument and a truly gifted accompanist.
    ii) Many people feel quite awkward when singing in a group,in public. This could well be due to the fact that music and singing are not taught thoroughly as an important part of the curriculum in our schools, and so those not so musical are never really given the opportunity to understand music, and to sing with confidence. Group singing is not really the “Aussie”
    thing. I would suggest that those people who do sing in church should be asked to sit together in small groups of 3 or 4 so that they can provide the others with some good support….you do feel quite exposed if you would like to sing, or at least have a go, when no-one else around you is singing with confidence.
    iii) There is great depth of thought in many hymns and it is often expressed in poetic and/or archaic language. Probably many people feel that not only do they feel awkward singing, but they also feel that the meaning words in front of them is not really all that easy to grasp. Older people who have grown up in the system, so to speak, probably find this to be less of an issue. My suggestion here is to have someone explain the words…a mini poetry lesson, or at least provide some insights in the parish bulletins.
    iv) It can take a while to learn a tune, so maybe “Hymn of the Month” would help….sing the same one each week for a while and then keep it going a little less frequently.
    v)One musical style used each week is going to irritate all those people who prefer different musical styles. Music is a very personal choice. Maybe it would be possible to vary the musical style on offer each week…..familiar hymns with piano/organ, popular style with band,
    modern songs with guest instrumentalists….flute, strings, trumpet etc. If you like the style of music in the service, it will help to lift your spirits and the musical component of the service will then be a much more worthwhile experience.

  8. One trouble stemming from around the turn of the 20’th Century in this regard has been an increasing atomisation and polarisation of taste (particularly between fluid high-brow and low-brow parties) which, ISTM, has resulted in us as a society losing common points of cultural reference.

  9. I would like to refer to a few comments made. Firstly pointing the finger at Hillsong (one of the most impacting churches we have seen in Australia for a long time) is not the way to address this issue. True their singing may be simple and emotional, but arent the Psalms? Hillsong has helped many churches to get men singing (if this is the issue that people are interested in). I have seen more men singing in churches that imitate (well) Hillsong’s style of music than I have seen in Anglican styled churches. There are many reasons for this I am not going to deny that in Anglican churches you can find services were lots of men sing. But on the whole Hillsong has done alot to get people to sing about/to God in and out of church than any other church in Australia. (*This is a general statement, I cannot speak for all churches over a long period of time. I am just offering observation over the past ten years.*)

    Secondly this article along with Sandy’s “When they wont smile or even sing” are making general statements. Some great comments to read that I want to emphasize as important are: Carolyn McMurtrie’s (from this article), and Lee Carter, Brett Slavin, Dianne Howard (from Sandy’s article).

    This issue of music will be controversial and needs to be well discussed but I dont think we can make set rules for church music. Each church will be different and they need to address their church service separately and prayerfully.

  10. @Dan: I think Liz’s point was a good one, whether you agree or disagree with the reference to Hillsong. Some song lyrics, perhaps like some of the Psalms, reflect a very personal experience of the songwriter, and are not necessarily easy to relate to because they may not reflect my own personal experience. So, regardless of any theological misgivings, when I am asked to sing “forever I’ll love you”, I feel somewhat half-hearted in singing out that lyric because, to my shame, I am all too conscious that there are many times that I do not love the Lord as I ought. But ask me to sing “Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord”, I can sing that with great enthusiasm and without reservation.

  11. @Ian. Thankyou Ian for your comment. I do agree that theological content of songs needs to be strong in order for it to be a good song to sing in Church. I would not want your/anyone elses conscience to be affected by singing “Hillsong” songs if they dont meet theological standards (I am not implying they have to meet yours, this isnt an attack).

    I cannot agree with your comment that when we sing theological songs such as you have named that we can agree totally with their words also. My soul doesnt always sing out the greatness of His name. But i understand the song is not asking me to do it non stop. It is imploring me to do it. Because it is right to do. The same with Hillsong songs, they are encouraging the singer to Love God. To appreciate His work. Although there are songs that are not great but there are songs that we should look at working with, maybe to improve! Instead of putting people down for their efforts to praise God, give them a helping hand.

    My point is that although change needs to be addressed in Churches across the world, definitely in terms of theological content within songs. But we also need to look at how we are not making Church available to the outsider, especially the people who have never stepped into a Church.

    As I write this I am aware that we need to do this slowly and it will take time to do it well. I am reminded of the swiss reformation. The problems involved some of the swiss taking quick action to reform, some acts were devastating to the Church. We need to take things slowly and think about the issues.

    Denying Hillsong of their influence of bringing into their Church non-believers is mistake. I have always been under the mindset that we need to be working with Churches like Hillsong to develop a greater work of ministry that shows unity and peace. Ministry that is appealing and active, caring and seen by the community (for the right reasons).

    We need to look at our songs in our Churches and ask is this the style of music that is going to bring in the outsider? Do our members enjoy singing these songs? Why or Why not?

