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Why is my attention so frequently drawn to people who don’t (or won’t) sing in church?  When I was a pastor—and now anytime I lead worship in churches where I serve as guest preacher—I have an obvious vantage point in being able to look out on the whole gathered assembly and so it’s easy to see who is singing and who isn’t.  But even when I am a worshiper in the pew, I still often find my eyes falling on those around me who don’t or won’t sing.

You see it often around Christmas and Easter or at funerals when people who perhaps do not attend church very often are present because it’s a holiday or it’s the funeral for a relative.   Karaoke aside, we don’t have many chances to sing outside of church.  Maybe at rock concerts we sing along with the star on the stage.  Sporting events with the national anthem and maybe “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during a 7th inning stretch give people a chance to sing in public.  And we have all seen people in our rearview mirrors belting it out in the car behind us to whatever song they have blasting on the radio. 

But if you do not much attend church services, then you likely don’t sing much in groups and so maybe are not sure you know how.  Or maybe some such non-singers are being honest: they don’t actually have the faith of which most worship songs sing and so why mouth the words to a theology you don’t espouse?

Of course there are some who manage to send the signal that they are not singing because they are stubborn or angry or rebellious.  Teenagers with scowls on their faces and often with arms crossed over their chests are not failing to join the singing because they are worried they will be off key or some such.  No, the looks in their eyes often suggest something else going on and it’s not anything remotely happy.

I cannot find the reference back just now but Thomas G. Long in one of his sermons or articles wrote about “The Man Who Would Not Sing.”  Long also noted that when we see such folks, those who refuse to sing—particularly when there is an air of stubbornness or defiance being conveyed—it somehow feels disruptive of the service.  It reminds me of a story I heard from a man who attended a Russian Orthodox church service in Moscow.  The cathedral was very beautiful and so he found himself looking all around and admiring the frescoes on the ceiling.  Suddenly he got clapped on the shoulder by a man standing behind him who said, “You are disrupting the worship—this is not a museum!”

I suppose this could be a reminder that singing really is finally an act and an expression of faith.  As the old adage has it, when you sing well you have prayed twice.  Singing comes from the core of our faith and if that faith is absent or is shaky or uncertain, then some cannot just join the song.   But like all acts of worship, singing is not just expressive but also formative.  Our faith is molded and instructed when we sing thoughtful hymns and songs.  And again, if someone has no interest in being so shaped, why sing along?

Back to Tom Long again, in one of his sermons he tells the story of a pastor whose wife became gravely and suddenly ill on the morning of the day before Easter one year.  She got worse as they day wore on and was dead by sunset.  The pastor was relieved of his preaching duties the next day but he still went to the Easter service.  But he found he could not sing—the words stuck in his throat.  He could not recite the creeds.  He could not believe any of that.  Not that day.  Yet he took solace in the fact that the rest of the congregation was singing and believing for him until that time when he could sing and believe again himself.

Perhaps when we see some around us in church who are not singing, we can also try to avoid being judgmental or upset or suspicious and instead think that we are singing for those folks and who knows, perhaps the day will come when they will join the song after all.  We can be glad they are in worship even if they are not participating in it.  Who knows what formative effects the Spirit might work even so.  Because the Apostle Paul assures us that when all is said and done, every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  And oh what a choir all creation will be on that great and coming day.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • mstair says:

    loved your ending, Scott…

  • Barbara J. Hampton says:

    In my case, Covid’s isolation and old age have harmed my voice. I try, but croaking isn’t singing. Often I will mouth the words because singing is so integral to worship.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    I lOVE singing. Sometimes I’m so moved and convicted by the lyrics and/or the accompaniment that I have to bite my bottom lip to hold back the sobs and blink like a madwoman to stem the tears. Let no pastor misunderstand … 😁

  • Kathy says:

    I am a church musician, from a family full of church musicians. My experience in the RCA and PCUSA has been that singing has been robust for the most part. Question: When I have attended a few memorial services at Catholic and Episcopalian churches, it seems as if hardly anyone sings. I feel like I definitely stick out when I sing. Is this non-participation endemic in those traditions, or is it just because visitors don’t know the music?

