Majority resort: Church singing

23 July, 2014 — 20 Comments

Last week my post Church music: a wicked sin? used a quote from Saint Augustine to support my discomfort with what seems like an over emphasis of singing songs in church services. In this post I continue that theme with a theory that explains why so many people are bored or disinterested in the singalong part of church services, which perhaps even gives reason to why some people leave the church, or why some never fully check-in.


A theory I have about singing songs in church is that probably about one-fifth of people are actually “worshiping” through this activity we call “worship”. I wonder if this one-fifth are people for whom “Words of Affirmation” are their primary “Love Language”.


One of the things I include in the marriage preparation sessions I do with couples before I marry them, is the Love Languages test – it’s a bit of fun, and makes a point about communication. It comes from Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts.

According to Chapman, there are five emotional Love Languages – five ways that humans speak and understand emotional love, which are:

  • Words of Affirmation
  • Quality Time
  • Receiving Gifts
  • Acts of Service
  • Physical Touch

Humans have one of these five as a primary “Love Language” which is our preference in the way we give and receive love.

Singing in church works for “Words of Affirmation” people

My theory is that those with a Words of Affirmation primary Love Language, are those who find, or more easily and naturally find singing songs in church services a connecting act of worship to God. Those with other primary Love Language are less likely to find singing words a God-connecting act of worship.

My experience

Words of Affirmation is not my primary Love Language, which I think explains why in church services when the singalong is happening, I’m sometimes bored (and I admit to using my smart phone occasionally), or I’m simply enjoying the music – which is rare because the musical genres I enjoy usually don’t feature in the church services I am part of.

I’m not against music, as I explained in a previous post… What happens for me is this: I can be standing in a church service singing with everyone else, screen after screen of projected words go in through my eyes and out through my mouth, with very little engagement or thought – most of the time I couldn’t tell you afterwards what I had just sung. My mind does not naturally engage in this process and is often somewhere else.

Sometimes I notice the people up front leading the singing and wonder how they can do it without the words in front of them – sometimes they might sing a whole verse with their eyes shut! How do they remember the words? I don’t have a memory like that, and even struggle remembering the first verse of the national anthem!

I sometimes struggle to sit though a sermon too, especially if there aren’t any visual anchors (pictures, diagrams, etc) – I think I’m just not captivated by words and text like some people appear to be.

When I was a child I hardly ever read – there were too many other things to be doing! I thought my sister was so boring as she spent most of her time in her bedroom reading. When I was 9 years old my mother bought me a subscription to a weekly comic – I can see in hindsight how clever this was of her: I read those comics from cover-to-cover, it added a rhythm of reading into my week.

I certainly see the value of words, yet reading has always felt like a chore to me – albeit a chore I will always include in my life.

The word became flesh… and became word again

I sometimes struggle subscribing to a faith that puts so much significance in a book – this is such a drag for a non-words person! I love the concept and reality of “the word became flesh” (John 1.14), but why did he have to stop dwelling among us?!

The word became flesh… and became word again.

Why do we allocate so much together time to singing?

I haven’t figured this one out yet. A commenter on last weeks post, Dave, suggests this about tradition:

…as tradition is what binds social groups together, it seems that the tradition of the singalong segment of a Baptist meeting is deeply ingrained in many congregations and many would be at a loss as to what to do to fill in the time [if there was less or no singing].

I don’t know if Chapman’s 5 Love Languages are evenly spread through the population, but I don’t see why not. If this is the case, then about a fifth of people present in church services are finding the singalong an act of worship to God. Four-fifths aren’t.

Maybe this is why some people leave churches or try other churches – because they’re bored with so much singing! (And by “bored”, I mean the result of lacking an entry point into the process, and not the result of being disinterested consumers.)

Maybe this is why some people always come to church services late – they’re intentionally trying to miss out on a chunk of singing!

Maybe over time a process of natural selection has caused a dominant amount of “words” people in the church?

Sacred pathways

Applying Chapman’s Love Languages to our understanding of worship fits a little bit into the “Sacred Pathways” idea from Gary Thomas. In his book Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path to God different pathways of encounter with God are described, such as the naturalist, the ascetic, the traditionalist, the activist, the enthusiast, and the intellectual.

Thomas is wanting to help individuals in their personal spirituality, and just like Love Language, I suggest these ideas are helpful to consider as we put together times of corporate worship.

My theory:

That singing in church is an act of worship for some, and many will not find it an engaging offering to God.

(I appreciate that I haven’t giving any alternatives: if we don’t sing so much in our gatherings, what do we do? I plan to explore this question in later posts.)

