Modern Technology and the decline of church music

Wes Burke has started a timely and relevant discussion at his site, Is Church Music Dying? He discusses the decline of his church’s choir, the decline of his church’s praise band, and the increased notion of his church’s members to view church music as entertainment rather than a participatory activity.

This post brings to mind another that’s been on my to-blog-about list for months, Lifeway Worship’s They are Not Singing Anymore. It focuses on one aspect of the issue Burke raised: Congregations are not participating in the singing the way their parents and grandparents would. It boils this down to four key reasons:

  • They don’t know the song.
  • They can’t sing the song. This point specifically references songs with modern and complex rhythms, which flood the CCM market and appear, on occasion, here. They also noted that sopranos and bass singers can’t sing many of the melodies, and suggested moving the key to a lowest-common denominator key. (A better solution would be to teach singing harmony, once again. No key works for everyone.)
  • They can’t hear the room singing. If the music is amplified too much, people in the audience will hear that, rather than those around them singing. 
  • They think that they are not expected to sing or needed in worship. If lighting, sound, stage setup, and arrangements all point to “concert,” don’t be surprised if that’s how audiences start treating it.
Now it’s easy to just point the finger at contemporary churches, the target audience of the Lifeway article. But Burke’s column brings the same concept a little closer home.
Two points worth considering: (1) Many churches would benefit from some Biblical teaching on the theology of worship. (2) Not all means are neutral. Churches would do well to determine the desired results of congregational singing—hopefully rooted in good theology—and examine whether those means are helping or hurting.
Just to take one, is a four- or six-part band, whether contemporary oriented or bluegrass oriented, more impressive musically? Yes. But does it add to or detract from congregational singing? The churches I’ve personally experienced with the most engaged singing are churches with just unamplified piano, or piano and one other unamplified instrument. Something about having the piano as the primary or sole instrument, and the pianist playing harmony parts, seems to be conducive to encouraging the hesitant harmony-singers to try to find their part. Naturally, others’ experience might be different. But these are discussions worth having.

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43 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. This subject is near and dear to my heart. I am passionate about how our churches treat music, specifically music that is to be “congragational.”

    The main point I see in all this is that modern “worship” is a spectator sport, not something people see themselves involved in. As a song leader myself, I find it increasingly more difficult to get people involved in singing. Sadly, they drag themsleves into church, drop into a pew, and expect not to move for the next hour, then they drag themsleves home.

    I believe that most of the modern “worship” choruses and 7-11 songs are not conducive to worship. Some are more sensual than anything else.

    Look, I am not old. I am 42 years old. But, there is nothing that speaks to hearts like some of the old hymns. They have stood the test of time for a reason. Songs like Blessed Assurance, Amazing Grace, Blessed be the Name of The Lord, And Can it Be?, Arise My Soul, Arise, My Saviour’s Love, and on and on, have spoken to many a generation. They take us to higher heights, deeper depths. They lift us up. When we really pay attention to the lyrics as we sing them, something spiritual begins to happen.

    As a song leader, I believe that congregational singing sets the tone for the rest of the service. If the singing is flat and dead, it is likely the rest of the service will be as well.

    Every April, I take my family to a large church convention at the Dayton (OH) Convention Center. There are as high as 3500 to 4000 in the evening services.

    There is nothing in this world quite like hearing all those people singing with enthusiasm, with heart, with energy. It’s almost always the old hymns, and man, they SING! No praise band. Usually, just piano and organ. But, being able to hear that many voices lifted in praise, singing songs that lift up Jesus, is one of the higlights of our year.

    • No generation should be so arrogant as to assume that they have a monopoly on wisdom and Biblical insight.

      • Daniel, your comment in response to mine puzzles me. Are you agreeing or disagreeing with me? 🙂

      • Sorry – I was agreeing! 🙂 I was talking about the attitude of those who would say that we should only sing the latest praise songs, and discard hymns!

    • John: I agree with everything in your post.

