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Sometimes It’s About the Conversation You Don’t Have

Dear Joseph,

I attend a church with a small congregation. One of our members sings at the top of her lungs and is very much off key. Always. She overpowers the rest of us. I have witnessed people plugging an ear or intentionally sitting farther away. It seems that something could or should be said to her. Everyone wants to be loving and kind. No one wants to offend her. We want to embrace our members and I want her to enjoy her singing. How would you approach this situation?

Silent in The Pew

Dear Silent in The Pew,

I’m going to take a leap since you use the word “church” and assume you worship in a Christian tradition. Please forgive me if my assumption is incorrect and translate what I say to your own faith.

My answer to your question depends on your answer to mine: Why do you go to church? What do you really want?

I could give you advice on giving tough feedback to a potentially defensive person. I could help you manage your emotions, so your judgments wouldn’t corrupt your communication with her. I could even give you tips on how to reconnect with her if she spiraled into defensiveness after you let her know what you think of her singing. But all of these would be like perfuming a pig. Aesthetic treatments don’t change the animal.

Before I elaborate, let me sympathize. I know what it’s like to feel persistent eruptions of judgment and I hate that feeling. I suspect everyone has some pet peeves that trigger an unpleasant cascade of irritation, resentment, and even anger. For example, when I’m on an airplane and the person behind me speaks to the person inches to his left at 96 decibels for almost the entirety of a five-hour flight, I can Crock-Pot my resentments into a malodorous stew for the full journey. The question is, is it his volume that is heating me up?

I’ve learned something absolute about hot-flashes of judgment: my judgments are always about me. His decibels don’t correlate with my derision. I know this is true because I can look to my left and right on the plane and see that others seem to be largely unaffected. They are reading their books, gazing out the window, or carrying on their own conversations without being consumed with vengeful fantasies like I am. How can this be?

It happens this way because his loudness is alchemized by my thoughts: how inconsiderate; he thinks he is so important; he knows better and is doing it anyway; he’s an egotistical jerk . . . you get the idea.

Could thoughts like this happen at church? Yup. Could it be that your feelings about the woman’s singing are not just about the lack of musical quality, but are produced by judgments like these? Yup.

It’s possible you’ll find relief by getting her to lower her volume. But you won’t find growth. So why are you at church? Are you there for music appreciation? If so, by all means, have the conversation. If you’re there because you’re trying to learn to create a Christian community, then her pitch and volume might be the greatest gifts she could give you.

Please don’t read me as self-righteous in what I’m about to say. This sermon is for me, and you’re welcome to listen in. When Jesus organized his small congregation, he first invited lepers with ghastly sores, hated tax collectors, scandalous adulterers, and, perhaps, even a bad singer or two. His offer was to gather all those who were off-key in their own unique way and help them learn to be one. I think the harmony he was after began first with each learning that their judgments were their judgments—and wouldn’t be solved by fixing the other. They would be solved by receiving and then offering grace.

I suggest the best way to find the harmony and beauty you’re after is to ask yourself in those disturbing moments: What do I really want? Then raise your voice in glorious cacophony with your sister.

Best Wishes,

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26 thoughts on “Sometimes It’s About the Conversation You Don’t Have”

  1. Jenna

    YES! YES! YES!
    Thank you for this reply to the church goer with the off key singer. What’s that Biblical quote, “Make a joyful noise,” right?
    I am coming around to the idea that I am more judgmental than I realized, and that criticisms of others are really about my own (at times completely unreasonable) expectations of others.
    Thank you for your take on this situation, and for how kind you were in giving it. Favorite part: the crock pot analogy! hahaha – spot on!
    Hope you have a festive rest of this December.

  2. mark

    Thanks Joseph. I am the off-key singer in my congregation. I try to learn to sing, but I haven’t gotten much better. I’ve waffled back and forth with my own why – why am I at church? Why should I sing hymns? Who am I singing to? And I feel very self-conscious about my poor sound. Should I sing and risk offending people? Or should I stay silent and miss the chance to communicate with my God through song?

    1. Grizzlybearmom

      please read my Grizzlybearmom comment.

