The sound of (congregational) silence

Something crucial in worship is lost if the context is discouraging worshipers from singing.

By Bob Burroughs

There is a lot of energy, excitement, discussion, change, pluses, minuses and a world of opinions about the subject of worship in today’s churches. To discuss all these would take several articles.

But for now I’d like to write about the subject of congregational participation in worship — and in particular, singing. The sounds of silence are making a strong statement in many of today’s congregations.

Oh, don’t misunderstand me. I certainly realize there are plenty of sounds in every sanctuary or worship facility: organ, piano, instrumental groups, praise bands, handbells, conversations and more. But how many people have realized that the “sounds of silence” are becoming predominant in many churches because the congregations as a whole are just not singing. Many worshipers just stand, look around, arms folded, shifting their feet and do not sing the hymns or praise choruses.

But more disturbing than this is: who really cares? Is anyone actually concerned and paying attention to the huge drop-off of congregational voices singing praises to Holy God? It seems not.

In churches that do have wonderful participation in congregational singing, encouragement always comes from the pulpit — asking the people to join together in glorious praise to God the Almighty, to Jesus, the Savior of the world. The music leadership does just that — leads the people in their singing, actually conducting the people. They enjoy hearing the people respond in beautiful worship through the joy of singing together. Congregations love to sing and always do best with leadership. They love to be encouraged to sing softly or loudly and to be treated like a congregational choir.

In a great number of churches of many denominations, the leadership does not see the benefits of actually leading congregational singing. The feeling is that if the people sing, fine. If they don’t sing, that is also fine.

But to me, it is not fine. Scripture tells us time and time again to “sing praises” as the people of God:

“Let all the people praise Thee!”

Not one place in Scripture does it say:

“Let only the pulpit musicians praise Thee!”

Gradually, over a good period of time, congregational singing has fallen off to an astounding “silence.” Many people do not sing, do not care to sing and do not feel the need to lift their voices in praise. Others in the congregation sing only the melody, because words on the screen do not provide any notes for part-singing. We are becoming a ”people of unison singing” if we sing at all.

Many churches have fallen for the myth that loud and louder music will bring in the masses. Some pulpit leadership has determined that if the dress is casual, the music is fast and loud, uses a variety of instruments, and has the lead musician blasting away on the microphone — his own voice dominating the sound system — people will want to joyfully participate and come to their church and be involved in their ministry and, oh yes, maybe even become a believer.

I have nothing whatsoever against instruments in the church — including drums! The Bible speaks often of drums, cymbals, trumpets and more — everyone that has breath praising God and singing!

I have no problem with pulpit musicians singing with a praise team or other worship musicans to encourage the congregation to sing. My problem is that the lead vocalist may have the microphone up to such a volume it actually discourages the congregation from singing. One can’t even hear him/herself sing because they are being bombarded by too much sound from the lead vocalist.

Very few in leadership seem to be concerned about this phenomenon — and so, we have begun to come to grips with the sounds of (congregational) silence.

This article has one purpose: to encourage considerable thought to the almost lost art of congregational singing, whether the service structure be traditional, blended, contemporary or anything in between. God’s people need to sing. It will make their own hearts glad and the Father will be praised and glorified with our voices — lifted to him in praise and worship.

Will the sounds of congregational silence turn around in the coming months or years? That is entirely and absolutely up to the pulpit musicians and their attitude toward having a singing people.

What say you?

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.