Confessions of a Worship Wars Mercenary

It’s been brutal on the blog-o-battlefield. Since last week’s Holy Soup article “Why They Don’t Sing on Sunday Anymore,” I’ve been dodging incoming fire from hundreds of commenters and hundreds of thousands of site visitors and social media shares.

I’ve seen that people have very strong feelings about this subject. Music is a highly subjective thing. Everybody has an opinion on how music should be managed in a church setting. After this week I have new appreciation for the difficult work of music leaders and the mine fields through which they must delicately walk.

Even though I’ve been in church all my life, grew up in a family of music professionals, taught drum lessons, and have a son and daughter-in-law in our church’s worship band, I’ve learned some new things this week. I appreciate the analysis of the technical side of music, the importance of the audio mix, and what methods have been tried–successfully and not.

“Everyone sings in my church.”

Some commenters report that everybody sings in their churches, and they see none of the problems I mentioned in the article. That’s good news.

We all see life through our own lens, wherever we happen to be. This article reflects my view. But my lens is a national one. My work puts me in contact with thousands of churches from coast to coast. The views in last week’s article are not drawn from any particular church–and not from my own church, which works hard at being intentionally participative.

Rather, my reflections in the article represent a composite of thousands of churches in America that have indeed seen declines in participation–and not just with congregational singing.

“You have fueled the fires of new vs. old. God help you.”

I am sorry. I did not intend to ignite the old worship wars, pitting traditional music against contemporary music. It seems a number of commenters attempted to “read between the lines” and judge me as a mercenary against contemporary music. Not true at all. I love the contemporary genre. And the classic hymn genre. And bluegrass. And jazz. God can be worshipped with all kinds of genres.

Musical genre is not the issue. Congregational participation is the issue.

My comments about over-amplified sound speak to congregational participation, not mere decibel levels. And if we’re talking about participation, it’s important to consider what we–regular attendees and visitors–hear in the room. If we hear only the people on stage, then it sounds like a performance. If, however, we hear the clear sound of the congregation, the community of believers, praising the Lord together, then it sounds like participation.

The performance issue is one that is particularly troubling with Millennials. Their authenticity antennae are up. We recently talked with a college student who explained why he left the church he attended. Watch this brief clip.

During our research for our new film, “When God Left the Building,” we talked with a young Millennial man who joined the worship band at a large church. Over time he became uncomfortable with the performance-focused stage presentations. He walked away. Eventually he joined a church that intentionally strived to focus the congregation’s adulation squarely on Jesus. They placed the musicians behind a curtain.

Successful Christian band Gungor recently took a similar step with a participatory worship event called Liturgist. Band leader Michael Gungor said, “Liturgy is built on the work of the people, rather than on anybody in particular. We create an experience that has very little to do with Gungor. We hide individual personalities. We make it more of a collective experience.” So the band is artistically obscured behind a translucent curtain.

I recently experienced this fully enveloping time, joined in the robust congregational singing, took part in the Eucharist, and thoroughly worshipped the Lord.

“You don’t love the Lord.”

After reading and reflecting on hundreds of comments this week, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. The blog was about “why they don’t sing.” The singers made lots of speculations about the hearts of the non-singers. But the singers’ speculations bore no resemblance to the non-singers’ actual reasons for not singing.

The singers’ predominant speculation/judgment is that those who don’t sing are not spiritual enough. In essence, “If you loved God (as much as we do) you’d sing.”

In our book, “Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore,” we document this tendency of those on the inside to presume to know the minds of those on the outside. This judgmental tendency is one of the major reasons why most people avoid church.

A reader sent me this message this week: “Shame on you for placing yourself at the centre of your worship. It’s not about you, pal.” Does this shaming approach work–with anyone? I don’t believe so. It only perpetuates the public’s view that churchgoers are judgmental and hypocritical. And, assigning all blame to the silent pew-sitters sends the message that leaders believe they have no room for improvement.

Fearless conversation

Finally, the unprecedented reaction to last week’s article shows me there’s a lot of pent-up, unresolved emotion on this issue of music and singing in church. And, as much as I appreciate the blog traffic and comments, we really need to be engaging in face-to-face civil conversations in our congregations about this stuff. Rather than speculating about one another, we need to sit down with one another, listen to one another, understand one another, and explore together what it means to worship.

We are the Body of Christ. We represent different parts of the Body, with different perspectives. But the Father desires to see his children work with each other, to accept each other, to love each other. And worship him together.

74 Responses to “Confessions of a Worship Wars Mercenary”

  1. Well said! There are too many in our churches who defensively fold their arms and refuse to accept insight into any of the many reasons why SO many of our churches are flailing about clueless as to why we can’t compel new people to join in our lackluster comfortable worship. I think God had something to say about that in the book Amos.

    • I think churches need to have a better balance of the “old” and the “new”. I love most of the new music and am a musician myself. But i grew up in a conservative Baptist atmosphere and also LOVE singing out of that old red hymn book. i HATE singing off the wall.and i hate competing with fancy musicians on the podium. signing with them, yes. I go to many EHSSQ & Gaither concerts and sing right along every word.

      If the church has a wide range of ages in the congregation, they need to feed them all. this early traditional service and later contemporary service is doing nothing but excluding people and dividing your people (church) into groups.

    • I’ve led worship for 14 years to this point. To be honest, I appreciate Thom’s view point. I have found many songs in the worship genre that are artistically well written, but too hard for the congregation to sing. Many times I would criticize my self for the songs I write to be “too simple” or “not dynamic enough”. Yet without fail they always seem to get the best response because the average person could engage in worship.. The Lord asked me not to “sing over their heads, but lead them to sing…

    • Elizabeth Harrell Reply October 1, 2014 at 1:34 pm

      But there’s one kind of music nobody here is talking about, and it’s a cultural thing. As recent transplants from the northeast to the Blue Ridge area, we find ourselves in a church whose 25-voice choir sings ONLY country Gospel to lively, professional instrumental tracks.

