January 22, 2021

Tom Schwegler: Why Contemporary Music Makes Congregational Singing Difficult.

IM reader Tom sent me some responses to the Riff on “The Slow Death of Congregational Singing.” I thought his comments were well worth posting here for your reading and discussion.

Thanks Tom.


I don’t read your work as much as I used to, but I caught and appreciated your excellent post on congregational singing. I just wanted to offer a few thoughts, mostly brief. To begin with, Americans of all stripes are increasingly reluctant to sing together. Observe, for example, how the National Anthem at sporting events has become mostly a performance, often with performers who sing in keys and/or with flourishes that the general public has no chance of singing along with. It is no longer fashionable or expected for Americans to sing in massed groups.

Beyond that, the increased adoption of contemporary-styled music and projected lyrics creates some very practical difficulties for congregational singing:

1. The rhythms are, generally speaking, more complex. A lot of praise choruses have syncopations that don’t come naturally to many people, especially older people who have not immersed themselves in CCM. Getting comfortable with those rhythms often takes more time than is available during a worship service. If the praise team has to rehearse in order to be “in sync”, what chance does an unrehearsed congregation have?

2. The “road map” of the songs is more complex. Contemporary worship songs have all sorts of “bridges” and (frequently ad lib) repeats that most hymns lack. It’s harder for a novice to figure out where the song is going, let alone guess what it’s going to sound like when it gets there.

3. Most of the instruments don’t play the tune. In a traditional worship setting, the accompanying instrument (piano or organ) always plays the melody, and a good accompanist will emphasize the melody above the harmony notes. In a typical praise band, the guitars are playing chords, and the drums merely reinforce rhythm; there may be a keyboard and/or other instrument playing the melody, but they are probably outnumbered (and possibly outgunned) by the guitars and drummer(s). This creates the need for the inevitable team of vocalists, who must, of course, be miked so that they may be heard over all of the electronic, amplified instruments. If the sound man is not particularly judicious, the result can be a blasting contest which drowns out the singing; if the vocalists mistake themselves for performers and start embellishing the tune, there may still not be any pattern that the congregation can easily follow.

It is, of course, quite true that many organists have drowned out their congregations over the years. But at least they were playing the tune when they did it, and everyone could hear what the tune was (possibly to the exclusion of their own thoughts…).

4. Less information about the songs is available to the average worshiper in advance; only the band has the full story. When only the words are available, especially when those only become available when the song starts, it’s nearly impossible for an individual worshiper to familiarize himself/herself with a new song ahead of time. In a traditional setting with hymnals, I, as an experienced musician, can often do a passable job of teaching myself an unfamiliar hymn simply by looking it over prior to the service; then, when the time comes to do the actual singing, I can join in heartily. With contemporary songs, no such luck; I’m at the mercy of whoever is leading the singing and running the Powerpoint. Personally, I find it frustrating.

5. The songs are transmitted largely through oral tradition (radio, recordings, and church meetings) rather than via printed materials. Praise choruses are often sung differently from one church to the next, and even all of the people in one particular place may not have learned it precisely the same way. The net result is often a group of people who are singing at the same time, but not necessarily singing together. It’s a subtle difference, but I think it’s a significant one. Furthermore, for a novice trying to learn the song, it can be confusing to try to figure out exactly who to follow. I think that this is where a lot of people, especially the nonmusical and/or those unfamiliar with the song, simply give up and drop out; I know that it’s happened to me more than once.

I’m not saying that all contemporary songs should be done away with, even though I don’t much care for many of them. But some of the stuff congregations are attempting to sing should be left as solo material, and nobody should underestimate the difficulties of congregational singing in a contemporary environment.

Yours in Christ,

Tom Schwegler


  1. Matt Maher is a fantastic Roman Catholic worship leader-anyone should check him out.

  2. I grew up in a small Baptist church that was big into hymns as the average age of the congregation was around 70. When I was about 15 (1975), a guy showed up with a guitar (also known as a church wedge) and tried to split the church like a log.

    I learned that music was way too divisive and it makes the services last 30 minutes longer than they really need to. For me, I have found that true worship happens in the closet or car or on a mountain when you are alone.

    I just wish we would sing “row row row your boat” and have Jesus in the boat. It is hard to get too carried away or divisive with that.

  3. I accidentally deleted this comment from Martin:

    One thought that comes to mind – triggered by the comment about Maddy prior and the CD “Sing Lustily and With Good Courage – Gallery hymns of the 18th and early 19th centuries” Saydisc CD-SDL 383 The cover notes quote Wesley’ instructions for singing 1761.

    1. Leanr thses tunes beofre you leanr others….
    2Sing them exactly as they are printed without altering or mending them at all…
    3. Sing All. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can…
    4. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift your voice with strength…
    5. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony…
    6. Sing in time… Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it…. take care not to sing too slow…
    7. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself or any other creature…

    The cover notes then explore the transformation of church music from the 17th century into the 18th discussing the move from the Psalmody to a more personal relationship to God focus using secular music and popular tunes.

    praise of God is something that is not confined to the devout or the more spiritual. The christian church needs to mine the musical traditions and contemporary scene for anything thatmakes our hearts leap and focuses us on the God of Creation.

  4. hmmmm…for me as our church music/worship (they’re not always the same thing, right?) leader, it doesn’t matter into which box a particular song may fall. We use then all.

    Songs are tools that offer us a thought, an understanding, a glimpse of God and His attributes.
    We then respond to those truths in our minds while singing, whether found in O Worship the King or It Is Well or Rock of Ages or the latest Chris Tomlin, Tommy Walker or Dennis Jernigan tune.

    I’ve been guilty of being so consumed with wrong notes, new tunes, old tunes that I’ve left the platform after “leading worship”, sat down in my seat and realized I never thought about God once, much less given Him anything or allowed Him to minister to me. Music, at least that day, had become an idol. Obviously, this is sin!

    I’m determined to keep God as the object of my devotion and of my church as well. We use a test for selecting music, whether am old hymn or a newer tune.

    Criteria for inclusion in a worship service:

    Is it TRUTH? ie is it theologically accurate?

    Is it singable after hearing it two or three times?

    Does it cause me to worship? (not sing! Worship!)
    You don’t have to sing to worship. We don’t have to control the Holy Spirit or congregations by demanding they respond in a certain way. I have often worshiped most deeply by sitting quietly and thinking and thanking God for His love.

    If it is singable truth that causes me to worship, how can we best introduce this to our group? How many different ways can we teach this in the context of a worship service? Instrumental versions, solos, choir features etc. “You’ve heard this now at least three times. Join in this new song of praise.”

    Support the new song offering with Scripture. Tie it into a sermon point. Talk BRIEFLY about the thoughts the Spirit placed in your mind when you first heard or selected this song.

    Every church has it’s particular bent. Let’s use what works for our congregations and get off the crusades to destroy anything we dislike, misunderstand or in many cases, can’t pull off because of our personal tastes, training and talents.

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