Does your experience or observation affirm or reject my theory?

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  • Laurie Guy

    I think the notion of love languages (particularly the notion of words of affirmation) is an interesting way to look at singing/worship. However, the explanation does not fully resonate with me. I am not musical. Sometimes/often I sing out of tune. Quite often the singing seems vacuous and empty. Yet for all that I experience singing as a powerful vehicle for worship. At its best it engages the whole being. And it gets into my subconscious, so that the songs I’ve sung on Sunday often pop out of me again on Wednesday. I think that is why Martin Luther ranked singing next to the Word of God. It is powerful at changing the heart. Last Saturday I marched in solidarity for the Palestinians. The leaders led us in a chant: ‘One, two, three, four, we don’t want your bloody war . . . ‘. At the end a song was sung with the refrain; ‘In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians.’ All of that has gotten under my skin. So too with songs of worship. You are right, Mike, to be dissatisfied with empty singing. You are right to aspire to better worship. But I’m not sure you’ve scored a bull’s-eye on this one.

    • Hi Laurie and thanks for your thoughts.
      I certainly see the usefulness of singing and how it gets under your skin as you say. Recently I was talking to someone who spent some time in prison, and while there went to church services mainly for something to do and to have something of an outing. He told me how the songs would sometimes get stuck in his head and be comforting later on. I can’t deny the power(?) of music.

      In hoping for a culture of generosity within the gathered community, singing a bit seems a good idea if it has the impact you share of your experience, and of this person from prison I mention. I’m saying it needs to be balanced with lots of other stuff in the worship gathering (so probably much less singing to allow for other things), so people for whom singing isn’t a connecting thing are able to engaging in worship of God in ways that get under their skin later on in the week.

  • Jeff Whittaker

    Hi Mike, you’re onto some good stuff. In terms of love languages, all the singing may be tapping into the physical thing as well. There does seem to be a psychological shift that happens with hypnotic type singing, and some people feel this physically. (It makes them feel good. It can have erotic overtones as well, enhanced by love song type lyrics.) On a more positive note, could the disinhibition that can occur in heavy ‘worship’ be in part a reaction to our overly cognitive left-brain society? [Nietzsche wrote about the struggle between left-brain Apollonian regulated behaviour and right-brain Dionysian abandon.] Church may be one of the few places where people can genuinely let their hair down. But I wonder if there isn’t a gender aspect to all this singing as well. Ed Murrow, author of ‘Why Men Hate Going to Church,’ reckons that women are the main consumers of Christian music, thereby setting the type of music that gets written and performed, and ultimately dragged into church ‘worship’ settings.

    • Hi Jeff! And perhaps another layer is the market driving the music?

      The “feel good” aspect then hooks into the quote I used of Augustine’s last week where he was concerned about enjoying church music being a wicked sin…

      Would your idea about overly cognitive left-brain society mean that those who are naturally cognitive left-brain people are going to steer clear of what you call heavy ‘worship’? That would make sense, but there is a lot more to creativity aside from singing.

  • Dave

    Thanks Mike for more thoughts. My apologies for quoting C S Lewis, however, this quote resonates with the paradox that I encounter.

    “When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that
    I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and
    I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very
    much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate
    music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different
    people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually
    my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just
    sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit
    by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize
    that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary
    conceit.” (C. S. Lewis, “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” God
    in the Dock).

    Although I too find many of the songs/hymns to be “fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate
    music” played by a seventh-rate pianist (myself) and would often prefer fewer and better songs/hymns, as I play the piano and look at my brothers and sisters in the congretation I am often touched by the devotion with which they engage in this communal activity of singing. Obviously I also notice many who are disengaged. However; as I am also one of the disengaged, I play because for those few for whom the singing holds great significance, the half hour or so per week is a act of service I am glad to offer for these people. Therefore although I often do not find singing to be “an engaging offering to God” I offer my time to God as an act of service to my brethren (excuse the old word). However, I also do not expect all those who are disengaged to sit or stand through half an hour of disengagement. Therefore I’m concerned that the ‘singalong’ coupled with notices and a sermon – all of which can be disengaging and are also the 3 traditions that seem to define a Baptist meeting – leads to many seeing the whole affair of meeting together as an irrelevant waste of time and consequently don’t come. Clearly the march described by Laurie was very engaging and relevant to those that attended and many of the people who attended would probably never show up in a church. So what’s the difference?

    engaging offering to God
    engaging offering to God

    • That’s a great quote from Lewis – thanks David. I know you’re not using it to accuse me of being conceited, but it’s helpful for me to parallel Lewis’s thoughts into my own context.

