And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.

I assume Simon and Garfunkel weren’t talking about church services, but sometimes I wonder. Despite the Scriptural injunction to “admonish one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16) and the command to “address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19), it still is all too common to find churches that just don’t sing. I don’t mean there’s no music whatsoever. There’s usually plenty of music. Often lots of planning, lots of preparation, lots of time in the service devoted to singing. But congregational singing? Only “whispered in the sounds of silence.”

This is almost an absolute rule: if you look around your congregation and people are barely singing, there is something wrong with your worship services.

I say almost an absolute rule because I suppose you could be church planting among unreached peoples and could have an exploratory service filled with non-Christians. But even for the best missionaries and evangelists, most people in the weekly worship service are Christians, even if they are baby disciples or new converts. So for 99% of us, the rule is absolute: the sound of worship on Sunday morning should be loud with the sound of the congregation singing.

I guess our congregation must sing fairly well, because I often notice in other churches–actually, my kids notice first–that hardly anyone is singing. If this is a problem in your church, there may be several reasons why.

1. The music is too loud. Yup, I’m not even 40 and I think churches often have the volume turned up to high. People are less likely to sing if they can’t hear themselves, or anyone else near them, singing. Cranking the band (or the organ) up to 11 tells the congregation “You’re not needed this morning.”

2. The music is poor. Not all music is created equally. Some tunes are catchy, easy to sing, and powerfully support good lyrics. Other tunes are too hard, too bland, too syncopated, too high, or repetitive to be used to good effect.

3. The music is played poorly. People have a difficult time singing with confidence if the musical leadership is not competent. They might choose the wrong instrumentation (e.g., drums for a lilting hymn or the saxophone for a triumphant anthem). Or the guitar may inadvertently switch a 3/4 song into 4/4 because he can’t figure out a different strumming pattern. And sometimes there is just too little energy, too little consistency, or too little sound (yes, the music can be too soft) to encourage congregational singing.

4. The aesthetics are not communal. Ideally, the sanctuary is laid out so that people can see other people. We are supposed to be singing, at least in part, to each other. Even if you can’t rearrange your pews, you can think about other factors. For example, the worship leader having a special moment with the Lord may not actually be helping anyone else to have a special moment. Likewise, turning the lights nearly off encourages a privatized experience.

5. You are using too many new songs. One new song a month is pushing it for the most skilled and change-appreciative congregation. Two or three songs in one week is terribly unwise.

6. The people are not taught to sing. Many churches would do well to provide remedial instruction in reading music, using a hymnal, and understanding one or two things about music composition and instrumentation. More importantly, congregations need to know the spiritual reasons why we sing and why they should sing (even if they are not musically gifted).

7. The worship leader has become a master over the congregation not a servant. I would never hire a music leader who thought the band, the organ, the choir, or his new song was more important the people singing heartfelt, biblical praises to God. It’s a service of worship, not a concert, a performance, or a showcase for your musical talents.

8. The service is not planned well. This can take many forms–too many songs in a row, too disjointed, too much standing, too much sitting, no attention to flow or dynamics.

9. The people are spiritually immature. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Like I said at the beginning, maybe you have a congregation of new converts. People have to start somewhere. But if week after week, month after month, and year after year, the congregation barely sings, it may be a sign that in their hearts they have nothing much to sing about.

10. The church leadership doesn’t care. If the pastor and worship leader are focused on numbers alone, or simply on the excellence of the band, the choir, or the organ, and not on the participation of the people, it’s no wonder Sunday morning is filled with the sound of congregational silence. We can do better. The Bible tells us to, and God will be pleased when we do. As will the congregation when they experience the joy of singing so as to be heard.

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28 thoughts on “The Sound of Silence”

  1. Edwin C says:

    I agree with you Kevin. This is a problem in both traditional and contemporary style churches. It isn’t the style of music that is the problem, it is the intent of the musicians/singers. The goal should be to get people singing as part of the worship. This is an extension of the problem of the congregation not given much to do in corporate worship. There should be spoken responses, credal confessions, liturgical recitations that the congregation should be expected to do. If all they do is sit and listen (to music and/or preaching) the level of discipleship will not rise.

  2. Leilani Lyons says:

    Well said. My husband and I stopped going to 2 churches because we were having to use earplugs due to the extreme volume of the music. Now we are at a small Mennonite church that has the most heartfelt worship singing we’ve experienced in a long time. I’m also gratified to see that at least one other person can say that some of the worship music these days is just bad music.

  3. Tim van Schubert says:

    I agree that these points are common problems in churches and individual Christians within those churches, but not always. I love christian music: hymns, psalms, and some new stuff, but I have a very difficult time singing loudly for the same reason that I often have a difficult time speaking in a group setting. I wonder if Pastors(given the requirement for public speaking and reading) are somewhat unaware of those of us who are usually soft spoken and introverted, and don’t read quickly enough to follow fast paced songs. Maybe it’s my dyslexia? Shyness in not the unforgivable sin. I find it impossible to take part in corporate reading, and just read along silently. Is God offended when I follow along silently but am moved in my heart to love Him due to what is being read or sung? To God, Can a mute sing? Ironically, I am unusually outspoken in a one on one dialogue about Scripture, God, Gospel…… Encouraging God’s people to sing is only right, but is there not room for individual personality in worship? Are we all to become more and more extroverted as though it is a crucial part of sanctification? I may be wrong

  4. Kevin I wonder in this century whether any of this is still important. What constitutes church today for many Christians looks nothing like the 10 points you describe. Huge numbers of Christians have gone back to what scripture describes how we should look like and behave based on the new covenant call to us all from Jesus himself. It seems to me as believers we need to look and seem like everybody else….. (bear with me). When we follow Jesus, we are not trying to like the Jesus of 2000 years ago or like believers in the 17th , 18th , 19th or 20th centuries including rules and procedures. From what I can see He wants us to be the Jesus of today, the Jesus of here and now, the Jesus of casual cloths, who don’t use religious speak or just stick with only religious people following a set of rules covering how to do church. I’ve come to the conclusion the 21st century church can’t be a group isolating itself from the world and trying to be separate. For example the early church blended in to the surrounding culture so carefully they looked no different to anyone else. A second century AD Roman scholar and historian named Diognetus wrote this.. paraphrased: “The Christian cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or custom. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.… They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but do they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted…. They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance”. (

    Thus Christians were so well blended in to culture and society you could not pick one from others. Today it seems more valid to be distinguished from our culture only by our love, generosity, service, and kindness. Jesus wants us to show the world His love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness arising from His Kingdom in the now and in our own cultural context. Whats is described in these nine points doesn’t fit in my view into a blended culture of today and more so we need to be outside of the temple and follow Jesus where the people are.

  5. Martin says:

    As one of the lay worship leaders in our church, I agree that introducing too many new songs over a short period of time is a bad practice. Often I introduce a new song during communion when many people are not singing.

    Two other bad practices:
    1) Songs with lyrics that are difficult to sing because of unusual timing (most common with some contemporary songs). That being said I choose predominantly contemporary songs, although we also do classic hymns from time to time.
    2) Song keys which are too difficult for many to sing. This is a killer of many hymns. I don’t think those that lead hymns even consider the keys. Most hymns are sung in the keys in which they were written. I’d rather listen, not sing, when I have to stretch the vocal chords to extremes.

    Finally, I am not a fan of solos when they are a regular part of the service. Neve have been. Too performance oriented.

  6. Neville Briggs says:

    The apostle Paul wrote to the ancient congregation of Corinth ( 1 Cor 12, v`14-26 if you want to look it up ) and explained to them that the church was like a body where various organs made the body function. Paul explained that if all the body was just one organ, then that was dysfunctional, the body had to have a variety of organs..
    The clergy system has followed Martin Luther who knew better than Paul apparently, Luther said that the congregation was just one organ, an ear, to listen to the preaching.
    So over the centuries, the clergy has ensured that the congregation is just one organ, an ear. Now Mr De Young wants the congregation to be a mouth. They can’t do it because they have been taught to be an ear and it’s the preacher who is the mouth.
    If Mr De Young is lamenting the passivity of the congregation, he should know that the clergy has taught them to be passive.

