By Dr. James Melton, Chair of the Department of Music at Vanguard University
“Dad, what is going on?” I was with my son in a train station in Germany, and the sound of men singing was almost deafening! It was a group of soldiers celebrating their weekend leave from military duty. The next day, in another train station, we heard literally thousands of competing soccer fans singing their team’s fight songs at the top of their lungs! Last year, while ministering in an open church in China, we experienced hundreds of men raising their hands and boldly singing the gospel hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers!” It seems that men not singing together heartily today is more of an American cultural phenomenon than a world-wide one. (Just watch a world cup soccer game and observe the men singing with abandon, Ole-Ole-Ole!) There is something moving and even “magical” about men singing together!
A life-changing, “Aha!” worship moment came for me several years ago during a men’s event at the LA coliseum, as thousands of men sang, “Be Thou My Vision,” and “How Great Thou Art.” That sound still lingers in my ears!
This type of experience is rarely heard or seen in our weekly worship. More and more, I am hearing from men that they are not singing at all in the contemporary church today. Potential worshippers stand passively as the band rocks out, stage lights flash, and the lyrics scroll across the screens, but all one can usually hear is the worship leader and amplified instruments (generally backed up vocally by a couple of female vocalists). What’s up front gets total focus, the congregation is essentially ignored. When the dimmed house lights amid stage lighting dominates the experience, the leaders on “stage” cannot even see the faces of their congregation! It is sad, though a little amusing, when a leader has to put his hand over his eyes to try and see his own congregation. (It would serve a pastor or worship leader well to get away from the front, and spend a service watching their congregation. You might be surprised, especially at the low percentage of men singing.)
What is wrong? and what will fix it?
1) They don’t know the songs. We can focus so much on teaching the latest new song, that the songs of the past (and the saints who’ve gone before us) are overlooked. I recommend teaching new songs, but slowly and carefully with attention to theology as well as “sing-ability.” Men want to sing songs they know, those with which they can resonate. You can’t learn and worship at the same time.
2) They can’t sing the songs. Often our songs are pitched too high for the men (and often the average women) to sing comfortably. Many songs are taken straight from the latest worship CD or studio to the worship service, and often don’t work practically. The melody is often in the upper registers, even for tenors, so men that are baritones or basses just “drop out.” Often, the rhythms may be too difficult for the average guy to pick up as well.
3) They can’t hear themselves sing. Men like to be part of a team, and a larger experience. Often, the sound re-enforcement decibel is so powerful they can’t hear their own voices – so they stop singing.
4) The songs selected (and lyrics projected for all to see) do not fit a masculine mentality. It seems that many of the “hit” worship songs are often feminine in vocabulary, character and tone. Tender expressions of passionate love for Jesus will generally be sung with more enjoyment and feeling by the women than the men. Yes, men desire intimacy (and we can always grow in this area), but current modern worship songs display an abundance of intimate language. Women will generally be more comfortable “running to his arms.” Guys can do a little of this, but a little “adoration” goes a long way. It seems a little cliché, but guys generally don’t roll well with, “Jesus is my boy-friend” vocabulary in our songs.
So what can be done?
1) Pay attention to style and rhythm. Seek to include songs and hymns in worship time that inspire movement, and that men can “march to” or “clap with.” Waltzing and swaying has its place, but God gave man testosterone, and men sometimes want to roar, clap, and stomp a little!
2) Avoid excessive length and repetition. Endless repetition turns guys off, and the participation factor wanes. Most men instinctively want to start somewhere and end somewhere. We need a sense of progress, completeness, and logic for going from A to B. For instance, the verses of “Amazing Grace” start with salvation, end in heaven, and look at life in between. Likewise, in the salvation history so apparent and well-written in the Getty’s, “In Christ Alone.” In contrast, many modern songs are less connected “shotgun” expressions of praise, leaving men less mentally and spiritually involved.
3) Pay attention to vocabulary—We are what we sing! Believe it or not, your men do want to grow in their faith and expression. The vocabulary they proclaim in worship to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is vitally important. There is a reason the great hymns of our faith have stood the test of time from generation to generation.
4) Spend more time in your deliberate design of worship, and intentionally focus on men. Most worship events have more women than men in attendance, and unless we plan consciously otherwise, we automatically default to what works with the majority. Often, just defaulting to the expected past “norm” will leave many men unengaged. If we plan and lead so as to get guys singing, women will adjust more easily, and will participate as well.
5) Turn down the volume of your sound system, and seek to sing with a greater variety of accompaniment (Try guitar or keyboard without full band and drums once in a while.) Let your men (and entire congregation) win the sound battle, being able to hear their own voices, and watch their confidence, and singing become stronger and stronger!
Rise up, O men of God! Have done with lesser things;
Give Heart and mind and soul and strength to serve the King of Kings.
Rise up, O men of God! The church for you does wait,
Her strength unequal to her task; Rise up and make her great!”
Hymn by Aaron Williams, 1731-1776
For further thought and some practical study tools, check out http:churchformen.com, and David Murrow’s short book, “Why Men Hate Going to Church.”