      I wonder if the difference between Laurie’s Palestinian march songs and church services, is that the Palestinians singing those songs have passion driven by the lives of their families being lost.

  • Dave

    I somehow made a typo at the bottom of my post? The last two lines are irrelevant :)

  • Richard

    Interesting idea Mike, but I think your theory has merit. What I struggle with is the banality of many of the words of current worship music. Some is great, but much is puerile.

    • Hi Richard. Good point. I remember doing a class exercise in a Christology lecture where we were given some song words and we had to work out the Christology expressed in the words – some were a big FAIL.

  • Peter

    Wow, so many aspects to one discussion starter. I’m uncertain at this stage whether this post will even work. I dribbled on about some stuff last week (after weeks of hunting for the ‘add a comment box’) and it completely disappeared. I’m a music director, ‘song leader,’ and musician in a small (13000 odd I think) rural town in a Pentecostal church. Those who disengaged with the ‘singing’ have often concerned me (Yes, it even happens in a Pentecostal church). Some are academics, which might fit in with one of the arguments previously posted, however a few are trades people. Probably neither the type of people to pick up a pretty scarf at the door and ‘dance before the LORD with all their might.’ ‘Worship’ is a pretty subjective subject when comes to actually working it out in a church service (lots of different view points). The bottom line for me, worship is the act of bowing my heart before God and acknowledging Him for who he is – that not does have to happen in church.
    You’re idea about love languages is thought provoking, to say the lest. Its an idea I’ll have to ponder on. However in the first testament we have the Psalms and musicians and choirs (Miriam’s song and one or two other individual items). it also included the shedding of blood – (something a little more hands on). No wonder they had to keep shifting the tabernacle around. The second testament also seems to include a component of singing when it records the believers gathering together.
    I wonder whether the tradition that is impeding the church’s ability to connect with people and therefore connect people with God isn’t an over-emphasis with singing, but actually the church itself (the gathering together), or at least the church service (which in most circumstances pretty well defines the church).
    Someone once said, “the church is not for us, the church is us. The church is for the world!” If anyone knows who that was, please let me know. The church to me has lost its purpose. Glorifying God sure, but what if that looked different. Glorifying God by helping your neighbour (those less fortunate) standing up for social injustice, like those who are often Labelled liberal now-a-days, but with the gospel of Jesus Christ in the other hand, then maybe our corporate gatherings would have something to celebrate – where ever they may happen. Church was never meant to be an end in itself, but a vehicle for God’s love to reach the world.
    Church in the 1sr century just seemed so much simpler. “…when you gather together, everyone is to bring something, a word, song…”

    • Hi Peter – and I’m glad you’ve managed to post a comment!
      I reckon as a church music director your concerns about some people being disengaged could be directed into adding things into the gathering that might engage them. A pastor friend of mine talks about her church having a “culture of generosity” where when they gather people aren’t coming expecting everything that happens is going to be something they naturally or more easily connect or engage with as worship, but that there will be some things that really enable them with others to worship God, and some things may not, but that there will be others in which those things are enabling worshiping of God together. I love that. It’s the opposite of a kind of consumer model of church services where people choose their church service by what they like, rather than perhaps valuing things like intergenerational gathered worship. That reminds me of something I heard from a researcher last year who thought there was a 70% turn-over each year of people in some of the Auckland mega-churches – meaning there is a constant flow of people looking for the next best thing, or perhaps trying and then checking out altogether. Surely that’s not “the church”?!

      And maybe all of this needs a broader view of worshiping God – as in the things you describe of how church could/should be. I think I commented last week about The Message version of Romans 12.1-2 – which I like to think as being a broader way of looking at worship. I like how you describe worship.

      It seems like you and I share some concerns about “the church”… I would love for a local church’s identity to not be so focused around what happens on a Sunday morning, but a much more broader perspective.

      However, while some things in the 1st century church may seem simpler – some of the letters they had written to them show there was some pretty strange stuff going on! (eg, the Corinthian’s over realised eschatology…)

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Peter.

  • JamesF

    Interesting post and discussion.

    I will confess to arriving late to a church service to miss some of the singing. In all honesty what has gone through my mind during some of the ‘worship’ is: “This is so dreary, so mind-numbingly boring, how can people stand to sit through this?” Then I feel guilty because I know how much time the musicians have given to practice etc.