  7. Grahame Smith says:

    Very true Neville we have been led into watching and listening instead of getting where Christ is…in the market place

  8. Eunice Coughlin says:

    At our church (which meets in a bar, by the way) the band will often stop singing but keep playing and the congregation knows to keep singing. Although not as polished, it still sounds amazing and I think is a great way to keep the band members humble, too.

  9. Melody says:

    Yes on the too loud music. I’ve visited several churches recently and while the music was very nice, it was so loud I couldn’t even hear myself, let alone the people around me. Hearing all the believers worship God is one of the most encouraging parts of the service for me, so I was pretty bummed about that. At a friend’s church the place was so dark you might as well have been alone at a concert.

  10. kpolo says:

    Music is too loud. 97 dB measured using a crude device. And no one sings as a result.

  11. Cody Wildman says:

    I really appreciate Kevin’s insights into this, because I think it’s super important that we sing to the Lord. However, I found it interesting that nothing from Scripture is explicitly mentioned as to why people don’t sing other than a passing comment on spiritual immaturity. I know of many people that would argue against many of Kevin’s points such as the volume of music. Many people feel they can truly sing as loud as they want when they can’t really hear those around them. I also know people who get excited to sing new songs. So, I think spiritual immaturity has to be number one the list, or very close to it, as to why people don’t sing. When you let a bunch of little things irritate you and keep you from praising God in a less than perfect setting I think that’s a sign of immaturity. Sure there’s lots of practical things that can be distracting, and we should work hard to minimize those, but whey did David sing with his whole heart? He tells us in Psalm 108:1. Because his heart was steadfast. If you’re heart is steadfast and you’re intent on worshiping the Lord you’ll sing regardless of the challenges.

  12. Jeremy says:

    A post on “what to do next in light of these observations” would be helpful. My experience is that “mature believers” often use observations like this to abandon congregations who are in need rather than stay, pray, shepherd, etc. Just curious if a follow up post to this one is planned. It would be greatly appreciated, timely, and helpful.

  13. Ross Riggan says:

    I agree with Grahame that the church in many ways should look no different than the culture in which it is found. What separates us from society is not our outward appearance but our love and our forsaking sin. Christians should be in the culture, influencing it for Christ, not to merely preserve society, but to share the Gospel. When we have extra roadblocks that separate us from the culture such as clothing, removing ourselves from society, and legalistic rules, we are making it that much harder to share the Gospel with others. On the one hand we can’t use our desire for Gospel impact to be a license for being worldly, even sinful, but then we cannot be so separate that we have no impact at all. Staying in the tension between these two requires prayer and an understanding that other Christians may land in a different place in this tension. We would do well to never be dogmatic about these issues unless the issue is in clear contradiction to the Scriptures.

  14. David says:

    Heartfelt worship is one of the most fundamental foundations of orthodox evangelicalism. Sad to say, but many evangelicals are turning away from it. Not all. Not most. But many. It’d be good to see reform. When the people of God worship God with the heart of God and pursue the righteousness of God, there’s sure as heck gonna be a move of God!

  15. anaquaduck says:

    Love singing praises to God in a congregation & listening to others sing as well, heart felt worship as Jesus calls us over the tumult by His Grace Alone. In this though our songs should express both our joys & sorrows, our quiet whispers & joyful exaltations.

    Some churches are more musically switched on than others & congregations have differing musical abilities & styles seem to vary. Throughout the ages even the non religious have appreciated & acknowledged the beauty in Christian hymns & songs, they are a treasure of Christian culture.

  16. Grahame Smith says:

    Ross its always remarkable and obviously from the leading of the Holy Spirit that 2 believers come from different places and journeys come to the same conclusion ie what is our role an where should it be played out. The author of the book skeleton church suggests being relevant in our culture we should be a warm glow rather then a blinding light, where we seem the same as everyone else except for the love and grace we offer where we are noticed only when we are not there. This gave me pause to evaluate how this may work, so when I was onsite at organisation the other day as a chaplain one person came up to me and said I noticed you we not here last week and seemed unsettled by that. I explained the door was shut because many people needed to talk through the day. This fellow passes me regularly with out a word….I guess he sees me as not different to anyone else except when I am missing which disturbed him. It has given me much to reflect on. Blessings to you

  17. Neville Briggs says:

    You can’t make a new hole by digging the same hole deeper said Edward de Bono. Maybe Mr de Bono had learnt from Jesus who tells us that we can’t put new wine into old wine skins, and we can’t put a patch of new cloth onto an old garment.
    There’s a message there, wonder what it is ?

