Louise Irwin laments the way so many boys fail to engage in worship and urges the church to be more accommodating
Church and singing go hand in hand. My own church service begins and ends with singing, with a reasonable amount of it interspersed throughout too. If you didn’t enjoy singing, you might feel a bit excluded. But really, who doesn’t enjoy singing? Our phones are full of music streaming apps, we ask our smart speakers to play music to us all the time and live music attendance is at an all-time high. The recent Rugby World Cup was full of heartfelt renditions of anthems, chants and songs. We are a nation of singers, a world of musicians; music is the universal language.
The musical history of God’s people starts very early on in the biblical narrative, with Moses and the people of Israel singing God’s praises as they cross the Red Sea. As the story continues within the Old Testament, many of God’s people are singing as they try to make sense of events happening to and around them: David, Solomon, Zechariah, Mary. God himself sings over us, we are told in Zephaniah 3:17, and he puts a new song in our hearts when he lifts us out of the mud and sets our feet back on the solid rock, according to Psalm 40. In the Bible, singing is commanded: it is held up as a way of cementing God’s truths in our hearts and it is exhorted as a great way of encouraging each other. Music and singing are created by God and for God, so why aren’t we all singing at the top of our voices in church? Specifically, why are boys and men not as engaged with singing in church as girls and women?
Men and singing
The concern about men’s engagement in church isn’t anything new but for those who are there, what makes singing enjoyable at a football match or a concert but not when we are worshipping the creator of the universe? Is God less inspiring than the Irish (South African, English, New Zealand…) rugby team, or have we just made him seem that way? The reality is, this isn’t just a problem for the church. Boys are less likely to join the school choir than girls, men are less likely to join a mixed choir than women. Music, singing in particular, at an amateur level, is often seen as a feminine pastime. Of course, there are lots of potential reasons for this and everyone is different but one obvious difference is between male and female voices. The female voice stays largely the same from childhood through to adulthood; male voices, on the other hand, go through massive change. Deepening voices can feel embarrassing and awkward to use and sometimes it’s easier just to take a break from singing until that phase has passed. Male voices are often louder than female ones and so any lack of musicality is harder to hide!
Helping boys engage
The question for us in church is how could we make it easier and more natural for boys to return to singing, when they’re ready? My thoughts on this began to crystalise when I had children. I love singing and my husband does too – we assumed our children would be happy choir participants but one of my sons really struggles to find the tune… should he just stay quiet during the praise time? I am ashamed to admit that I have been guilty of musical snobbery in the past. I have heard people (usually men!) around me, singing, who maybe weren’t quite holding the tune, and I’ve wondered why they would bother joining in if they weren’t going to add any beauty to the sound! Obviously, I had totally misunderstood the point of the singing – it was not for my benefit and yet, there is something really special about singing and worshipping together; it’s not a spectator sport. When we worship together, we affirm each other, we encourage each other, and we bring our combined praises to God. This is not something that is limited only to the virtuoso performers! Rather this should bring us all together – regardless of age, gender or ability.
I want my son to be able to sing his heart out as much in church as on the rugby pitch. So now, when I hear some ’less than musical’ men belting out the songs in church, instead of feeling concerned about tuning, I actually love it and I hope my son hears it too and knows that his heartfelt contribution to worship is every bit as beautiful as anyone else’s.
So, with all that in mind, here are some of my top tips for keeping boys singing…
1. Don’t put anything in their way - In my son’s school, they were really struggling to get boys involved with the choir. It turns out it was during the playtime at lunch. Not many boys wanted to give up their playtime for singing but once the time of the choir was changed, suddenly the boys were much happier to be part of it!
2. Think about the actions – Children usually really enjoy actions, but they aren’t for everyone. They can feel really embarrassing. Sometimes children would love to join in, but they just aren’t sure if it’s cool enough, and that’s where adult involvement comes in. We can take the embarrassment, so instead of standing with hands in pockets, making it abundantly clear to the children that they were right to be concerned, could we consider joining in and worrying less about our own credibility and more about helping the children to enjoy taking part in the worship? Equally, if the actions closely resemble a Strictly Come Dancing routine, then, generally speaking, the boys might not be quite so keen to take part. Big movements are more acceptable to lots of boys than a very detailed routine…think punching the air, rather than a salsa.
3. Be accepting of all voices – men’s voices change more than women’s or girls’ do. If your voice suddenly becomes a lot deeper or louder then you’re much less likely to want to use it in public. Be understanding of that but also just create lots of opportunity to sing so that it feels more normal. Let me challenge you – if you are running a youth group, have you abandoned singing because the kids (boys) don’t think it’s cool? Bring back the music – even if they don’t join in for a while, they’ll see their leaders singing and have something to aspire to eventually.
4. Be aware of the songs you choose – Quiet, melodious pieces have their place but remember those crowds at the rugby? What about a chant every so often or at least something that feels a bit more raucous? I like using some of the Rend Co kids worship songs with children or something with a strong, repetitive chorus.
5. Normalise male singing – are there men in the congregation who enjoy singing and who would sing from the front in music groups or church choirs? If boys see older boys and men singing, then they will feel encouraged to try it too.
The hope is that if we instil in our children (male and female) a love of singing, a joyfulness in it, then when they come to be in church as an adult, they will be comfortable and used to being part of the huge choir of worship that we are all going to be part of eventually. Isn’t church ultimately a little foretaste of heaven and I’m pretty sure there’s going to be some serious singing there, so why not get a little practice in now?