    If a local church is a group of people, then surely it will reflect the skills and styles of that group of people. So, local churches will be all kinds of different flavours. If you get a church that has a large number of musically gifted people, then it’s no surprise that – for that church – singing/music is emphasised in the gatherings.

    What doesn’t work so well, is where you have churches that lack this, but still feel this is what they have to do every sunday morning. In this case, different expressions of worship would surely be more engaging.

    • Hi JamesF
      I’m glad I’m not the only one who would like to intentionally arrive late. When I’m starting church services I like to start right on the start time, mainly because I think it respects the time of those who have shown up on time and are sitting waiting. A funny thing is in my current church, we usually start 5-10 minutes after the start time, for what I interpret is “not everyone’s here yet, lets wait a few minutes” – what’s funny about this is perhaps there’s a bunch of people intentionally coming late so they miss the starting bracket of songs…

      I would love to visit a church in a place like New Orleans that is full of musos…

  • Mark Simpson

    Interesting indeed. Being one who uses music as therapy in the dementia setting as well as in church, I am aware of the ‘quality time’ Chapman points out as well. Giving back something once thought lost as some may not remember what was had for lunch, yet they can remember a beautiful song’s words and melody in kairos/divine time – giving worth and shared dignity. Must not forget to mention the positive effects of oxygen and camaraderie! Reading Jeff’s comment also, I’ve just read some abstracts and may even fit with Mike’s first post re: Augustine and church singing
    possible to led to sin and that “wickedly”. Is not our “good fight” oft against our own sinful nature as Paul puts it? Being mere instinctual rather than the spiritual act of lovingkindness. I have to say, I love worshiping our Heavenly Father and Jesus in song. Its how he has made me. Here are the two abstracts I found interesting:

    • Hi Mark, and thanks for this info – those two short research abstracts (which I paste below to make it easier for people to skim) are really interesting!

      “This experiment tested the assumption that music plays a role in sexual selection. Three hundred young women were solicited in the street for their phone number by a young male confederate who held either a guitar case or a sports bag in his hands or had no bag at all. Results showed that holding a guitar case was associated with greater compliance to the request, thus suggesting that musical practice is associated with sexual selection.”

      “Music, an abstract stimulus, can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving, similar to tangible rewards that involve the striatal dopaminergic system. Using the neurochemical specificity of [11C]raclopride positron emission tomography scanning, combined with psychophysiological measures of autonomic nervous system activity, we found endogenous dopamine release in the striatum at peak emotional arousal during music listening. To examine the time course of dopamine release, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging with the same stimuli and listeners, and found a functional dissociation: the caudate was more involved during the anticipation and the nucleus accumbens was more involved during the experience of peak emotional responses to music. These results indicate that intense pleasure in response to music can lead to dopamine release in the striatal system. Notably, the anticipation of an abstract reward can result in dopamine release in an anatomical pathway distinct from that associated with the peak pleasure itself. Our results help to explain why music is of such high value across all human societies.”

  • not a wild hera

    Another limitation of singing in church: it requires literacy (at least at the beginning, and as practised in most churches these days), which excludes most kids under 6 and many adults. It’s not as inclusive as it seems, even for those who like music.

    • The best solution to that problem is to send the kids out to Sunday School at the very start of the church service where they can have their own songs (with actions). Maybe there should be an opt-out option for the adults – perhaps a little room in some other part of the complex with a video link…

  • Mark Campbell

    Yep I get bored with singing and playing at church. Why is it that with all the genres of music available to us we opt for dreadfully similar music with little colour or interest that we find outside our doors? And where are the modern hymn writers? And whats with pre choruses, post bridges, half verses and penultimate anticlimaxes?

    There are so many ways to worship corporately that do not involve music. They may include reviving old liturgies occasionally, prayers, poems, drama, dance, visiting stations to interact, art, candles, nature, water, food…things that add colour and vibrancy to our gatherings and engage a wider % of people. In my journey with Incedo (Previously YFC) we have endeavoured to model diversity in
    corporate worship and I just love the creativity and engagement. And yes,
    sometimes we sing songs!

    One of the things my church in Botany hosts often is a flower display on biblical themes which takes over the auditorium for a few days. On the Saturday it was all cleared away so we could have church services on Sunday. I suggested we leave it up and incorporate it into our worship. So we did and its wonderful. Some people hated it, but most found it inspiring engaging and refreshing. We added a few things into the mix such as a song to focus us, some brief thots from leaders and stations to invite some kind of response. Loved it, we need more stuff like it.

    • Hi Mark. We need more people like you, and organisations like Incedo, to challenge and interfere with traditions, demonstrating authentic alternatives.

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