  18. Gwen Humphreys says:

    Lack of sheet music may be another reason. It has in my experience. You are presented with songs you’re unfamiliar with and only words are posted on the screen…no music. I could sing if they just put up the music.

  19. Nicole H says:

    Many of the points Kevin makes in this article hit very close to home…since over a decade I have desperately DESPERATELY missed and intensely craved for the type of Taize-style, communal , circular services that my Tennesse church or my tiny youth group would do…where 2 or 3 meaningful songs (hymns or praise, whatever) would be sung, with ONE instrument (guitar)…not the rock band with a mega-light-show in the background… Don’t get me wrong, I am willing to be flexible and be considerate of the young adults that NEED the rock band in order to whip themselves into an emotional frenzy, thinking THAT is the Holy Spirit…but as for me, I hear His Spirit’s voice best when worship is quiet & meaningful & real…and so: often I find deep thirst-quenching worship OUTSIDE of the big-box churches, away from the loudspeakers …and am surprised that instead He speaks to us in the conversation with a stranger or during the humble worship in a small group on a Wednesday evening or even when you stroll alone in the woods.

  20. Andrew Thorpe says:

    Could it be that Yahweh might not be present..? Or perhaps that He is witholding His Spirit for some reason..?

  21. Laura says:

    I cannot understand what churches you are going to where the music is loud and no one is singing. At our church, the music is ALWAYS loud and people are ALWAYS singing. And while we can’t hear them, I look around and there are lots of people singing, and when it goes down to just guitar at parts, the voices of those hundreds are OVERWHELMING and beautiful! Why? i’m still singing. I have always sung- because I sing well. Until we came to this church, my husband NEVER sang. Why? Because he’s tone deaf! I love him, but he sings off tune. He’s the only one I can hear; and I can hear him, because he’s singing out, like he never has been able to, with his off key voice!! In a smaller church, people literally would stare if he would try to sing, or just say “it’s okay, just mouth it.” There are actually 30 guys in the last 5 years we’ve been at this church who have admitted they love it because THEY CAN FINALLY SING!!! No offense, I’m sure there is someone that is happy to not participate because they can get away with not singing in a crowd, but I’ve been to churches where people who don’t sing are shamed and looked at for not singing. So between shaming one way or the other, I would have to say style must be a factor. Volume and a song that is impossible to sing (it may be too difficult or maybe the songs change too much) may be a factor. It also may be the worship leader. In fact, I have never had more people singing around me. At my old traditional church, they watched the choir, listened to the choir, and then expected the choir to carry the hymn. It’s “performance” that ruins the idea of worship, but it’s hardly lights or volume, it has to do with heart. Kevin actually has the strongest points on 8, 9, and 10.

  22. Steve says:

    Perhaps the answer is here: “…the Scriptural injunction to “admonish one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16) and the command to “address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19)”

    If Col 3: 16 and Eph 5: 19 were exegeted and exposited, at the end of the sermon the organ pipes would be melted, the sage lights turned off, the instruments placed in their cases and the praise teams would take their proper place with the assembly of God’s people. For there is no place in scripture for what is going on in the assemblies of God’s people today.

    Praise has been placed on the stage and turned into a show. The church has been turned into an audience. Young people with no theology perform. Is it a surprise that audiences watch performances? When I go to a concert, I listen, I don’t join in.

    “Musical Instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting of lamps…” Calvin

    “We might as well pray by machinery as sing by it” Spurgeon

    There were instruments in Solomon’s temple. But there was a special order of priests to worship with them on behalf of the people.

    People don’t sing because they no longer know they are priests and someone is doing it for them. There is a show to watch. Shut off the instruments and choirs and praise teams.

    Instruments cannot admonish, teach or offer any wisdom. They are useless and detrimental to worship and teaching.

    And let us go back to Col 3: 16 and Eph 5: 19 and people will begin to obey the Lord.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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