  3. Grizzlybearmom

    Dear Silent, I was gifted with a voice and even NAMED Carol which means song of praise or joy, It’s NOT song of beauty. Let “Big singer”, sing her pipes out. Her voice is a part of the congregation too and she is making a joyful noise to the lord. How could saying anything not be offense?

  4. Steven McLean

    Take it from a long-time minister, lover of good music, and one who has experienced this scenario many times in small a cappella churches – you are as right as you can be. God is tone deaf: He can only hear our hearts (and theirs). Thanks for your perspective.

  5. Kathleen

    Your comments today obviously resonated with many of us, especially at this holy Christmas time. Love one another!! thank you.

  6. Jack

    Make a joyous noise to the lord. I too am an awful singer but I have noticed one thing about church, how great my voice sounds in chorus with others. In the choir of angels there is a place for us all, even those who don’t sound great by themselves 🙂 if you read this reply I hope you find the peace you seek this holiday season.

  7. April G Hairgrove

    BLESS YOU for this post!

    Growing up, we had a “5th Sunday Sing” at our church.
    Every month with a 5th Sunday, the evening worship service was just individuals singing songs, no sermon.

    There was a older couple who would sing every time- and as they walked up to the pulpit/stage, my youth group friends would quietly groan and elderly people would turn their hearing aids down/off.

    Although I was only 16, I didn’t understand their reaction. When I would sing, I pictured angels singing with me and standing at the feet of the Father.
    And when this couple would sing, I joined the song in their hearts as well.

    I was glad that the whole time I attended that church, the couple always sang each 5th Sunday Sing. They weren’t singing for the praise of others, they sang to the glory of their Savior.

    Now they are singing fulltime at the Father’s feet and I know He enjoys every note.

    1. Jenna

      April, so appreciated your real life story. What a kind soul you are to have responded the way you did as a teen. Best wishes to you for a joyous rest of this holiday season.

  8. Leisha

    Well said! Beautiful post and beautiful lesson for all of us. Thank you for giving me something to meditate on.

  9. barbara pilarcik

    This really struck a chord (pun intended) with me! I could be that person except our church is large and try to keep my off-key voice a slightly soft. For years I wouldn’t sing out in church and then I decided that God needed to hear my voice so He wouldn’t send it down again.

  10. John Guetterman

    More beautiful, loving advice – par for the course, especially for Mr. Grenny!

  11. Kat

    This response really resonated for me. Thank you!

  12. Teresa L Thompson

    Amen! I wholeheartedly agree!

  13. LindaA

    Joseph Grenny…once again you are on key! No matter how others think we should sound, singing words of praise are for God alone. Let God be God.

  14. Jean

    Thank you… just thank you…

  15. Tammy Guttry

    Very well stated, Joseph!

  16. Anne

    Could be the effects of an undiagnosed loss of hearing. Another reason to extend grace.

  17. Edwin Crozier

    The best article I e read on here. And that is saying something. There have been great ones.

  18. Christine

    Love this to tears. Thank you.

  19. amy

    Thank you so much for both the question and the answer. This too I have struggled with regarding two of my best friends, but its not their singing. I had to immediately thank your for your insight and not go and tell them how much they mean to me!

    1. amy

      * now go and tell them. sorry for typo

  20. Lisa H

    Many years agoI was in a Masonic group for teens, and our “male advisor” sang loudly and off key. It was an endearing part of who he was. He is long gone and I wish I could still hear his voice.

  21. Carol Rule

    What a beautifully written response! I especially enjoyed the “sermon.” Definitely food for thought and self-examination.

  22. Mike

    Amen. Thank you for you insight and lesson for all of us!

  23. Dan Schroeder

    I agree that the best way is through offering grace, and this provides personal accountability, but how do we help the rest of the congregation get this same message? It seems the problem that “Silent” noticed was not just with a single person, but many in the small church. How does “Silent” help the rest of those in worship see the light?
    There are times that I see others getting irritated in church, but I’m not sure how to help them give grace. We’d sure look like the church if we were more graceful. (BTW, I can be blind to my own irritation and wouldn’t mind someone gracefully pointing it out in my life.)
    Thanks for helping me out…

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