    • Thomas Folkert says:

      Generally speaking, Episcopalians sing well. We have a great choral tradition which is in jeopardy in many places. Most Episcopal churches sing hymns from the approved selection in the Hymnal 1982, and have not gone along with the contemporary praise chorus singing that is prevalent in many churches. Again, generally speaking, music is abysmal in the Roman Catholic church, I feel because the Marty Haugen, Dan Schutte, David Haas, Michael Joncas music is not singable.

  • Rev Robert Acker says:

    Lovely words, well said!

  • Thomas Folkert says:

    Great article. I hate seeing people standing in church, not participating. I believe we have trained people to be this way by asking them to direct a little attention to a screen instead of making work of reaching for a hymnal, opening the book, putting some thought into finding the right number, and singing along, perhaps reading the music if they have the ability to do so. Worship is not a spectator sport.

  • Lori Keen says:

    I’d like to offer a different perspective based on my Dad, who passed away not quite two years ago. My Dad was a man of deep and quiet faith but he did not care for music at all. It is perplexing and mysterious to most of us, myself included, but he did not enjoy singing or even listening to music. Once in a short conversation when someone mentioned choirs of angels in heaven he said he hoped they weren’t in his section. I also recall him saying that he could think of about five songs that he actually liked – and that included music from all genres. (I wish I would’ve asked him what they were!) If you looked out from the pulpit on Sunday morning you would’ve seen him singing, although quietly and not with any enthusiasm. It is a mystery, but he simply did not enjoy music. He lived his faith, but, mysterious as it is, he did need to sing it or hear it sung.

  • Valerie Van Kooten says:

    Thank you. Singing has always been so integral to my worship as well as bestowing other intangible benefits—learning to sing in parts, understanding how to sing as a group as the tempo waxes and wanes—that I can’t imagine not singing, for the most part. But I also know that when things are not going well in my life, it’s at the singing that I will break. Something deep inside breaks open like a spring. And that says something about singing as well. Maybe that’s why the Psalms constantly instruct us to sing.

  • Kathryn Davelaar VanRees says:

    I welcome this opportunity to reflect on singing, Scott. Thank you.
    When I haven’t attended worship for awhile, for whatever reason, I miss singing. Having sung every day as a kid in my school days, I realize, as you note, that it is only in church that I sing these days.
    As a person with progressive hearing loss, I’d like to add this thought: hearing loss greatly impacts a person’s ability to sing with confidence. It’s one of those losses that many of us grieve as we age. But I am still attempting to blend in come Sunday morning, even if a bit off key.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      As someone who has been deaf in one ear my whole life, I can confirm this. I make a joyful noise but it is always off key and out of tune or whatever. At a certain point I simply gave up being ashamed of it. It’s all I have to offer and I think it’s what God wants from me in worship. Plus I love to sing.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    I was raised as an Easter and Christmas Lutheran so I only “know” a few hymns. Our current church uses a wonderful blend of familiar hymns and contemporary Christian songs in worship. So I belt out what I know and take in the words of the rest as a “silent” worship. In fact, last Sunday I took home the large print printed version of all the songs so I could “eat the words” as Eugene Peterson would say. I’ve choked up often in worship: singing or not. Thanks Scott. I too appreciated your blog and especially the last paragraph.

  • Jeannette Kelderman says:

    My Granpa Van Der Laan could not sing a note on tune but loved music and singing! I can still here his off keyed voice on many of the old hymns when I hear them.

  • Anita says:

    While there are people who won’t sing–for whatever reason–I think it’s important not to make judgments as to why someone isn’t singing. We don’t know what is going on in their hearts and lives. As your article pointed out, they may not be singing because they are going through deep grief. We just heard a powerful testimony in my church from a couple who lost a son, and for several years were unable to sing in church. They spoke, as you did, of others singing and praying for them until they were able to do so again.

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