  12. Perhaps it was inevitable that the name ‘Hillsong’ would enter this thread—but let the record show that I was not the one to raise it!

    GIven that the topic is ‘why we don’t sing’, can I suggest that we leave to one side (for this discussion) the theological value or otherwise of Hillsong lyrics. I’m more interested in the following question: has the ‘praise and worship’ movement, of which Hillsong has been just one prominent contributor, resulted in more and better *singing* or more and better *music*?

    Mike Raiter says the latter, in his excellent Briefing article on The Slow Death of Congregational Singing. He suggests that the heavily-amplified, professional-sounding power ballads that have become so common hinder rather than help enthusiastic, full-throated congregational singing.

    I have to agree.


  13. TP: let the record show that I didn’t raise the topic of Hillsong either. Nor was the point to do with the theological quality or otherwise of their song lyrics. But Dan suggests now that…

    My soul doesnt always sing out the greatness of His name. But i understand the song [“Tell out, my soul”] is not asking me to do it non stop. It is imploring me to do it. Because it is right to do. The same with Hillsong songs, they are encouraging the singer to Love God.

    But I think Liz’a original comment is still right, and in my example the emphasis of the two lyrics is quite different and must surely have an impact on how we feel about singing them.

    Dan, one song is an imperative encouraging/exhorting me to express my faith in God (“Tell out my soul”). It expresses no view as to how successful or otherwise I will be in following that exhortation.

    The other (“forever I’ll love you”) is an expression of my confidence that I will love the Lord forever. If it is meant to be “encouraging the singer to Love God”, then it is poorly expressed, because it is not in any sense an imperative as you suggest.

  14. Just had a thought about why we don’t sing: could it be related to how music is produced today? I was thinking back to this New York Times article, which talks about how the rise of the radio and the phonograph led to the slow death of the piano-making industry (which used to be “one of New York City’s largest industries”). These days, we don’t have to make our music to enjoy it; all we have to do is turn on the radio/CD player/MP3 player/iTunes. As a result, we become more dissatisfied with our paltry efforts—especially in contrast to the slick, over-produced fare coming out of our speakers. It can make us feel like unless we’re good enough (and if we aren’t, we will mercilessly mocked on Australian Idol), we shouldn’t even try.

    Of course, performance or perfection is not the point of singing in church. But it strikes me that the embarrassment factor is a major part of Australian culture (or perhaps it’s more the fear of being vulnerable). When there is safety in numbers (or noise), we will sing—at sports games, at rock concerts, and so on. But usually we don’t want to annoy other people with vocal efforts less than pleasing.

  15. For the last few years I’ve been attending an Anglican congregation in the western suburbs of Melbourne where the congregation – men and women – sing unusually heartily. This has been a delightful and encouraging experience, and one to which I’ve given some thought. The congregation is small – about 40 people most Sundays – and made up of a mix of older and younger people, most of the older people are salt-of-the-earth working class people who have lived in the area for years. We have more women than men, but as far as I can tell, everyone sings. My guesses as to why people (and perhaps specifically men) sing so willingly are that:
    1. There is a ‘singing’ culture established by the older members – there used to be a choir in the congregation and there are still members of that choir – men and women – in the congregation. There are also a couple of men – of different ages – with strong voices, who sing loudly and clearly.
    2. We sing a mix of songs, which almost always includes one hymn. We sing plenty of modern songs, including everything from Scripture in Song to Hillsong and Emu Music – but we deliberately limit ourselves to music that is fairly straightforward to sing. If there are complicated bridges etc. we usually leave them out. Even if the theology of the songs is good (and we do pay attention to that as well!) a too-tricky tune makes people feel miserable and stupid.
    3. We don’t have the resources for a ‘band’ or even a regular pianist, so one very talented musician records the songs on a keyboard and we just play that as a backing track. This may sound like a dreadful thing (from an aesthetic point of view) but it is actually solid gold in terms of singing. The melody and rhythm are very clear in the recordings, which helps people sing. The recording means that the tune and rhythm are exactly the same each time, so people get to know the music really well. And we play the recording quite loudly – again, this sounds like a bad thing, but it means that people feel comfortable to sing loudly without worrying that their voice will stand out.

    The end result of all this is hearty, heartfelt singing, which sounds great – it’s one of the joys of being part of this congregation.

  16. Sorry – didn’t include my full name in the preceding post – its Joanna Cruickshank.

  17. I agree with Karen that the rise of recorded P and W music may be having an effect. Personally, I’ve never quite cottoned onto the idea of having someone else sing praises to God on my behalf, but then some may say the same thing about choral singing.

  18. Karen’s comment about the rise of recorded music is a very relevant one; like many things in society today, recorded music provides a ready means of ‘outsourcing’ something everyone used to do for themselves (eg singing around the piano). Today, we watch and listen to people (via various media) who play games for us, act out books for us, cook for us, travel for us, play sport for us etc. We enjoy many virtual experiences we used to go out and have ourselves.

