Doesn’t anybody sing in church anymore?

Thom Schultz observes a phenomenon I’ve seen (and heard) in my own parish:

Looking around the church last Sunday I noticed that the majority weren’t singing. And most of those who were singing barely moved their lips. The only voices I actually heard were those on stage with microphones.

That’s been the case for years now–in churches large and small. What used to be congregational singing has become congregational staring.

Even when the chipper “worship leader” in contemporary churches bounds on stage and predictably beckons everyone to “stand and worship,” the people compliantly obey the stand command, but then they turn into mute mannequins.

What’s behind this phenomenon? What happened to the bygone sounds of sanctuaries overflowing with fervent, harmonizing voices from the pews, singing out with a passion that could be heard down the street? I suspect it’s a number of unfortunate factors.

Spectator set-up. Increasingly, the church has constructed the worship service as a spectator event. Everyone expects the people on stage to perform while the pew-sitters fulfill the expectation of any good audience–file in, be still, be quiet, don’t question, don’t contribute (except to the offering plate), and watch the spotlighted musicians deliver their well-rehearsed concerts.

Professionalism. It seems it’s paramount for church music to be more professional than participatory. The people in the pews know they pale in comparison to the loud voices at the microphones. Quality is worshipped. So the worshippers balk at defiling the quality with their crude crooning. It’s better to just fake it with a little lip syncing.

He offers some other possibilities. Check them out. 

Meantime, Msgr. Charles Pope, reading that, has some insight of his own:

It seems the old hymns are dying out even in many of the Protestant denominations, and especially in those of the Evangelical sort. Paradoxically, in many of the old mainline Protestant denominations, which are theologically and morally quite liberal, the old hymns are still sung. Many of the Evangelical denominations, which adhere more closely to biblical teachings and morality, are now using Christian contemporary music, largely replacing the old hymns.

But most Christian contemporary music is really meant more to be listened to than to be sung, and it certainly is not designed to be sung by a large group of people.

I favor metrical hymns for congregational singing, and there is a noble history of some five hundred years on which to draw. There are some nice Gregorian hymns too…Honestly, the number of parishes capable of accomplishing that reasonably are few. Further, even if a trained schola exists in your parish, the topic here is congregational singing. Sadly, that reality seems to be disappearing—even in the denominations that once resounded with hymns and enthusiastic singing by most of the congregation. It’s too bad, really…. I find that in most parishes less than 20% even make a pretense of singing.

Amen to that, and it is sad. Our parishes are poorer because of it.

We have a sensational choir and music program at my parish, with a versatile mix of the old (“Praise to the Lord”) and the new (“In the Breaking of the Bread”). It’s all eminently familiar and singable; last weekend, one of the hymns was “Christ, Be Our Light.”  How could you not sing that?  But the majority of the congregation at most Masses chose not to make a joyful noise—or any noise. And it’s that way most weekends. Some of the most recognizable hymns will prod people to sing, because they’ve known them forever (any hymn to Mary will usually get people to perk up).

But the rest is silence.

What’s up with that?


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