I read an article recently claiming to have discovered the real reason men are singing less in church these days. I’m not sure if there’s really any objective verification of this non-singing phenomenon, but if we do assume that it is true – that men are singing less in church these days than they did twenty or thirty years ago – then it is certainly worth asking why.
The article proposes this lack of singing is due, specifically, to the fact that men don’t know what they’re singing. With the arrival of the projection screen and the downfall of the hymnal, the church’s choral corpus has vastly expanded, leaving us with a situation where each week we’re singing newer and increasingly unknown songs. In short, the article says, in the last ten to twenty years, we’ve gone from 250 well-worn and comfortable hymns to over 250,000 contemporary songs which are far less known. The author then goes on to argue that, if we want men to sing more in church, we need to create familiarity with the songs… or, uh, go back to singing hymns.
I think this article may miss some far more simplistic reasons for this problem.
In the end, if lack of familiarity is the problem, wouldn’t it be a problem for both men and women? Observing a “problem” that is gender neutral (such as familiarity) should rears its ugly head across both sexes. But that’s not what we see here. The author is not observing a lack of female voices on a Sunday morning. This specifically male problem, however, suggests that there’s something distinctly “male” in the causation chain.
I think this problem, if we can continue to assume it is objectively verifiable, exists for a much more simple reason, but it’s a reason that simple answers (such as familiarity with the songs) fail to appreciate.
So why are men not singing in church?
1. Because men don’t want to be in church.
Look around your average evangelical church and you’ll likely see a 3 to 1 ratio of women to men. And of the men who actually do attend, you can see on about half of their faces that they’re only there because their wives want them to be there. The other half are there because they genuinely want to be there.
This reality, I’d be willing to be, is trending upward over the last 10 years. It is increasingly culturally acceptable for anyone – male or female – to stay at home on Sunday mornings (I’m not saying this is good or bad). As such, the women who do want to attend church are less likely to be concerned about their significant others attending.
But some men are still guilted into coming. But because they don’t want to be there, we should not expect them to do those things that express a desire to be there – namely, we should not expect them to sing. Why would they sing to a God they don’t want to worship? Why should we expect them to sing to God if they have no desire to attend his worship gathering?
In short, you have fewer men attending church. And you have a good number of men who do attend refusing to sing precisely because they’d rather not be attending. It therefore looks like fewer men are singing precisely because fewer men are singing.
This has little or nothing, however, to do with the familiarity of the songs.
2. Because the songs are primarily emotive…or, rather, wrongly emotive.
I’m just going to say this bluntly and let the chips fall where they may: Most songs sung in contemporary worship services are more emotive than they are theological. They primarily engage how we feel about God or how God feels about us. Even the musical structures of the songs are designed to induce an emotional response.
Add to this the fact that few pastors intentionally create emotional safety in their sermons (by fake crying, extreme forms of anger, drawn-out altar calls, threats of damnation, etc.), and you’ve got a whole Sunday-morning-ball of what men often perceive to be emotional manipulation.
This is not to say emotion is bad (or even that emotion is primarily female). But we need to understand that in our culture men are increasingly taught to not display emotion. Crying is forbidden from early boyhood. This may or may not be as bad as it once was, but being as contemporary Christian worship songs are so emotion-driven, it just highlights how much our culture does not permit men to emote.
But even so, I’m not convinced that the church often displays a healthy way of expressing emotion. If we are to continue using worship songs as an example, the fact that there are almost no songs of lamentation demonstrates that real expressions of suffering and pain and anger are not invited – and therefore, real, biblical expressions of joy are not permitted. We don’t allow for the expression of real suffering, so we know nothing about how to truly express gratitude.
In this, the church shows that we are adept at using emotive language in our songs, but nothing about our use of this language feels safe to men, especially given that we are predisposed toward denying emotion to begin with.
3. Because the songs are often saying the same lame things that don’t touch the soul in a meaningful way.
I’m not falling back on the old canned criticism of modern worship songs being “Seven words used eleven times.” I think contemporary worship songs have come a long way. But we still have a long way to go. Again, until we can grapple with real human emotions like lament and doubt and anger precisely as expressions of worship, we will never be able to sing songs or preach sermons that genuinely touch the souls of anyone, let alone men in particular.
Undoubtedly, there are worship artists who are doing a much better job of this. But their voice is not heard enough, and their songs are not played enough.
Do you want to know how I know these songs (and sermons) aren’t touching the souls of men? All I need to do is point you back to the 3-to-1 women to men statistic. Men aren’t attending church, not because they don’t know the songs, but because there is nothing in church that they think contributes meaningfully to their lives.
4. They can hear themselves and fear others can too.
This may seem strange to many pastors (who always like to hear themselves talking) and worship leaders (who have good voices), but most men don’t want to hear themselves sing. We’re embarrassed of our singing voices. Couple that with the first three reasons I listed in this piece, and you’ve got a ready-made-soup of non-singing.
Fortunately, this problem has the easiest solution – though, most pastors won’t want to hear it, even though many worship leaders will be in full affirmation.
The solution? Turn up the music.
That’s right. Turn it up. You’re in a contemporary worship service, after all.
Sure, it’s going to upset the 75 year olds in there. But they’re singing anyway. You’re not trying to prod them to sing. You’re trying to make space for men to sing. And the best way to do that is remove the distraction of fearing others may be able to hear them.
Another solution is for worship leaders to stop assuming the performance is about them, and actually sing in keys that the audience can follow. If men (or women) feel like they can sing along in a given key, they are more likely to do so. But this takes humility on the leader’s part because they may actually have to sacrifice their own vocal sweet-spot for the sake of the congregation. But, then, hey, isn’t that what leadership is about anyway?
The truth is, most churches don’t want to face the real problems behind men not singing in church. We’re not ready to face the reasons why men may not like attending. We’re not ready to rethink how we talk about, sing about, and express emotion publicly. We’re not ready to engage the real emotions men feel. And we’re not ready to upset the status quo who like low-volumed music in order to create space for men to feel comfortable singing.
I’m not saying the familiarity aspect plays no role. But I do think, no matter how familiar men are with the songs, unless these other issues are dealt with, the familiarity answer is just a distraction to the real problem.
Your Turn: What do you think? Why don’t you think men are singing in church? Do you have any solutions? Do you even think this is a problem?