    In addition to this, the state of general music education in Australian schools is pretty awful (especially public schools). Most public primary schools do not have access to a specialist music teacher, and music – as a subject – is given a low priority by those setting the education agenda. (I heard the very eloquent Richard Gill on the subject recently.) So Karen, you’re right on the money when it comes to how little our culture encourages singing – even amongst our children.

    Which brings me to Joanna’s comment. Joanna it seems like your church has figured out some really effective ways of encouraging everyone to make a joyful noise to the Lord! In fact your church reminds me of one I visited occasionally whilst living in Cheshire UK, many moons ago. The old stone building was shared by the Baptists and the Methodists – the Baptists had a large family church meeting in the morning and the Methodists had a small traditional evening meeting. I went to both, and can confidently report that 40 aged and infirm Methodists sang more melodiously, loudly and enthusiastically than the hundreds gathered in the morning! I think that’s a singing culture in action.

  19. I loved the Chesterton quotes.

    Just listened to some excellent lectures on worship (delivered in Budapest by an American, James Jordan). The content of these lectures is so biblical, and so foreign to most of us, that there is something here to offend everyone. I have heard nothing like them anywhere else. Much food for thought at:


  20. I have spent the last couple of days thinking about responding to what was written after my last comment. It would have been easy to get fired up, but I wont.

    I was looking at a more evangelistic use of music that gets people into church. Music is a strong barrier between the believer and non believer. I know it isnt the biggest barrier. Jesus is. But Music doesnt help a new person to feel welcome. This is where I am coming from with my comments.

    Ian you are right. I see you coming from a singing for the believers stance. Believers do need a deep theological song that is great to sing to and be encouraged to profess their faith.

    I dont like it when we just put a barrier between Anglican (and the like) and Charismatics. It makes things worse. I see so much good that can come out of the Charismatic movement if only we stopped harking and started getting alongside and assisting them. They are aware of their weaknesses and I think they are more willing to be helped if we werent so hard on them. But it has to go the other way as well. We are not better than them at everything (no one has claimed that here, I am just emphasizing a point) and we can learn from them.

    Unity in Christ would be awesome to see, especially in practice. I think music would be a great place for this work of unity to work. I would love to see what God would do through it.

    Thankyou all for your words and comments. I have definitely benefited from the discussion.

  21. The P&W movement has turned singing into watching a concert, with those on stage consisting of good-looking people getting hot and sweaty while singing homo-erotic love songs.  The congregation consists of the ordinary looking folk with the ordinary voices drowned out by poor accoustics and big amps.

    I was in a Free Church of Scotland recently, with no instruments and only Psalms being sung.  Wow, the singing was good.

    Surely instruments should be a mere complement to the congregation, not a replacement?  The allure of the Reformed RPW has never been stronger.

  22. You made some great points Tony. Ultimately, I think the greatest improvement would come from all (whether male or female) gaining a deeper conviction of the gospel, a greater conviction of the gravity and horror of our sin, the greatness and holiness of God, so that we are so glad (or ‘happy’ in the sense of deep joy!), that we cannot help but sing! that Jesus has bridged the gap to God!

    Then, by God’s grace, we we will want to sing songs that magnify God, singing of these truths, including our appropriate response to God.  And these songs could include contemporary songs (but not all!) or hymns (but not all!).

    I notice a few people suggesting that singing more hymns would be helpful … I agree! This post by Craig Schwarze is worth a read: http://www.sydneyanglicans.net/life/daytoday/rediscovering_hymns/

    And here is a website I’m building to help churches be able to successfully sing hymns:

    The songs I find most helpful are ones where I understand every word, and want to sing every word, so that I can sing every word wholeheartedly!  Then, of course, there’s musical considerations that do help, from simple issues of the range and key (as was mentioned above), to whether the music supports (but doesn’t overwhelm or distract from) the words (which of course can start to get a little more subjective!).

    I also find it very helpful when a ‘service leader’ introduces a song well, directing my attention to what we’re going to sing about, grabbing my interest, so that I know what the song is about, and I’m motivated to sing the song! Otherwise, my mind is very prone to wander!

    Oh, it’s such a source of tension! But may God give us the grace to bring Him glory through truthful and passionate song!

  23. One reason people may not join in singing is that they are not used to live music, and think that music is something that comes out of an MP3 player or one of those old-fashioned cd players.

    I recently spoke to a 25 year old young woman who had never ever attended a concert.

    At some concerts in Bathurst [reputed to be a musical town] the youngest people attending are in their 50s. The performers are often younger, but this does not always attract younger people.

    It is no wonder that the Sydney Symphony gives very special prices to people under 35, in an effort to secure an audience before we are all off in aged care or dead.

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