    • I agree that singing has taken a major down turn. But do you actually have to sing in order to be worshipping? Can’t you simply listen, and take it in, as you would a sermon?
      I think in part, alot of the older hymns survived because the rate of change in society was slower. Everything lasted longer then. These days, a song is old alot sooner than it used to be.

      • You certainly can worship by taking music in rather than singing.

        When people in a worship setting refuse to participate after being asked and encouraged, isn’t that more a spirit of rebellion than worship?

        I’m not talking about people who don’t sing when they don’t know the song, of course. I’m talking about “Amazing Grace,” a music director saying “stand and join in the singing,” and someone in the congregation deciding, “No, he can’t tell me how to worship. I can get just as much of a blessing by listening.”

  2. What is “modern” and what is “complex”? Have you spent time in the “red back church hymnal”? It has both!

    I remember my grandparents talking about “singing schools” where they attended because they wanted to and not because they were sent. These schools taught music and not just singing melody either, real music theory. No, they didn’t call it that but even teaching shape notes was theory; no matter the key, a “Do” is a “Do” and a “So” a “So” and harmony stacked up around it.

    I agree with the “A better solution would be to teach singing harmony” but I would say go back to the “singing school” style of teaching. It wasn’t just a school, it was fun and they sang and would have “signings” after the school to showcase their new skills. It didn’t stop there, the words in the songs meant something. Songs with stories, real people and their experiences with God.

    Over amplification, fully produced sets with lighting … yes, its a concert and people tend to only ‘watch’ a concert. Bring up the house lights, pass out the books (with music notes), sing the parts then put them together and then tell/sing the story of Christ!

    • I’m talking about modern and complex rhythms. Sure, the red-back church hymnal has a little syncopation, but nothing like the extent of almost impossible-to-sing syncopations in many modern praise songs.

      I’ve never gotten to experience a singing school, but I’m sure I would love it!

  3. This is a subject near and dear to my heart. People are just “over entertained” these days. They have so many things to keep them occupied at home and don’t feel the need to attend church for services or to learn to sing. What would the state of music be, in general, if not for the lessons learned in the church? Worship should include all. There is nothing wrong with making the worship service more entertaining. Change can be a plus if it is an improvement. Modern technology is wonderful but I feel we need to take the words off of the screen, get a book, learn to read the notes (I still prefere the shaped ones), open our mouths and give our Lord the praise He deserves. It also seems our lives are more complex in every area with increased knowledge except when it comes to understanding the good ‘ole KJV (I am not against all modern translations) or getting the deeper sprirtual meanings of the classic church hymns. Wow, this must be a sign that I am now confortable in my “middle age.”

  4. I’ve found that it depends on who is leading the song service as to if it is easier to participate or not. The styles of some song leaders are just not conducive to congregational singing. It even can vary within the same church.

    I know its easy to point to the style since so many here prefer hymns to the “modern” stuff. However, I’m not so sure thats the case.

    • It is just a simple fact, though, that songs with little or no syncopation (particularly measure-to-measure syncopation) are easier for congregations to learn than songs with constant measure-to-measure syncopation.

  5. Much to discuss here! The concept of praise teams, etc, has in effect, taken away much of the interaction of the attendees in the church. When music is used that is far more for the minster of music than it is for the audience in worship, everyone loses. Most church attendees near and want more, than to just warm a pew. When they are allowed to sing in the choir or sing along in the pew, it gives those people a sense of purpose, and the concept of feeling they contribute and are needed. We are on a dangerous course in our churches today. In many ways we have forsaken past traditions for that which seems new and progressive. We seem more interested in building family life centers than we care about winning lost souls.

    • It certainly used to be that church attendees wanted more than to want a pew, but with the huge rise of mega-churches, I’m wondering if that is still the case!

  6. I’m not sure I would agree with you saying the modern praise and worship songs are more complex rhythmically than traditional hymns. In fact, most modern praise songs are in simple 2,3,4/4 and simple 6/8 time, and many of them have little to no syncopation in them. If you look in your hymnals, you’ll see that many hymns are written in complex meters( complex 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8) where it is difficult to subdivide the beat. I think, sometimes, we just get overwhelmed with change, and we don’t want to stray away from the traditional.