      Yes, this is the music of a couple of generations ago, but the greying faction in our congregation is still active and still in charge (mostly of the music). Quite a few youth are very much involved in this folk genre – providing percussion or guitar accompaniment, and we don’t see this kind of music fading any time soon.

      Now, a praise band of youth (and the occasional guitar-playing middle-ager) does lead the worship service monthly, and a seemingly endless supply of young soloists perform contemporary worship “specials.” But the occasional guest groups are almost always blue-grass gospel.

      Another kind of music – and as a Christian of a certain age, I can still recall them – those vigorous “youth rallies” where song leaders pumped their arms about, the pianists traveled up and down and all over the keys, the organists played with the vibrato stops out, and the occasional trumpeter blared the upbeat melodies with virtuoso flourishes. The packed halls of kids and adults sang out on all the verses of the choruses and sons with gusto. The tunes were catchy, the lyrics usually theologically sound, focused on the salvation message, and the energy palpable. Then we would all sit down and listen to the “special music”: A quartet in good harmony singing at a fast clip, a trained (pop or operatic) soloist with yet another arrangement of “Jerusalem,” or “I Walked Today where Jesus Walked,” a bright and cheerful brass ensemble, a ladies’ trio in close harmony, and – as yet – no drums in sight. We were primed to hear from God

      Sure, those were performances, but we gladly joined the spirit of it all. It was the happy prelude to the message, always followed by the invitation. Then, kids streamed down the aisles, as the music played, to commit to Christ, or to rededicate, or to volunteer for missions… whatever the invitation asked.

      So fast-forward to today. Enough has been said about contemporary music, and I heartily endorse much of it for Scriptural lyrics and an appropriately relevant sound in the democratic musical language of our younger generations. No longer must the soloist be classically trained or a virtuoso, as anyone with a decent grasp of guitar chords and rhythm is welcome, and most of the praise team’s singers can carry a tune.

      But in our Southern Baptist church, the country vibe reigns.

  2. Diana Whitlatch Reply May 28, 2014 at 6:48 am

    Your final paragraph says it all. God loves all His children and wants us to gather together in love and acceptance – whether we sing or not, whether it is traditional, contemporary or a mix of both. What’s that camp song?….”All God’s Children Got A Voice In The Choir”!!! Talk to each other and love one another.

  3. I liked your first post…and this one too. Thanks for your wise advice. You may enjoy my post on the importance of singing to one another as the body of Christ……

  4. I believe your comment about insiders and outsiders really strikes “a chord.” I would have said that congregations sing, until I steped off the stage and began attending church as part of the outsiders rather than a leader. I have seen first hand how few really do take part in what we call worship. I think that a big part of the problem is that the church today fails to address the fact that every member has gifts to share when the church comes together. That is clear from 1 Corinthians. We have created a place where a few can use their gifts in music and proclamation, while the rest are expected to sit silent and take notes. From the comments to your last blog it was clear to me that the ones upset where those who are active getting to use their gifts in the service. For the rest, the only option is to take up the offering… or disappear .

    • Well said Roy! We want to participate.

    • Roy,

      We invite anyone who will to join any of our choirs or ensembles. Many of our singers can’t read a note when they start, but those of us that can, mentor them.

  5. Amen to all above and both of Thom’s blogs. The fearless face-to-face conversations are just beginning. May they not be snuffed out.

  6. And welcome to the Church. Your’e likely to get this kind of reaction to almost any issue you dare to dig into in a church. Just one more reason why some leave. The politics and vitriol are just a bit much as people seek to protect their sacred cows.

  7. You have definitely hit a lot of nails on the head, here, especially with your links. A good book I read on the subject was “Why I Left The CCM Movement” available here:

    I have been critical of CCM since the 1980’s, even as I was making my own attempts to write CCM. I think it’s wrong to outright condemn any medium as unfit for worship. However, one has to be careful to remember that the Greek work for “church” is “eklesia”, which means “to call out”. Christianity is not the world and should not look like the world, or have the same sound, smells, or touch. While we need to reach people where they are, we also need to then pull them to where they should be.

    My church is full of enthusiastic singers. It’s something we cultivated from day one, 15 years ago. But, as we continue to gravitate more toward CCM, this joyful noise is beginning to be affected. I site many reasons for this in my blog article;

    One of the biggest problems I see, of course, is that CCM was first and foremost pushed by the Trinity Broadcasting Network and others who have now morphed into the Faith Movement, a decidedly unchristian movement that has, through media, infiltrated its heretical ideas into , for lack of a better word, the mainstream denominations. That it appeared with the Charismatic movement is no coincidence. It places the emphasis of Christianity on what the people are doing, instead of what Christ did. It plays upon a cult-like religious fervor that is well-served by CCM.

    Overall, as you pointed out, and as the young bassist in the link did so pointedly, we need always to be wary of motivations and objectives in everything and not let worship become a psychological exercise. The stakes are much too high to be playing with people’s emotions for our own gratification.

  8. I wonder if there is a connection between those who don’t like to sing and those who just come to put in their time on Sunday morning?

    • There’s one way to find out, Kendal. Sit down and talk with them.

