Why Your Students Don’t Sing (and what you can do about it)

I recently asked our volunteers to evaluate how things are going in our youth ministry. They rated different aspects of our large group and small group time on a scale of 1 through 5.

Across the board, the lowest rating was for students singing during the worship time.

That naturally leads to the question:

Why aren’t students singing?

And then a follow-up question:

What can I do about it?

Maybe you’re asking those same questions.

4 Reasons Why Your Students Don’t Sing (and what you can do about it):

1. They’re embarrassed.

Why is it that girls who are perfectly fine singing the latest Katy Perry song at the top of their lungs at a slumber party, suddenly clam up at church when the band plays Hillsong?

I think it’s because everyone knows they’re playing around at the slumber party. It doesn’t matter that they sing off-key or out of tune. They’re just singing and laughing.

But at church, they think they’re supposed to be serious and reverent. They’re expected to at least try to sing well. But how many of us can really carry a tune? Not many. Instead of trying to sound good and failing, they would rather not sing at all. They don’t want to embarrass themselves.

It’s one thing to be told you can’t sing when you’re not trying. It’s another thing to be told you can’t sing when you’re trying. Rather than risk their reputation, some students simply refrain from singing at all.

What You Can Do About It:

Turn up the volume.

Maybe it’s just me, but I will sing when I can’t hear myself sing. For that to happen, the volume needs to be turned up. And when the band stops playing and the worship leader backs away from the mic and says, “Just your voices now,” I don’t feel inclined to belt out the next lyric. It’s just the opposite. I feel inclined to wait for the band to start playing and the worship leader to start singing again before I keep going.

One way to help students fight embarrassment is to turn the volume up. That way, they aren’t worried that the person next to them is listening to them and judging how they sound.

What Else You Can Do About It:

Teach a series on worship. What it is and why we do it. Teach students about how the songs we sing shape the thoughts we think and the truths we believe. Worship is more than singing songs, but the songs we sing together have been a significant part of it for thousands of years. Help them see singing within that larger context by teaching them why it matters.

2. The band is bad.

I worked at a church that had a student praise band to lead worship on Wednesday nights. The church wasn’t big, so we didn’t have a lot of students who were capable of playing instruments and singing very well. We used what we had, but what we had wasn’t very good.

Should you blame students for not singing along with bad music?

I don’t think so.

It’s hard to sing along when the tempo is inconsistent, the lyric slides have typos, and the kid playing guitar keeps doing his own thing.

What You Can Do About It:

Schedule the band to play less.

There’s no rule that says you have to include music every time you meet. In fact, if your band isn’t very good, it can actually be beneficial to have them play less.

Maybe have them play one time per month instead of every week. That way, they’ll have more time to practice the songs and get everything cleaned up before it’s time to play.

If you feel like you absolutely must have music, then you can do something I’ve seen work very well with students: play worship songs through an iPod with lyrics on the screen (or use lyric videos). The key is to explain what you’re doing and why it’s important (just like a worship leader would do before the first song). Then step aside, play the track, and let the students sing along.

What Else You Can Do About It:

Ask Experienced Musicians to Play Alongside Students

You probably have access to some experienced musicians. Ask them to come to your band practice and help your students. Beyond that, ask them to come and play with them.

One time, I had to build a student band from scratch. It was either that, or don’t do music at all. I heard about a husband and wife who worked at a church that was 2 hours away. They helped train student praise bands. I drove up to meet them. We talked, and it turned out they knew a guy who lived in my town who could help us out.

I met that guy and he was willing to come and help our students. Not only that, but he didn’t have anything else to do on Wednesday nights, so he even came and played with them too!

People are willing to help. You just have to find them. Even if it takes driving 2 hours away to find someone who lives just down the road.

3. Leaders aren’t singing.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The speed of the leader determines the pace of the pack.” You and your leaders are setting the example for your students to follow.

If you aren’t singing, how can you expect your students to sing?

If your leaders are huddled against the back wall talking, how can you expect your students to sing?

I felt sorry for the worship leader at one of the churches I worked at. He was on the stage, trying to lead us as best he could, but he couldn’t seem to get any traction. Hardly anyone sang along. He was discouraged because he couldn’t figure out what the problem was. I knew the problem: the senior pastor would sit on the front pew, reviewing his sermon notes, while the rest of the congregation was standing and singing.

If the leader wasn’t interested in singing, neither was anyone else.

What You Can Do About It:

Be an example for your students and your leaders.

You don’t need to call attention to yourself or make a public display of the fact that your singing, but you do need to be visible. Students shouldn’t just hear you talk about the importance of worshiping during the music, they should see you living it out and participating in it.

You should also explain to your leaders why their participation is so important. As leaders in your ministry, they aren’t just there to perform their volunteer role. They’re there to lead students by their example. When students see leaders clapping, singing, and participating, they will follow suit.

4. The worship leader hasn’t engaged them.

I’ve seen it a hundred times. The person leading the song(s) takes on the role of music performer rather than a worship leader.

A music performer is basically the same as the lead singer of a cover band. That’s essentially what’s happening when someone performs a Chris Tomlin song without engaging people to join in the worship experience.

A worship leader knows it’s his or her responsibility and privilege to help people encounter God in that moment. That’s very different from just performing a song. The worship leader’s goal is to move students from observation to participation.

This can be accomplished by something as simple as telling students that singing is an opportunity to express their hearts to God. It can be done at the start of the worship set by saying something like, “Take a second and think about what you’re offering to God in these songs. You’re offering your passion, devotion, and praise. You’re offering all of who you are for all of who He is. That’s a good trade.”

What You Can Do About It:

Use lyrics to set up the song.

Take a few seconds before a song to call attention to a lyric that has special importance. For example, in “Whom Shall I Fear (God of Angel Armies)” by Chris Tomlin, the worship leader could say:

“We’re about to sing a song that declares the faithfulness of God. When things seemed stacked against you, when they don’t go your way, this is a declaration that God is with you and He is for you. He is faithful. His promises stand. And because of that, there’s no need to fear anything or anyone. There’s a line in this song that says, ‘Whom shall I fear?’ And the answer is no one and nothing. Nothing can come between you and the powerful love of God for you, so no matter what comes your way, you have nothing to fear. God is with you and God is for you. Do you believe that? Let’s sing together.”

When they get to that part of the song, students will recognize those lyrics and resonate with them because the worship leader has taken the time to explain them. The song will take on greater significance and students will be engaged as a result.

Moving Forward…

Our biggest struggles are numbers 3 and 4. Our volume is high and our band is amazing. We need our leaders to get off the back wall and lead by example, and we need our worship leaders to engage our students more.

That’s on me. I’m the youth pastor.

Hopefully, with the right encouragement and coaching, by the time we do the next evaluation, we’ll see some improvement. But more importantly, it’s my hope that our students will understand why we sing and make it a priority to participate when we do.

How do you encourage your students to sing?

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Trevor Hamaker (DMin, McAfee School of Theology) is an author, adjunct professor, and youth ministry coach. He helps youth pastors see their potential, develop their skills, and reach their goals.

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