    Also, the chord structure is nearly identical for modern worship songs and hymns. Singing harmonies wouldn’t be any different for either.

    I think we need to stray away from telling people what is more worshipful than something else. We need to focus in on the words that we are singing, and lift praises up to God. That’s what the Bible calls for us to do, and I think that is something we’ve lost focus on.

    • If you’re talking about 80s Integrity choruses, yes, they’re about as simple as hymns. But Lifeway – which pushes these songs – wouldn’t have raised this issue unless they also knew it to be true. 🙂

      • I’m talking about the popular worship songs being sung today. The Chris Tomlin songs, Hillsong United, Laura Story, etc. Look at some of the popular songs(I’ll take a few we sing in my church) How Great is our God, I Will Rise, Jesus Messiah, How can I Keep From Singing, There is Nothing, Revelation Song, and I could go on and on. None of these songs use anything more than syncopated beat here and there.

        You also have to think of it as another style of music. Think of trying to have a bluegrass singer sing a r&b song. They probably would not be comfortable doing so. The same can apply to hymns and praise music. Many people are not comfortable vocally so sing in that “modern” style.

        Don’t get me wrong, I love the traditional hymns. I think they should have a permanent place in the worship service. Again, I think it just comes down to the heart of worship. If someone goes in with a negative attitude towards the music(Hymns or Praise and worship) they aren’t going to get much out of it. But when we open out hearts and let God work in us and lift up praises to him, we will truly be filled to overflowing. It won’t matter if we are singing Amazing grace or Amazing grace my Chains are Gone, we will be praising God. We have to approach Christ with open hearts and open minds.

  7. Daniel,
    My experience as far as crowd participation is exactly opposite of yours. I was raised in churches where lots of people sat on the platform and many of them had instruments. In addition to piano and organ their were acoustic and electric guitars, bass, mandolin, drums, tambourines various horns and more. Yet everybody worshipped sang, clapped and stomped their feet. Thats the environment I learned to worship in.

    As a traveling evangelist I have learned to worship no matter what the style but when everybody jumps in I feel right at home.


  8. John M., I agree with you. The music does set the tone for the service, and most of the 7-11 praise songs and “worship” choruses are totally underwhelming. I have found the song service so disheartening on occasion that I have left before the sermon started because I knew it would lost upon me.

    I travel quite a bit with my job, and I usually try to seek out the small country churches where ever I’m at because they are more likely to sing traditional hymns than the big mega churches.

    I also don’t like church services that remind me of Broadway theatre productions, but that’s another topic. LOL.

  9. Daniel–in reference to your comments about rhythms, I agree whole-heartedly. As a church music director as well as a professional transcriber/engraver, I find the problem is created in the musical process… With a hymn, the writer writes down the music (rhythm, melody, harmonies, etc.). It is then included in a hymnal to be sung by congregations. With most modern praise and worship songs, it’s recorded by an artist first (without anything already in print). Their recording is then taken and transcribed by someone who tries to capture the “feel” of the piece by including all of the rhythmic freedoms a soloist or group takes (late downbeats, lots of syncopations, etc.) That is fine for a soloist or group, but does NOT translate well to a congregation singing it. We need to look seriously at music that is appropriate for congregational worship and what is more suited to a concert/performance setting. Nothing wrong with either, they just don’t always translate well into different settings.

    • Precisely – thank you for capturing what I was trying to say in a more precise, technical way.

    • You do realize that, statistically, most people cannot read music, and others cannot read music well enough to actually recognize the pitches quick enough to make the connection while singing the song. I have a masters in music, by the way, I’m not pulling these things out of thin air.

  10. As a pastor, I’ve dealt with the “old versus new” for almost a decade. In my current church we strived in the beginning (we are a six year old congregation) to blend the music. My son, the praise and worship leader, spent hours upon hours in prayer preparing for the service

    Want to know what we discovered? The ones who were the most vocal in being against anything newer than the 1940’s would sit in their pews, cross their arms and take the attitude of “bless me. I dare you”. So, Marc attempted to placate them by doing a predominance of hymns. The result was these people still sat refusing to praise God.