    • Kendal. Usually I am quiet when making comments to others here, but yours intrigues me, as I too wondered why others do not sing in church on sunday morning. All I can do is share my personal experiences. I have noticed most churches in the US do not use hymnals, which I grew up with, so not knowing songs that are on a wall by projector are new to me. I also wondered why some leaders and others who sit in church are not singing, and was told they are praying, and reflecting on the words. Words can play powerfully in our minds and hearts. A long time ago, I was told worshiping (singing) is just as important as praying. (Prefect example was David.) and when we do sing, its as I am saying to God, I not only believe, but I confirm/understand and commit to what it is I am singing about. (Personal reflection is so important to build a deeper conviction.) Therefore, Lord I am committing or recommitting these words that I sing to you. Looking at it this way, as I am also praying to the father this way. Sometimes it even helps me to listen more intently to the quality of voices around me. I then realize, how great it is to be around those gifted singers, as well as the rest of the church to drown me out, but from time still making the attempts I need that are necessary. I am sure you will receive different answers from others…..Then, there is also the worse case scenario. I am struggling (and we all do). Making it very difficult to sing, as there may be unconfessed sin in my mind/heart which I need to repent of….that is when it would be appropriate if someone who knew me would ask genuinely how I am really doing spiritually…..

      • Well put Steven. My husband and I are struggling without a church home. Worship music is very important to us.(especially me) Most churches focus on the entertainment rather than participation of worship music.

    • I read this book and while I agree with some points, I do not agree all of the CCM movement is bad. The church has seen many changes over hundreds of years including the introduction of hymns which were not received well at all. I mean they wanted to sing songs written by men and woman rather than chant scripture!?!?! How world and carnal!! The church is to be separate from the world, but it also must remain relevant to the current generation or it will die and then where is it’s influence?

    • I don’t think so. Most people come to church because they really do want to be there. Most people don’t sing. They just don’t. I run a music studio and I ask people on a daily basis if they like to sing. The overwhelming response is “Oh NO! I can’t sing and I don’t like to sing.”

  9. I have found that no matter what the musical preference in a congregation, if you have an attitude of only letting ‘trained’ musicians involved in the music program, the congregation will become passive observers. It is crucial that church music directors promote broad participation in the musical offerings presented, encouraging people to improve their abilities, as they are doing this for God, not for the congregation…

  10. Pastor Rob Nedbalek Reply May 28, 2014 at 8:49 am

    I can say only one thing, old friend, “AMEN!”
    Without Face-to-Face conversation, this issue is only going to grow and become more divisive.

  11. Certain boundaries should be set. That will be determined by your church leader, board, elders, deacons, and the congregation. I believe your blog hit some core issues, that DO need attention from time to time. Bible warns us of being comfortable and legalistic. We forget public worship is important, however, and most importantly our personal relationship and how we may worship in private is also just as important. Music is an incredible way of outreach; our purpose. It is essential to ways of communicating with different ethnic groups as well as our youth. Thom, I am grateful for your blog. It not only makes me reflect on what is happening around me, but also what motivates me in my personal relationship with Christ. I am reminded life is about what is happening now, and there is nothing wrong with change, as long as everyone is growing within the same purpose. Calling each other higher. I am glad we have a bit of diversity here. As we can all still learn from one another.

  12. I’d be curious if you are only in contact with dispensational churches or you have spent some time in reformed churches as well. And if so, what differences do you encounter.

    • Kevin, my work takes me to all kinds of churches across the Christian spectrum. More and more, the church trends are more similar than they are different.

      • I thank you, Thom, for initiating this discussion and ‘taking the heat’ of the battle! That you read all the comments is amazing! I am only a third of the way through those appending the original article.

        I surely sympathize with those critical of the vapid lyrics, the ear-splitting noise, the loss of songbooks [with 4-part harmony to learn and be taught, and words with wisdom from the ages]. It’s made a spectacle that ‘you can hear down the street’ but has it aided anything the church is there for?

        A Facebook sharing gained a lot of folks who disagreed with you. My agreement with you produced a bunch more shrill complaints, nearly all from performers. My challenge to them to come visit my prison ministry was met by dead silence! Worship is not meant to be confined to the Sunday morning hours, but should reflect and inspire the worship of living and serving.

  13. I confess that I am among the non-singers. I have been for years. I find that the sing-a-longs in church produces a manufactured worship experience. Why is it that the church has embraced only one form of corporate worship? Since I am not a singer and don’t enjoy singing (I don’t even sing along to the radio) being required to participate in a mandatory sing-a-long does not put me in a worshipful state. I imagine I am not alone in this.

    My worship of our Lord is deeply personal, real and overwhelming – the kind that fills me to the point my heart could burst. That kind of worship comes from a relationship with our Lord, and cannot be manufactured. My family and I regularly experience this together when we are out enjoying God’s creation. So to those who speculate that people who are not singing in church don’t have a meaningful and growing relationship with God, you could not be more wrong.

  14. Well, Thom, my experience is still the same as yours. As is my view of what is wrong here. Oh, how I wish I could find a church where they worship the Lord and not the music.

  15. Wow, what a shame that Christians still put so much lipservice into this issue. Even though this is interesting to read, I wish we could and would spend our time here on earth caring about what Jesus thought the issues were.

  16. My early church experience was in an older, conservative, traditional kind of church. Granted, it was in the days before “contemporary worship,” but I do have vivid memories of the song leader pulling louder and softer responses from the congregation via his pitch, motions, and body language as we all sang the “old hymns.” I also don’t recall a lot of “worshipful expression” on people’s faces, but most everybody sang. I don’t know how this fits in the current discussion, but inauthentic worship is not a new phenomenon.

  17. Approaching 70 years of age I certainly have observed and concur with your writings about today’s modern worship service. If I had a platform and reason to write, I would match, in a much less eloquent way, your comments . It seemed natural and wholesome to sing with the old folks when I was a child the songs of the church. When we all get to heaven and what a day that will be sounded like heaven to me. I was asked to sing with a gospel quartet when I was 17 years old. County and state gospel music conventions were the thing to be a part of . Seemed like old and young understood and enjoyed the music. I now saying and an adult choir at our church We have two services this second being the upbeat modern music

  18. Rock on Thom! You get it.

  19. Excellent two articles. Glad to hear some are considering muting the appearance of musician participation by some type of curtain. I never thought of that.

