Why don’t conservative evangelicals sing?

Ok, so this is a massive generalisation … As a conservative evangelical myself, I love singing and I know many others who do.  But it seems to be my experience that in general, in conservative evangelical churches, when people do sing they don’t seem particularly engaged with what they are singing about.  I was once leading music at a firm reformed evangelical Bible-teaching church full of great gospel-hearted people.  The song in question went “I am a new creation, no more in condemnation, here in the grace of God I stand” – words straight out of Romans chapter 8.  Yet, as I looked around the congregation, I saw glum expression after glum expression.  Lips hardly moved, people stood with hands in pockets looking down at the floor.  A very depressing experience for me as no-one seemed to care at all what they were singing.

However, I’ve also been in groups of Christians singing a chorus that went “La la la la la la la la la la la” (or something like that) as though it were the most “worshipful” thing glorifying God when it wasn’t saying much of anything at all.  (Side-note:  That’s not to say that everything has to have meaningful Biblical words to be glorifying to God – but the nature of a song, is that it does have words and music and so it seems strange given someone has chosen this medium, not to make the most of both components to glorify God using both.)

It strikes me that in both instances, the people singing have turned their brains off and stopped thinking about the words they are singing.  The first group are so pre-occupied with the fact that they’ve had a bad week or they hate singing or they don’t like the way a song is being played (something I know I’m often guilty of), this means they’re not thinking about the words they’re singing, the great truth of the gospel that because of Christ we no longer stand facing God’s right judgement at our sin.  “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)  Regardless of how we might feel on a Sunday morning, the truth remains that God is good, he is worthy of our praise and if we are trusting in Christ then we have a great hope.  This is the message of Matt Redman’s excellent “Blessed be your name”.  If a song with such a clear message of the joy and hope of the gospel cannot lift your head and voice to declare God’s praise then it’s a worrying situation.

It seems as though many conservative evangelical churches actually downgrade the importance and significance of singing in church meetings.  I’ve even been to conferences run by evangelical organisations where we don’t sing at all in a meeting so instead we can have a 2 hour talk.  In many churches the opposite seems true, music is given such a high place that it almost defines the church.  Many Uni CUs limit their speakers time to 15 minutes so they can have plenty of singing time.  The “worship leader” (ugh!!!) becomes more famous and important than the pastor.  The drive for professional standard music in churches means that many gifted musicians never have an opportunity to serve and use their gifts.  While I think a lot of this is not healthy and marginalising the teaching of God’s Word, I can’t help feeling that in general the conservative evangelical movement has gone too far the other way.  Singing is almost something to be put up with, time is not given to practise, there is little to no effort to train musicians and invariably the musical style fails to be culturally relevant.  And congregations regularly seem bored when they’re singing.

This seems worlds away from the Psalms, where time after time the people of God are commanded to sing joyfully to God because of who he is and all that he has done for them.  And often this is David writing in the midst of great times or trouble – pursued by his enemies and worried for his life and well being.  Yet he lifts up his eyes and sees the truth of who God is and what he has done.  Of course, we see the scenes of the happy clappy church of 1970s middle class, woolly jumper Christians with inane (almost false) grins singing terribly cheesy songs with rainbow strap guitars and tambourines that would send the average enquirer racing out of the door. 

Surely there can be a middle ground?  Singing is a brilliant thing to do … the Psalms say so, Paul says so (Ephesians 5, Colossians 3) – God must also think so.  And it does have an important and valuable place to play in our church meetings – Colossians 3:16 particularly highlights that singing songs is part of our teaching one another truths about God (hence why the words are so important!)  But also, the power and emotional aspect of music allows us, as God’s gathered people in a local church allows us to respond emotionally to great truths about God.  We start from the words, the truths about God (which is why it is so good to use the Bible as inspiration for writing hymns and songs) but the music helps to convey the meaning of the words by reflecting them musically, helping the congregation to fully engage with the song on both an intellectual and emotional level.  This is the nature of the medium and if either component is lacking, then surely the exercise becomes pointless.  Meaningless words sung with great emotion is meaningless.  Meaningful words sung with no emotion is meaningless.

Both we and our churches should perhaps be more discerning about the songs we choose, the people we get to play them and the way we sing them.  Just imagine if a visitor came to your church and saw a bunch of miserable people singing about Jesus and all that he’s done?  What would they conclude about the hope of the gospel?


2 Responses to “Why don’t conservative evangelicals sing?”

  1. 1 cumby February 7, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    Have done quite a bit of praise/worship as team member and leader, so I do have some experience in your topic. Why don’t people sing more in churches?

    Possible reasons:

    1. The praise/worship is boring, lifeless and done by rote
    2. The people have done zero praising and worship of God during the week and so cannot enter in or are slow to.
    3. The church itself may suppress joy and abandoning oneself to God.
    4. The congregation, for the most part, may not be living in victory so there is no joy to express or sing about.

    What comes to mind is David bringing the Ark back to Jerusalem. He danced with great joy and didn’t care what people thought. His wife, Michal, insulted his joy and was left childless as a result.

    There may be too many “Michals” in the pulpits and behind the pianos of our churches.

  2. 2 MQ February 14, 2007 at 9:37 am

    Ha, ironically, the passage Cumby refers to at the end of his post is one that Matt Redman wrote a song about: “Undignified”, in which the chorus goes “la-la-la la-la-la, hey!”

    It’s so easy to throw out the baby with the bathwater, isn’t it? And in too many churches (of all flavours) we can be so fixated on getting it “right” that we end up doing just that.

    The thing about our worship (lifelong) is that it can and will never be a sufficient response to God’s immeasurably immense goodness, greatness, mercy and might. The most simplistic of songs (especially the la-la-la ones) were often written (or sung spontaneously) in moments where it had become clear mere words weren’t enough. We should not despise them for this. However, it is also all too easy for them to be used thoughtlessly, excessively, inappropriately by people who are trying to replicate an atmosphere or emotion.

    At the other end of the scale, if we are evangelical we may be so concerned about getting the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth into our songs, that they end up impossibly wordy, and more to the point so laden with human analysis and knowledge that there is no room for an emotional response.

    And in evangelical churches, we can be so aware of the need not to think of our times together as being the sum total of our worship that we end up not allowing them to be worship at all. The, er, worship leader doesn’t dare make, or suggest that anyone else make, an emotional response to God or what they have just learned about him, and so everyone ends up being glum. Add to this our fear of scaring newcomers by getting even remotely excited, and maybe instead we put them off by seeming to be unmoved by the greatest news ever. Have we made our gatherings and our Bible study so cerebral and ‘sensible’ that they are now in fact more bereft of worship than ever?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: