Church culture, Life

Church culture, part 1 – the joy of singing?

Its a church with an informal style. Its a Sunday morning. Warm those voices up, its time for singing. Who doesn’t love a good sing?


Let the trauma begin

At the age of eight I moved to an all-boys school. It was a private school, which meant school days were a weird length (we finished at 5) and term dates were out of sync with the rest of society. The school had “a Christian ethos”, which meant that it had its own large Anglican chapel, a resident chaplain, assemblies with hymns from “Hymns Ancient And Modern”, and compulsory weekly services of a high-Anglican nature. In their first year at the school everyone had a “singing test” to see if they had any natural ability, with the hope of finding suitable candidates for the choir. Apparently I had enough ability for my parents to be asked if I would join. I was highly reluctant, and to my great relief I was allowed to escape this fate.

To be in the choir meant many things. Choir practice was at lunchtime, and took the place of football. Choir music was… traditional church choral music. If you were in the choir, then in services you had to wear a dress. Well, ok, technically “choir robes”. But if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

And this was before we even got to the peer pressure. Take a load of boys without a lively Christian faith, put them in a cold chapel on a Friday evening when they’d rather be elsewhere, and ask them to sing ancient hymns to choir accompaniment. And then take into account the fact that the role model for a younger boy is an older boy… which matters because (due to puberty) older boys have a much deeper voice than younger boys and… you know what the result is? Well, its hardly going to be 8 year old boys enthusiastically learning to sing their high-pitched hearts out is it?

To be in the choir was to be mocked. And to sing, well, the rule was you don’t sing.

This of course drove the head of the music department nuts. Every Friday morning after assembly we had “congregational practice”, during which the poor man tried everything to teach us a little about how to sing and get us to practice the hymns. It was a pretty forlorn exercise. For those of us of a more obedient disposition, congregational practice meant a state of tension between the orders of the teacher and the pressure of the group. In my case the result was trying to sing… but in such a way that other people couldn’t hear me. Obviously, that just doesn’t work. Later on, I latched onto the idea of trying to sing lower than my natural voice.

Result: after ten years of “church singing”, I had

  • learnt the lesson that you don’t sing (though by 18 it was okay to sing if you sounded like Tom Jones or Eminem, i.e. a secular superstar).
  • learnt to sing in a uselessly inaudible fashion (no technique)
  • lost the ability to sing what I was hearing (by spending half a decade singing the wrong notes)

In fairness to the school my year-group was particularly sports obsessed, and the school has changed a lot since I was there. During my time it began the transition to co-ed and it has been modernised a lot. Who knows, maybe kids do like singing now!

Widening the field of view

The point of the above is to give a background as to why, for me, singing in church is usually not a fun activity. I lack both competence and confidence – and my technique is dreadful, so it often makes my throat hurt.

Now, many people do love “(sung) worship” as it is often called. Great! There is nothing wrong with singing Christian songs at all. One stereotype of Africa is that there everyone sings. But the UK is different: we don’t have a singing culture. Adult men sing at the football and at karaoke; otherwise we’re happy to watch, but generally leave singing to the professionals. Singing badly is a thing to be mocked. Singing among women is, I think, more socially accepted. Obviously I’m generalising here, but its a generalisation I feel that many people will identify with. In short, for many men simply being asked to sing in public is a bit of a facer.

In churches are there any things that aggravate the problem? Yes! Such as

  • Music factors: You know that bit in most modern church songs where the volume of the instruments drops low, so that just voices can be heard, and there is that lovely harmony? Well, think about what this means for those that have trouble with singing: their voices are directly exposed to public view. Or they have to stop for a break.
  • Language in modern songs: You know how these days teenage guys and single men show their appreciation for their male friends by telling them how much they adore them? No, neither do I. This isn’t language we use! But it is the language in our songs to God (who chooses to be known as a Father) and Jesus (in terms of his humanity, a human male). Mental gymnastics time!
  • Emotional expectations: Look at pictures of a service on a church website, and there’s a fairly good chance you’ll see a picture of a large number of people with their eyes shut, hands in the air, singing or praying. In this style of church there is an unwritten rule that “proper Christians not only love singing, but have an ecstatic emotional experience, in public.”

The issue of singing is picked up on in research from the States. In his book “Why Men Hate Going to Church” David Murrow gives this wonderful picture relating to the second point in the list above –

Picture two male hunters sitting in a duck blind… One hunter decides to express his affection for the other, using the words of a popular praise song. He turns to his friend and says, “Hey, buddy…

Your love is extravagant,
Your friendship, it is intimate
I feel I’m moving to the rhythm of Your grace
Your fragrance is intoxicating in this secret place.”

Readers, I cannot imagine saying these words to another man – especially one carrying a loaded shotgun.

This particular song isn’t so familiar in the UK, but you get the general idea. Its not that the ideas expressed are wrong, or that this song shouldn’t be sung, but if you ask a random bunch of men to sing this sort of stuff, don’t be surprised if men think that church isn’t for them. And this really gets to the heart of the problem. What and who is church for, and what is the singing for? In my observation, here are three groups that find singing an issue

  • Many adult Christian men often don’t sing, at least not with too much gusto, or stop part-way through songs for a break. (The more times a chorus is repeated, the more men stop singing – have a look out for this phenomenon!)
  • Teenage and young adult men often don’t sing, even if they have a Christian faith.
  • Non-Christian visitors (of both sexes), such as those who come into the church for things like baptisms, often don’t sing. I imagine that many of them often feel pretty uncomfortable with being asked to sing when really they’d rather not join in.

The church puts considerable effort into reaching out to people outside of the church (particularly to men), and in trying to bring up young men to adopt a lively faith for themselves. Now, for some people coming into the church and hearing sung worship is instrumental in bringing them to faith. However, I would suggest that for others it is more of a stumbling block. And a fairly big one: by my estimation something like 40% of every service is taken up with singing. That is a lot of time to have to endure being put on public display doing something at which you aren’t competent, comfortable or confident!

Being helpful

Let me re-iterate that I have nothing against singing. For many people “sung worship” is something they enjoy and is integral to their Christian life, and it has drawn others to the faith in the first place. So it is a good thing and I certainly don’t want to stop others participating – go for it! However, I suggest that both its unquestioned prominence and its current format could do with serious consideration. Here are a few ideas.

  • Make greater use of performance. Even people who don’t like singing themselves are generally happy to listen to someone musically-gifted singing at a good standard.
  • Make greater use of a wider variety of creative arts by the congregation. Music and singing is only one of the creative arts. What about the rest – traditional art, video-making, writing and so on? Why are these usually limited to kids, or reduced to low-standard, novelty items?

This post is long enough, so I will wind up here. One final thought – why do I care about this subject so much? Singing is not an issue alone, but part of a broader concern I have. I became a Christian as an adult, and see Christianity as a good thing that I would want to share. But I am single, male and mid-thirties. Most of the friends I make are in their twenties and thirties, they don’t have kids, and their interests are a long way from a church context. Which gives me a real difficulty: “church” is simply not somewhere I can bring people to, or in which they would truly thrive. And that really is a problem.

This is a big statement to make, and needs some justification. I hope to return to it soon in another post.


P.S. You may have read in another post that I’ve started internet dating. Given the general tenor of this article, it might surprise you to hear that one of the things I think would be quite nice is to find a partner I could sing with (!). As I’ve said several times, I have nothing against singing. But for me singing is a highly vulnerable activity – essentially intimate in nature. If I sing with you, its a mark of great trust and/or value.