    I too at times since I don’t perform as much because I’m doing other ministry, watch around my congregation and count the standing mannequins as they “watermelon” though the music until the time of congregational prayer releases them from their compelled standing aches. (especially the older ones!)

    In the responses I’m keen on seeing by the amount of ego where the wolves lie within the sheepfold of worship bias when we should be looking for improvement. It is not a good sign of the times.

  20. “Musical genre is not the issue. Congregational participation is the issue.”

    Amen. God can be worshiped in many genre. We have a young father of 5 in our congregation who writes Christian Hip Hop. This is not my preferred genre, but I enjoy it just as much as contemporary, classical pieces, and hymns. Why, because the message in the music is scripturally sound, and it is done in such a way that it is easy to remember, very much the same as the scripture songs I grew up with at Calvary Chapel, in the “Jesus Movement” days of the 1970s. God can, and does, use many ways to draw us to Himself, and He WILL be glorified, because it is His will.

    As for congregational participation, I find that it is a matter of confidence, or a lack thereof.

    One of the methods that we have found to develop it, is to station choir members (we have a chancel choir, a men’s chorus, and a couple of mixed acapella ensembles) at different spots within the congregation. It is amazing the response you get when folks around you are singing in full voice, it takes the spotlight off of you and lets you participate without feeling like you are standing out. We have had some wonderful congregational singing using this method.

    Another method is to not expect the congregation to know a new song cold. We teach it to them first. This sometimes takes a couple of weeks, but it is very effective. We start by having a choir or ensemble member sing it as a solo one week, followed by using it in the next weeks service in which a singer will sing the first verse, and the congregation joins on the following verses. Just a little bit of familiarity like this goes a long way toward building up confidence, and everyone can enjoy it.

    • Good points! I would say that 80% of the music has to be familiar to get 80% of the congregation to sing. When there are lalalas and other non word phrases, most people stop singing. Most people in the congregation are not there to pretend to be a performer….so they stop singing. Song leaders, worship teams…call them what you may but I consider their job to be one of assisting others into the tune or the words….not performing. If the song is unfamiliar in a singing way to the people then they are left being awkward and do not sing. And the folks on the “stage” continue as if everyone is participating. They need to learn to read their own audience. I have never seen a survey about music in my church, and there have been many other surveys. I think each church needs dialogue on this because the music is usually where many people can participate and feel like they belong.

  21. What is it with us human beings in which we are so driven to enslave each other and ourselves with all these outward things such as this? If someone doesn’t feel like singing or singing loud, should they just fake it so they don’t get judged and scolded by their fellow Christians? Being God is watching our hearts, there is certainly no way to fake it with Him. I can’t even to pretend to like liver. We need to quit trying to control others and just enjoy our own relationship with God, what ever that looks like.

  22. Thank you Thom, for your wisdom and for putting yourself “out there.” I honor your opinions and take the wisdom I can use for my ministry without judgment.

    You are a blessing to the world and I appreciate you!!!

    Love, Karyn

  23. Great articles and I pray it does get us all talking instead of yelling or criticizing. Having lead worship for many years in a church that will soon be 50 years young, I have heard it all from both sides and seen people hurting. Our church is kid of blended and people do sing out on both old and new songs but if the volume level is too high it drowns them out. I tell our sound guys, if you cannot hear the congregation, it it too loud period!! This summer might be a good time to pull some people together and work on the balance a little more while keeping it fresh.

  24. Thom – I cannot thank you enough for all of the helpful information you provide here on your blog, in your books, interviews, etc.
    My home congregation here in Utah is right in the thick of all of this, and it helps that you are addressing the topics one at a time.
    Wow – dealing with these emotional issues is like walking through a minefield!
    Patience, patience, patience, love, love, love. Take a deep breath and try again.

  25. I am a church planter who is focusing upon regathering young people back into the church who have left it for whatever reasons. Young people are pretty smart and savvy. They look for a genuine worship experience whereby everyone feels ushered into the presence of God. Wanting to know more about what that looks like, I press them for more. This group seems to settle upon a very common theme–the church is too polished and professional.

    Professional speakers. Professional singers. Professional choirs. Professionally sounding and professionally predictable. They tell me if Jesus is the center of the worship, then why are there stages and pulpits? Why isn’t there more emphasis upon the leading of the Holy Spirit and the spontaneity of it? They feel like an audience that is only led and does not get to participate. So they left the church.

    We now meet in living rooms and coffee shops and at picnic tables around the city. Someone with a guitar contributes as the Spirit directs. Someone with a testimony contributes as the Spirit directs. Everyone is engaged in a discipling relationship and are eager to go to the next meeting! When we all gather together, no polish, no professionally smooth worship, but a lot of voices raised together in celebration of the One true God!

    Our average age group? 17 to 26 years of age. They are coming back to church and this time they feel like they are important.

    • Pastor Bill, your comments are right on target. My 20-something age children have said this very thing. They grew up in the church with some hymns and a transition to the worship “show”, and are desperate to find a place where they can be a part of the worship, not just watch a show. This makes me so sad. The thing that I love about the Catholic mass is that the vocalists and instruments are behind the congregation in most churches. The melody is simple, singable with a clear message. There are no complicated musical bridges, instrumental interludes that disrupt the flow of the song, and the words/music is available in your pew rack. The complicated sound systems and microphones, variety of instrumental musicians, vocal contortions, and loud volume do not lead us all into worship. It is actually very distracting and can keep us from worship. I look around our Sunday morning services and see few people singing, and I know it is for a variety of reasons. Worship has become a real circus in most evangelical churches. If it weren’t for the teaching and worship in communion, I would give up as well. It seems like we have taken a good idea (worship songs based on scripture) and taken it down a completely wrong tangent. There is something to be said for the Quaker meetings where quiet allowed the Holy Spirit to speak to believers and move among the congregation.

