A friend’s blog recently reminded me of the saying, “canary in a coal mine,” which is an idiom to represent danger.  The saying comes from a practice used by miners in the days before instrumentation that measures poisonous gasses in the mines.  Miners took caged canaries into an area of the mine to test for the venomous fumes.  The birds were particularly sensitive to the toxic gasses and would show signs of distress, or even drop over dead. Life for the poor birds was sometimes described as “short but meaningful.”  If the canary stopped singing the miners often saw this as a first sign of distress, and thus indication that the atmosphere was unsafe.

What does congregational singing in your church say about the level of engagement in worship?  Could worship singing or the lack thereof be a warning sign that worship has become a spectator sport for your congregation?  Worship Leaders, are you even aware of how fully your congregation participates in the singing of songs you select?  Is this a high priority for you and your pastor as you evaluate what takes place in the worship environment?

In the early days of my current role as director of worship & music ministries with Tennessee Baptist Convention I traveled across our state purposefully visiting different worship stylistic environments.  As a result of observing churches in worship an alarm went off for me that said, “We have lost our song.”  The musician in me, of course, wanted to address the problem musically with enhanced accompaniments, more sensitive band playing, etc.  The deep conviction of my spirit, however, was that the problem is a deeply spiritual one and that its manifestation is in no way restricted by style, ethnicity, or theological bent, much less simply poor musical support.  The proverbial canary was silent.  In current practice I am sad to say I do not see much progress.  My continued conviction is that poor congregational participation in worship singing indicates poor heart participation in worship itself.  Furthermore my conviction is that this is a spiritual problem as further indicated by other kinds of studies that indicate, for instance, that evangelical congregants have worldviews more shaped by culture than biblical conviction.  Pursuit of self-gratification has trumped hunger for divine presence.  “Getting something out of worship” has overcome “offering our bodies as living sacrifices unto the Lord,” and “being transformed by the renewing of our minds.” (Rom 12:1-2)  Full-voiced overflow motivated by a spirit that cries, “How Can I Keep from Singing?” has been overwhelmed by an indelible attitude that dominates citizens of our culture that shouts, “Give me what I want.”

Worship Music Leaders, it is crucial that what material we ask our people to sing and how we lead them in worship participation be fully supportive of their engagement as worshipers and as one body.  I believe it is equally important that we find ways to evaluate their level of participation, and challenge them to their responsibility and opportunity before God to be fully engaged in corporate worship.  If we will trim down the decibels other than congregational voices and brighten the lights to see what is happening with mouths on the faces, we may discover the canary has ceased singing, and we need to back out from the mine shaft we have dug.  We must be certain that we are not inviting people into worship geared primarily to satisfy them, but rather to worship that pleases a holy Triune God, Who reveals Himself and seeks our response with our whole selves.

Here are a few books and blogs on this topic:

The Singing Thing:A Case for Congregational Song

John L. Bell (Author)

Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song [Paperback]

Brian Wren (Author)

The Great Worship Awakening: Singing a New Song in the Postmodern Church [Paperback]

Robb Redman (Author)

The Voice of Our Congregation: Seeking and Celebrating God’s Song for Us[Paperback]

Terry W. York (Author)


Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace: Worship Renewal through Congregational Singing [Paperback]

Paul B. Clark Jr. (Author)


Worship Evaluation by Kansas Nebraska Worship & Music Director, David Manner

Congregational Songs by Grace Community Church Nashville worship arts director and songwriter Jeff Bourque

Congregational Singing by John Thornburg Methodist musician and preacher

Explore posts in the same categories: Church Music, Congregational Singing, Leading Worship, Music Ministry, Singing Worship, Spiritual formation through singing, Worship Leaders, Worship Pastors, Worship Reminders, Worship theology, Worship thoughts, Youth Worship


  1. Ron Brown Says:

    I for one prefer the older classic songs published in Hymnals. These songs have been used for century’s with the most beautiful music being written by those in the Beethoven class of writers’. They are tried and true, scriptually based. Bands do not belong in a church. I have seen some of the secular world brought into the church in the guise as “NEW ERA WORSHIP”. Some churches are putting on concert type shows and calling it worship.

    Ron Brown
    signed 6/12/2012

  2. Eric Benoy Says:

    Thanks for such a keen post — the community of faith gathered is for worship, service, and a time of encouragement to one another — lack of engagement can lead to an inadvertent modeling to others of how the church gathered worships and serves — preach it!

    • Thanks, Eric. Your modeling comment is a reality so often overlooked by leaders who do not understand they are always leading, which includes when they are distracted, or personally disengaged. Important to remain aware and in the moments of worship gathered.

  3. David Manner Says:

    Great post, Paul. I attached a link to my facebook page and it has generated a few interesting comments. This topic is obviously one that continues to surface. Keep up the good writing.

  4. Bill Pitt Says:

    Although I think many of us are somewhat like a catfish trying to swim up a trout stream, one of the most insightful articles I have read regarding the music and worship style of the majority of the churches in my area was written by Thomas E. Bergler in the June issue of the magazine Christianity Today. It is entitled “The Juvenilization of American Christianity.” One can pull the article up from the archives of CT. Thanks Paul Ward for your timely article. Alas, I think most of the ears that should hear it are deaf. Bill Pitt, Jackson, TN

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: