In my work helping small churches enliven worship with music, I hear three recurring themes that inhibit faithful and vital worship. Congregations often stay on a path that prohibits growth when they proclaim, “We are just too small, if only it was like the good-old days, or we cannot ask that of our musician—she is too old.”
1. The Inferiority Complex
Small churches may suffer from looking at the programs of large churches and think they cannot compete with them. They cite these excuses: not enough money, lousy instruments, lack of talented musical leaders, too small for a praise band or a choir, or they can’t offer both a traditional and a contemporary service.
“Small is beautiful” is a great mantra and can be a paradigm shift. Small churches must see possibilities rather than limitations. Leaders need to be creative in using resources.
It is not necessary to offer multiple services to attract different age groups. As a body of Christ that is made up of diverse ages, tastes, and backgrounds, a small congregation can make a theological statement about the Church. Singing diverse song styles from a different time, place or tradition, reminds Christians they are part of a larger family of faith. The blending of song styles helps members realize that worship is not just about me, but it is about us being a community.
There are many ways to enliven the song of the people by using simple and inexpensive instruments as accompaniment. Try using some instruments that children, youth, and older adults can easily pick up. Here are just a few: boomwhackers, rainsticks, djembe drums, hand drums, maracas, handchimes, orff instruments, or windchimes. I have a box of my musical toys that I often bring to worship to hand out before a service. The use of these instruments can be participatory, non-threatening, and add a spirit of joy and energy to a service.
2. Using a Model From the Past
Another big music problem that small churches face is using a model from the past. Many small churches think the music program is mainly about the choir or special music that is offered. Some will even go as far as trying to hire singers so that they can have a choir. When we remember that the word liturgy means the work of the people, our emphasis will change from observation or entertainment to participation. This is the heart of worship.
Yes, we can still have a small choir, but the primary purpose needs to be about helping worshipers engage in the act of worship. A small choir is a great asset in helping the community learn songs, sing in parts or rounds, or play simple instruments. The old model of a choir singing an anthem every week, with a one-and-a-half-hour evening rehearsal, rarely works for a small church. I have found people are willing to commit to choir by coming early on Sunday morning to rehearse. The emphasis in this model is on enlivening the congregational song, which may include a simple but dynamic anthem.
3. Poor Musical Leadership
The third problem for small churches is leadership that lacks talent and skill for a dynamic music ministry. This may be a touchy subject and, while it can be a huge problem, small churches often do not know how to address it. The musician may have served the church for a long time and churches don’t want to hurt her/him. Sometimes it is more comfortable to stay stuck which results in music that lacks vitality. It becomes difficult when musicians are not willing to learn new or diverse music styles.
I recommend investing a small amount of money to send your musician(s) to workshops or take classes or lessons to further their musical training. There are many denominational and parachurch organizations that offer material and workshops to help musicians refine their skills. When a church musician is unwilling to work on increasing his/her musical proficiency, for the good of the community, it may be best to look for new musical leadership.
Some of these ideas are simple and easy to implement. Other concepts are more challenging. The important thing to remember is that good music in a small church is vital for spiritual and numerical growth. Staying stuck is not a viable option. Small churches need to move lovingly and boldly into music ministry that is vibrant, participatory and meaningful.
Dr. Daryl Hollinger is a music educator, composer, organist and music and worship consultant. He is the co-author of the book From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church (Alban Institute).