  26. I remember reading part of a biography of a woman whose name I have forgotten. But, I do remember this that she said: “I discovered that I was a snob about snobs!” It’s the old “Do it my way or I will judge you!!!”

  27. Thom, I am wondering if you have had any face to face conversations with those of us who love to sign along in the churches that play the music loud? Despite what you seem to think, some of us do participate in those churches. It seems you are only focusing on those who don’t.

    Instead of seeking to make all churches play music in the way that you think is correct, perhaps we need both types of churches and those who love to sign with the loud music should continue to attend those churches, while those who don’t should attend churches where the music isn’t loud?

    Some of us would be very uncomfortable signing at a church where the music is not loud. Would you have the same concern about our lack of participation at churches that play the music the way that you seem to think is the correct way? If so, would you blame the worship leaders in those churches for making me too uncomfortable to sign, or would you judge me as lacking spiritual maturity for not participating?

  28. Just a couple of comments.Worship is not singing according to the New Testament. I did a study of the word ‘worship’ and to my surprise it meant to lay prostrate. The analogy was a general of an army who had lost the battle and been captured and he lay prostrate before his captor to signify his loss and the captor’s rule over him.

    If you read Acts two carefully you will note that the New Testament Church met together to eat food, have fellowship, pray together and be instructed with the apostles teaching. No where does it say they sang. Acts 2:42:46.

    • True, but hymns must have been part of their lives because Paul and Silas sang hymns to God when they were in prison, and they didn’t have hymnals, so they must have sung them often enough to be able to know them off by heart. And you’ll have to forgive John for questioning your conviction.

  29. Thom, have you received the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Has God ever healed someone through you? Have you seen signs wonders and miracles? Have you experienced the power of God? When you experience these things you will sing at the top of your lungs and you will not care if everyone around you is singing, because the only one you’ll see is Jesus.

  30. Mr. Kennon — every or nearly every reply by you on the first blog post and now this have been snarky, condescending, arrogant, rude and sarcastic. You have offended many people by questioning our spirituality and love for God. I hope you will actually sign off, because you promised to do it once before and add nothing but division and a mean spirit to the the discussion.
    I have no “heart problem” or “worship deficiency.” I cannot sing a song I don’t know and have not had the chance to learn. I don’t listen to the radio non-stop and don’t know the words to every new song. I am not the only one who finds the push towards new music steeped in arrogance. Many of the members of all churches are older, and have been instrumental in building the church they now sit in without the ability to participate in the song portion of the worship service. Even if the words are ‘on the wall,’ many cannot see that far or through the rows of people in front of them. This insistence on change for the sake of change marginalizes the people among us who are due respect and inclusion.

  31. I think your analysis of why people don’t sing is right on. However, as far as I can tell, our congregation is engaged with the music in worship even though many are not singing. I can also say that practiced as the music is, it is bathed in prayer.

  32. Well written. Here’s my testimony. As an unqualified singer in church, and one who has difficulty singing unless it has a simple rhythm, I too go blank when we are introduced to a ‘new song’ that requires backing vocals and various vocal gymnastics to get to the end of the thing. When people talk about the ‘old’ songs verses the ‘new’, I get the feeling there is misunderstanding between rhythm and recording. The old songs have a simple rhythm, are usually written in a poetic style and are aimed at the multitude, whereas the ‘new’ songs need a certain degree of studio mixing and various other complicated techniques to be sung, and lack that poetic nature, and for the great unwashed they are very hard to sing. They might sound great coming out of the stereo but they don’t sound great coming out of my mouth. So I stand in silence, wait till its all over and then we can get into the ‘real church’ stuff for the rest of the morning. Sorry muso’s, but you waste a lot of your energy at times and many of your ‘admiring’ audience are not standing in adulation, they are standing so that they wont be noticed.

  33. I appreciate the encouragement to seek to honor God and love Him and those for whom Jesus died. I am more comfortable when the music isn’t loud and when I can hear those around me. I also find That I can love and honor God when the music is loud and no one can hear or notice me…kinda like a prayer closet in the middle of the room of people.”

  34. Doesn’t it also say in Acts that the early church only sang “traditional” hymns from the 19th century blasted from a pipe organ led by a choir in robes?

    Oh wait, NO it doesn’t.
    I say the CCM and new-fangled worship is heresy:
    bring back true traditional music like it describes in the Bible – Psalms sung to Harps & Lyres.
    While we’re at it, how come no one brings their unblemished goats to sacrifice in worship any more?

    Get a grip, worship warriors, we invent in our small minds what traditional or authentic worship is. If it is about what we want, it is not worship. As a pastor I can look out at the congregation and tell who is worshiping God and who is making idols or just using up air.

    •   “I’ve learned that necessity is not a fact, it’s an interpretation, and that too many people confuse the intensity of their feelings with the likelihood that they’re right.”-Michael Josephson, ethicist

    • Only God knows the heart. I am certain that you do not know the condition of everyone’s heart. When I am worshipping sometimes I look joyful. But sometimes my appearance is less than joyful when Father and I are talking things over….

  35. Thank you for your follow up! My continual worry is that the focus here is on the physical issues of worship in church today that may need tweaking but will continue to fuel the fire for complaint, instead of focusing on the spiritual issues and our need to put our eyes back on Jesus! I thank you for getting the conversation started. I would certainly be encouraged by some bible verses that could be included in this conversation! Thanks for your closing comments: “But the Father desires to see his children work with each other, to accept each other, to love each other. And worship him together.” Amen! Psalm 34:3 Glorify the Lord with me, let us exalt his name together!”