    My cinclusion is, people who are fixated on “me or my” generally are not interested in worship regardless of the genre of the song being played. It is not a matter of the era of the song but the condition of the heart

  11. Good article, but of course readers of this blog will generally agree. I believe the problem evolves from the Bible Schools who teach aspiring pastors and worship leaders the CCM style. It is a cookie cutter style with guitars, mikes, singers, drums and a young worship leader. The singers like to sing loud and don’t really know what worship means. There are a couple of books I have read written by those who have forsaken the CCM style. Pretty interesting reading. I have worked myself into choir leader in my church. Once each month we sing two choir numbers of which I choose old style hymns. I told the church that if I lead the choir, I choose the songs. I am now leading the hymns in the am service, and once again, I choose. Maybe that is the answer. Get into power positions and influence the tone.

    • [EDIT]

      • Jordan, whether or not you’re right, personal attacks are not permitted on this site. If you want to find a way to phrase your opinion that shows Christian love and respect for fellow commenters, you are welcome to do so.

      • I wasn’t trying to personally attack someone. I was simply stating that the basis of that point was unbiblical. We can’t, as Christians, say what is worshipful for everyone. Different people worship in different ways, and to say that because someone chooses to worship in another style the know nothing of worship. We, as men, cannot know the hearts of others. Only God can.

      • I’m sure that wasn’t your intent; I was just afraid blackstone would take it that way, and that things would get nasty and personal. Thank you for revising it!

  12. Just to address the obvious, I am Don’s son, the Minister of Music at our church. I find this conversation to be one that is quite intriguing. To put it plainly, “it’s about the worship”. From my BMA upbringing on (what I call) the traditional songs, I believe that they certainly have value. The lyrics are deep and they bring back memories of my own childhood. In preparation for the music on Sundays, however, there’s one question that I cannot ignore: What is going to move the congregation beyond the four walls (both metaphorically and literally) to worship the One that not only suffered physical pain for me, but also emotional isolation from not only the people He came to redeem, but even the Father, Himself, as Christ hung on the cross? He is worthy of praise, regardless of the style of music. Is an African drum chant any less worshipful than a traditional hymn? In fact, the melodies for most hymns came from saloon songs of the Old West. Does the style of music negate the message of the words? Is the camber or the cadence so important? I will grant you that many modern day Believers have accepted the notion that Christianity is a spectator sport. This truth knows no generational bounds (as dad mentioned in his post). We’ structured our music in the beginning to minister to both preferences and it was the contemporary music lovers that found the songs most moving, regardless of the “genre”. “It’s about the worship.”

    Instrumentation: David played a harp. Was that the only sanctified instrument of its time? Watch any music video taped in front of a live audience. The people most times are up out of their seats, singing and having a great time. Where did this idea come from that God is boring? The lights, instrumentation, etc are exciting and energetic. These things help to compel the current and even younger generation (which is the church of today, not the church of tomorrow) to get involved, not just sit on the sidelines. There are enough of those people already.

    It’s very simple: the “traditionalists” of yesterday didn’t like the music of the “traditionalists” of today. As a matter of fact, they called it the “devils music”. From Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley, the music had evolved to suit the needs of the demographic. I’m not one to condone doing away with the traditional hymns, but the fact remains that if the church is going to survive and be a force for the Cause, it’s going to have to reach the younger generation of today. If what worked “in the day” were still working, the little churches that are “staying true” and “holding their own” all over Central Texas would be blowing the walls out, outgrowing buildings before they can get them up.

    Please understand, I’m not pushing one style of music over another because I understand what ministers to me may not minister to the others, even on stage. It’s important to me that I remember that it’s not about me or my preferences, it’s about my service to Him (be I on the stage or in the congregation) and seeing souls saved, lives changed, and families put back together. “It’s about the worship.”

    • Extremely well said.

  13. Here’s my thoughts on church music. It goes in a slightly different direction than yours did though, Daniel. 🙂

    • I totally agree about the need for modesty. I hate that it’s a problem in our genre, too, but we have to admit that it sometimes is.

