The Sound of Silence
The Real Cost of Eliminating Children’s & Youth Choirs
When we don’t teach our children to sing, they grow up to be moms and dads who don’t sing. In 20 years we have a church full of people who don’t sing. Mike Harland, director of Lifeway Worship, issues a compelling call to church leaders to rethink the importance of children’s and youth music programs.
Last Sunday, I looked around the large sanctuary and saw an all too familiar sight these days—a good number of the dads and moms were not singing along with the great songs and hymns. There they were—many with a family sitting beside them—standing with the rest of the congregation, but their mouths were closed. In some cases, other members of the family were singing. But in other cases, the whole family stood in silence while the rest of us sang—as if they were following the lead of the family “worship leaders,” their dad or mom who didn’t participate at all.
I know personally some of these men and women who were unengaged in the corporate worship. They are good people and committed Christians. But here they were, gathered in God’s house with God’s people, yet choosing to ignore one of the most repeated commands in the Bible: sing! No fewer than 80 times does the admonition to sing appear in the Bible. Depending on how you interpret it, that number can climb up to 300!
So why do so many in our churches choose to disobey this direct command of the Lord?
“They’re Not Singing Anymore”
Several years ago, I wrote an essay trying to answer that question and after I shared it with a few friends, the piece began to go viral on the internet. I was shocked one day when someone I didn’t know called to ask permission to reprint the essay. Before too long it became obvious that I had hit a nerve. It was titled “They’re Not Singing Anymore,” and it appeared in the Spring 2011 edition of Let’s Worship.
But now, I’m convinced I left something very important out of the discussion. I believe one of the main reasons today’s churches don’t sing as much is because of a decision many churches made a couple of decades ago. Before I get to that, I want to share a little more of my story.
I grew up in Corinth, Miss., in Tate Street Baptist Church. My mom and dad were very active in church and both sang in the choir. As I grew up, I participated in the children’s and youth choirs and had many opportunities to sing. When I was almost 14, I made a public decision to give my life to ministry through music at a revival led by our youth choir while we were on a mission tour in Illinois.
Everyone I knew back then, young and old alike, would sing in church. Now, I didn’t say everyone I knew was good at it. As a matter of fact, we had people in our church who everyone knew were not great singers. But we all loved the fact that they sang. They would call it, “making a joyful noise.” And, in our church, you not only were taught to sing, you were taught how to sing. In our youth choir, our director and my mentor, Buddy Earwood, was diligent in teaching the basic skills of how to sing well. He was also intentional on teaching our church why we sing and the purpose of it. Our youth choir traveled and sang many places—prisons, conferences, mission trips, and more. One trip that stands out in my mind is the year we went to Ridgecrest for Church Music Week. I was 16 years old. Many of my close high school friends at church were not great singers, but they all sang because they knew why and how.
Now, let’s get back to the point that I left out of the essay.
For the last 30 years of ministry, I have watched churches of all kinds make what I now believe is a tragic mistake: They stop doing children’s and youth choirs. I’ve heard every reason in the book of why a church would choose to stop doing choirs for children and youth. In some cases, it’s because the church doesn’t do choir at all. They believe the congregation is the only choir they should have and that the worship should always include everyone. No special choirs should sing, they would argue. I believe children’s and youth choirs are even more important in those settings. But other churches don’t do choir because of their schedule. As Sunday night worship services have disappeared, so have children’s and youth choirs. Some stop choirs because it seems to be a distraction from the mission of making disciples. I’ve got a whole other essay on the power of music as a discipleship tool, but I’ll save that for another time.
For all the focus and simplicity we gained from stopping choirs, it’s time to ask, “What did we lose?”
Well, here it is: Our people don’t sing because they don’t know why and they don’t know how—the two things I learned in children’s and youth choirs.
Here’s the problem. When our people don’t sing, we’re taking from them one of the most powerful worship expressions they can offer, as well as one of the greatest discipling tools God gave us. If our mission is to make disciples, then why would we forfeit the opportunity to teach our children and youth how to use this wonderful gift God gave us to worship Him with and that helps us come to grips with what we believe? It makes no sense.
When we don’t teach our children to sing, they grow up to be moms and dads who don’t sing who have children who don’t sing in churches that don’t do choir. And 20 years later, we have a church full of people who don’t sing. We teach our children how to swim—so they can enjoy the water with safety. We’d better teach them how to sing—so they can enjoy the worship of their Savior and learn truth about God in their hearts and minds that will sustain them their whole lives.
The problem with people who don’t sing is that they usually are passive worshipers. And passive worshipers are usually passive Christians—something this world doesn’t need anymore of.
This Sunday, look around your church and see who is singing. And notice that I said “see” and not “hear.” In Psalm 40:3 the Bible says, “He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD.” We put way too much emphasis on what we hear in our singing and not enough on what we see. There is a stigma we’ve placed around the way people sound when they sing, yet the Bible doesn’t discuss what it is to sound like except that it should be joyful. And when the younger generations of our churches look at the leaders of our families and see stoic faces that are silent, well, they draw their own conclusions about worship, no matter what we say we believe.
If you look around at church and see many people who do not sing at all, go to the calendar part of your bulletin and look for the children’s and youth choir times. If there’s nothing there, then get used to the fact that no one sings because in a few short years, that’s exactly what you will have.
If you are a leader in your church—the pastor, music leader, or a layman who serves—I ask you, I beg you, start children’s and youth choirs back in your church. The absence of them is costing us far more than any of us realize.
Mike Harland is the Director of Lifeway Worship. When he’s not directing 30+ employees, you’ll find him leading worship at various churches around the country, writing/arranging worship songs and/or, writing his next book. In his spare time, he loves playing basketball and spending time with his family. Mike can be found on Twitter @MikeHarlandLW and on facebook.com/Mike.Harland.37.