  36. Thom, I’ve read both of your articles on this topic and find them helpful for the church. HOWEVER, several, but not all, responses used inflammatory words that generated a lot of destructive emotion, IMHO. These kinds of behaviors are why I don’t want to be affiliated with the BIG church anymore. I am guilty of being one who uses inflammatory words and emotions. I’m sorry for my behavior, but not my love for JESUS! I take the Bible seriously, but not literally. I believe in marriage equality from a biblical perspective that sees Scriptures through the lens of our loving Savior. Yes, as a gay, single dad, and pastor, I believe that God created me beautifully just the way I am. I believe it’s ok to doubt and question faith and the Bible.
    I’ve been a worship designer/planner for churches. I love the variety of genres, ok, maybe an organ snob and favor the electric guitar over acoustic in worship. But at the end of a worship experience, I ask myself, have I experienced Jesus through the people around me? Has my preferences somehow hindered someone from knowing this God I love so much? As a worship designer/planner/leader, have my personal preferences gotten in the way of others so they can’t participate? Do I help create a safe place for holy dialogue to occur in worship among the people of God about God?

    Thom, your article challenges the church to think of others and threatens some of our preferences. Thank you. We need to be challenged. I need to be challenged. You have taught me the importance of asking people what they think. The gives opportunity for helpful dialogue and gives me reality check to see if what I am doing in ministry is relevant.

    Jay, a pastor just trying to live out his call by loving God and each other through prayer and dialogue.

  37. I really respect how you handled this topic in the midst of criticism and insult. Thank you! May we all fix our eyes upon Jesus and worship!

  38. In a way I find your posts rather humorous. So I am a singer….one who enjoys singing. I enjoy hearing others sing. I have done some specials over the years. But I am just that….generally I do not listen to make sure all of those folks around me are singing. This is what I find real funny!!!!!….I just sing away…..I do listen for my grandchildren because their parents want them to be singing….Sometimes they look at me oddly along with other children because I try to sing alto! I THINK THAT IS ONE SAD THING IS MANY CHURCHES ARE GETTING AWAY FROM SINGING IN PARTS. After many years of being in a choir, thankfully I hear the alto or remember such….My point is we need to be the example. Show others you always sing… is a good testimony, Within the church we now attend….(have had some issues, oh is that a story) The music is a mix of hymns, contemporary that is mostly choruses. What I find sad is that they do not have any outside folks sing, ever from what I understand. Never a fresh voice to bless your heart. It appear they are afraid they will have someone in who shall I say, they don’t appreciate, Because we are recent members, there are things we find out regularly that are just not part of what we would like to see be part of “our” church. So at this point we are doing as our daughter has suggested, to step up to the plate to kindly incorporate/suggest/do what we see as a need within this church structure. So why not be an encourager of showing your ‘worship’ by singing out..So my conclusion is we are there to make a difference. The difference will be for Christ… see others trust Him and one day share in His kingdom

  39. Well said. So thankful for a church that several years ago realized this from a solemn assembly and from this was born a way to avoid this arena, it is heart warming not to have the church set up like a rock comcert and old and new songs alike being sung by the congregation. I can honestly say, I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house to worship!

  40. Have you also attended Roman Catholic churches? If so, would you say the same thing?

  41. As I look back on all the comments between this article and the first…. I feel as Christians we are kinda missing the point. Shouldn’t our churches be so full of visitors and “lost people” that they don’t know the songs so in turn they don’t sing every week? The church isn’t to form a Christian bubble it’s to honor, glorify, and worship Jesus; proclaiming His name throughout our communities! There are plenty of Churches in the United States- if you don’t like the music at the one you attend now go find another one that better suits your preferences! These articles are not about core doctrines they are about preferences!!!

  42. Perhaps what’s most challenging is when I find myself agreeing with what you’ve written… only to know that (as a lead pastor) the worship team in our church is sensitive to critique. Even linking them to an article like this could make them feel that I don’t appreciate them. What makes worship teams amazing to the church is that they are sensitive to things the average congregation member isn’t; however, what makes worship teams hard to work with is that they are sensitive to things the average congregation member isn’t. ;)

  43. “Musical genre is not the issue. Congregational participation is the issue.”


    Like you, I have visited over 40 different congregations in a 7 year span. Actually, I have stopped counting. Every time I go, I sit further back in the congregation and observe the congregation during “worship”. What I have seen, every single time, is that if worship equals signing, the evangelical church of America is not worshipping. The congregation is certainly NOT singing. I have witnessed this over and over and over again, so I don’t care what kind of objections any one raises about this. The church at large, is NOT singing! Maybe they are in your church, but I also look at the big picture. Don’t believe me? Sit in the back of your congregation this week and look around. Surprise!

    I pastored a church for 10 years, been on staff at a large church as a worship leader, helped plant several churches and built worship teams from the ground up multiple times. I also have been a regular guy in the pew, one of the “led” ones. I am also a professional musician. I have no beef against music.

    As a young worship leader, I would always blame the people for not singing. They were unspiritual! I remember stopping the first song midway through the first chorus in disgust for the lack of participation, telling everyone to greet someone, and walking off the platform in disgust. I was mad! How could these people be so in the flesh? (The irony of my own actions escaped me at that point!)

    As a more mature believer and leader, I now realize that if people are not singing the songs we play, that is on us. We are worship leaders. As worship leaders, our job is to lead the congregation, not shove something down their throats.

    I have written extensively about this over at There is a major problem with the contemporary worship movement and I suspect the worship leaders know this. Instead of defending what you do against all attack, and ignoring the issues, I suggest worship leaders wrestle with the issues and find solutions that work. They are out there!

    • Yes, congregational participation is the issue. The worship leader should be like a gardener, facilitating the congregation in worship. Discover what kind of seeds are there, then find the right soil and the right conditions. Help them flourish before God.

      The problem with many contemporary WP songs is that they are better suited to a performance by a soloist with a band. And of course, the congregation does not (cannot) participate. So instead of the entire garden flourishing, we have a couple well-tended plants while the other rest are limp. Who wants to go to a garden like that?

  44. Well, I do like to sing, and I have been in the choir, and I will sing now if the hymn does not seem to resemble a merry-go-round theme, but as often as not I find I get more spiritual sustenance from a plain spoken service. (I’m a Latin-rite Catholic).

    I’m now 50, so I was in the post-V2 sweet spot of “let’s use more contemporary music to keep those young people in church!” I can’t speak to non-Catholic experiences, but all my years (years!) of experience of contemporary music has really led me back to an 8 am or 5 pm quiet Mass. I really am here to worship, not be entertained or led by a P&W (in my specific case) cantor with plenty of talent and plenty of ego to go with it.

    I don’t think the music is reason people have left the church, but I do think we have now created passive congregations who think that this modern music is best left to professionals and they just put up with it.

    I also think there is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with a reverent spoken Mass–it is as close to chant as most us of will get. I will take it over an overblown show tune production any day. And my 11-yr-old (also a musician) feels the same way.

    This may be a cultural preference, but so what: I do not scorn people who can genuinely worship with contemporary music, but no one should denigrate those of us who don’t “feel it.”

    • Cathy, your response resonates a lot with me! I am a full time musician and travel a lot. After all these years of “worship” and worship leading, the one element of corporate worship that resonates the most with me is weekly communion and reciting the Nicene Creed, without music!”

      These two elements, have the ability to re-center me in my faith, no matter what else is going on in my life. They are simple, and the “church” has utilized these elements in worship from the beginning.

  45. Thanks Thom for your blog; I’m new to it – turned on to this by a member of my church, and your insights are dead on. As a pastor, I agree: When the connection between the leaders and the led is confusing, broken, damaged, strained, or non-existent, then everything in worship struggles – not just the music. I think the underlying issue in fractured worship is a serious disconnect between the leaders of the church and those who are coming, and yes- the cure is to sit down and get to know those whom we are leading in worship. How do any of us lead people in a church without knowing them, without that connection? With music, it’s not the genre, but the connection we share in worship. If people aren’t participating in a worship service designed for participation, then something is very wrong. (And if leaders aren’t creating participative worship – the wrong begins at the top). We’ve introduced new songs to our very mixed age congregation – in a way that teaches and values the message we’re singing to God, and we’ve seen people embrace and participate in singing because we’ve led them to that point, and because we know what speaks to them – and what doesn’t. We use every genre. We’ve also allowed our student ministry recently to lead worship where that connection wasn’t established – and we had exactly that; a lot of listening, or “toleration” and no participation. Fortunately, I have a music minister that recognizes some music just isn’t going to reach that goal – participatory worship – and we don’t use it. Some of our hymns with so many eighth and sixteenth notes – it’s not going to be pretty trying to get a song that was great for a soloist sung by a couple hundred people. We’ve also found ways of taking a new piece of music and using an intimate means of a soloist to teach a verse as we bring people in; it helps build that connection. And I agree with the technical issues: I was always taught that a sound system should be just enough to make it seem as if it wasn’t there – certainly not to overpower those gathered to worship. If instruments and sound equipment overpower the congregation, then that is a critical technical error: It should enhance, not overwhelm. As a pastor, I don’t want my people kicking back and saying “Oh, well done guys!” and being attendees or concert goers rather than participants. We are gathered together to share the experience of worshipping the most high God, and if our church leaders do not approach worship with that conviction, then the church dies with an “us v. them” mentality. That’s my opinion anyway, and your blog is a wonderful affirmation of seeking that holy connection between God and His children – each and every time we worship; to participate together in an offering of praise.

  46. My “takeaways” from all of this. 1) these discussions/disagreements will probably go on forever 2) Worship leaders and team members should definitely be sensitive to the needs of their congregation — be picky about lyrics, get the volume and mix as good as you can “in the house” not just in your ear monitors, pay attention to the key of the song so most people can sing it, do what you can to avoid coming across as a concert performance.

    I’ve heard worship musicians say that once their sound leaves their gear on its way to the mixing board, their responsibility for what happens in the house ends. I don’t agree with that. For one thing, doing worship correctly is work and I don’t want to do that work if my instrument or voice is too loud or inaudible in the house. It might be better, as a musician, to lay down my instrument and volunteer at the sound board if the volunteers handling the board just don’t really get it. Obviously this has to be handled carefully — no need to antagonize volunteers unnecessarily. But at the end of the day, it might require asking someone to get training if they really don’t understand mixing.

  47. Thank you for your blog.. just read the two about worship and singing, and what a relief to read my thoughts coming from the keyboards of others. For several years now worship has been so difficult for me… I started having migraines because of the vibration from the too loud bass guitars, the double sets of drums, the volume being way too loud. We tried sitting in different parts of the church to no avail. And I would come home with my migraine, collapse into bed and sleep the pain away the rest of the day. I started not going to church until later, after worship was over so that I didn’t have to experience pain and cause my family to suffer without me one day a week. Sometimes I didn’t even go to church, or would go and return home because the service was “wonky” and the worship was mixed in with the service so I could not find a time to go in and be a part without finding myself in pain yet again.

    And all the the time I would try to listen for voices. My own, my son standing beside me, my husband on the other side. People behind my or around… no voices could I hear except those on the microphone. If you could hear those over the sound of the instruments. My older son started volunteering at the soundboard, and on the days he worked it was … a little better. But then the music director corrected him and said not loud enough. We measured the decibels, as the church said they always did. The problem was their meter measured the overall decibels for the entire service, not just during worship. Too loud… 100 was hit often.

    I still looked around, and wondered if I was along in wanting to sing, wanting to hear other people’s voices singing to the Lord in praise… but everyone seemed to just go along as things were.

    I looked for other churches, but the same thing was happening there. So I stopped going. At least at home I can find a service on the internet and I can choose the volume.

    Recently our church “lost’ its music director for another church. And the drums stopped.. the bass guitar stopped. And I can once again attend worship without pain. And I can hear voices… beautiful voices of all the ages, young and old, children, elderly, crackly and beautiful… all raised up to the Lord on high. My heart sings for joy because I can once again be a part of Worship instead of feeling like worship was only for those “up there” with the microphones and the drums. To be able to hear my children and my husband sing along side me… their voices blending with mine and with the rest of the congregation brings such joy to my spirit… and I believe joy to the Lord as well.

    Bless you, and thank you!

  48. I really feel for those “suffering” through worship. Now, it is hard to please everyone, but regardless whether the overall volume is high or low, it should be blended so no single instrument is blasting the others off the stage. And the vocals from the stage are numero uno — meaning if you can’t hear that, everything else is too loud.
    In my church we seem to have a problem with uncontrolled drum volume, while most other instruments are under tight control by the mixing team ( no guitar amps on stage, etc ). I haven’t figured out why the drums can’t be controlled ( electronic drums, special, quieter drum sticks, etc ). If its because the drummer might quit, i’d say let him quit. Otherwise the only alternative is to turn everything else up to match. This is something that can happen when the instrumentalists are wearing in-ear monitors — they may be completely unaware of how loud they are out in the pews. Which brings us back to the sound technicians — assuming they aren’t completely constrained by senior leadership’s directions.

  49. Sorry Im late to the party. Story of my life. Reading the stats just creates an emotion of anger. This anger is because I really don’t know why one mans song brings God into an environment and why another man can sing the same song and it has no effect. ( Some would say thats why God made women);)

    We seem to always look upon the spiritual qualifications of one another as to the success or failure to deliver the Heavenly oil others must see or feel before they decide to join in.

    It is confusing to not be able to bottle the formula that we all desire to have at every place we go to sing or harmonize the choruses and Hallelujahs. However! When God does show up me as the leader is as blessed as anyone who gets that gift. Who knows why we are to be so skilled as musicians and singers? Until The Master pours the oil and we just love, its nothing more than noise and critics at lunch. ;) Forgive the lack of punctuation, I’m ignorant;)

  50. A while back, I happened to watch a YouTube of worship hymns. As I listened, in my heart, I got carried away and found myself worshipping the Lord. When it was over, to my surprise, I had a feeling of being fed. What is this feeling I thought. I hadn’t felt this for years, but I felt nourished, full, fulfilled. Why was that? I came to the conclusion that I had been starving for years from trying to participate with the rock band music, and had not known it. I thought that I had been involved but the empty feelings were just there under the surface. They only showed up when I paid attention to them. The old hymns are like scaffolds that I climb on to access the worship chamber. I love to sense God on His throne as I bow before Him. I want to acknowledge His kingship, I want to be in awe of Him. He is in control of the universe, He will judge me. I like that picture. The modern songs just don’t convey me there. Most of the songs are new every Sunday and there are seldom any recognizable songs. I find myself constantly thinking about the words on the board, the melody twists and the next verse instead of being able to become lost in the glory of a hymn that I know in my heart. Sometimes, the band will start out playing an old hymn but inject it with an upbeat tempo, and that is disappointing. One singer said “We sing modern songs to help you get engaged, because, well, whatever is a ‘bulwark’?” I thought to myself, “uh, it’s part of a mighty fortress, like our God?” It was disappointing to hear my favorite hymn dismissed. So, now, I listen to it on the Internet and my bookmarks of favorite sites are growing.

  51. Ok I have read a lot of these posts. Some I agree with..some I disagree with say a lot of of us! A few things that permeate the tone of all of this. Worship is very personal and matters to each of us how we feel enabled or hamstring by styling, performance, mix, volume, lyrical depth and quality..etc. Perception effects us.. creating selfish attitudes of entitlement that sully our focus. In the end it’s truly is not about us. We have no authority to critique and offer criticism yet we insist on doing so. The real burden and responsibility is on the Pastoral leadership. They are directly accountable to God for the choices they make and the guidance they prayerfully provide. So if you don’t like what is going on you can change churches and find one that you are truly comfortable with. Nothing wrong with that as it happens all the time. Don’t judge others because they don’t agree with you. Move on!

    What we really have to examine is this. Is God working? Do I see signs of the Spirit of God moving people to action in serving others? Finally it’s this simple. WHERE IS THE FRUIT? Are you reaching a lost world for Christ or are you so inwardly focused that lost people seem so different that you to even avoid trying to meet them where they are? The large number of people that are being reached for Christ in modern worship style churches are generally the result of an initial touch-point that begins with relatable life experiences. Music is just one avenue to make the cultural connection. We can say all day long that we are not to be like the world. Guess what.. most lost people can see right though that anyway. Do you really believe that the lost can hardly wait to sing hymns they don’t understand and are suspicious of anyway? Our lives are such a facade that most believe it’s not real its just Christians playing church. Doing life ..REAL life is what lost people see as valuable and a life changer through Christ. The music is a common ground connection point. The bigger focus is sharing life together. I believe that as followers in Christ our accountability to God is about telling the world about him through the witness of your life. All of us are broken. Time to stop pretending otherwise. The world already knows it!


  1. The Modern Worship Problem: A Responsed | Jared B. Johnson - June 3, 2014

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