      • Yeah, unfortunately. 🙁 Most of the artists I’ve seen are pretty good in the area of modesty, but some of them need to work on it!

      • Thankfully, you’re typically pretty safe with male quartets wearing suits! 🙂

  14. It seems like I remember a while ago that some of the newer songbooks didn’t include any songs that referred to the blood of Jesus. I have wondered lately how do the praise songs do in this area? Our church is going over to the praise songs. They put the words on a screen and don’t use our songbooks anymore. I don’t read music, but I can tell if the note is going to be higher or lower, and also when a note is going to be held longer. I prefer using the songbooks and singing the old songs. I sometimes don’t sing the praise songs because I don’t know them. I have started just reading the words aloud so it will look like I am singing. I like the words to some of the praise songs, but I like the words to the old hymns too.

    • As much as anyone else, it would matter whose songs you’re hearing. There is still some fluff, but there are also writers (like Keith & Kristyn Getty and the Sovereign Grace team) who don’t shy away from the Cross.

    • Does it occur to you that some people may not know the old hymns, and may not know enough about reading music to follow along with the notes?

      I’m sorry if this post has an edge to it, but I’m sick and tired of hearing some of the pity parties of the mostly-older crowd who is upset about new songs.

      I like hymns. I like praise songs. If the words we say/sing/mouth are glorifying our Lord and Savior, why should it matter if words are on a screen or in a book, or if the tune is newer or older, or if the song is led by an untuned upright piano or a full band of instruments?

      • No one that I know of is born knowing how to read music. You learn. I did by two methods, starting out playing an organ that assigned numbers to the notes but where the music also had notes on the staves and by following the notes up and down along with ear. Of course later I learned in choir, but the fact remains people start somewhere. These days though we are making a whole generation that will have very few who actually do read.

        You say it shouldn’t matter if the songs are on screen or in a book, well that is true in some ways, but then it should also be true for all the ones insisting they are on a screen. It works both ways. We do both at my church and that seems to be common ground. But people can still have preferences and shouldn’t be attacked when sharing them as long as they are respectful when doing so.

      • Not all songs are created equal. We sing the best 1/10,000th or 1/100,000th of hymns today. A hundred years from now, we’ll probably only be singing the best 1/100,000th of today’s current praise songs. And that is, quite possibly, how it should be. When we’re discussing hymns, we’re discussing something that is already narrowed down to the best of the best.

  15. The debate over Church Music is really nothing more than a symptom of a more serious problem. When words like “declining” or “dying” are used in discussions about Church Music, I think we should be more deeply concerned about the individual churches “dying”. Worship can be compared to the “breath” of the Church…and everyone reading this knows what happens when you stop breathing.

    If your Church isn’t singing or experiencing Worship, there’s no need to debate the style of its gasping…it’s time to attempt to resuscitate a dying body, before the heart stops beating!

    • That’s a great thought, and I agree.

    • I agree.

  16. Marc, I can really relate to your comments.

    I grew up in Africa (thought I live in the UK now). My country (Nigeria)has over 250 disctinct dialects. The notion of one right way of worship has never been something I have experienced. Organs, pianos and classically trained choirs were reserved for the richer more urban churches.

    As a worship leader, I love to sing hymns and parent’s generation learned to sing hymns by ear in the native tongue, but the a lot churches now honestly cannot afford to buy hymnals, organs or pianos. Most worship leaders back home do not have access to classical training and have learned by ear and experience.

    I do prefer to lead contemporary songs in any language because I can see the congregation understand it a lot better. (Does this mean our worship is unacceptable to God). What keeps us going is the love we have for Christ and our passion to worship him. While reading music is very important, it’s the is this acceptable to God first. But in truth people have got to learn to sing and why we sing. Is it enough to sing because we like the song or because He is worthy of ALL our praise? We may not like a style or song, but we should love to worship Him more and I hope as Christians we try to focus on that where ever we find ourselves.

    (Interestingly a big issues for us is Western styled music vs Ethnic music opposed to contemporary vs Hymns).
    As believers, we have to