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3 Big Music Problems in Small Churches



Author: Daryl Hollinger
Leadership Category:

Posted September 22, 2015 by

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).




    I’m the pastor of a VERY small church, in fact we recently grew to big for a home and have moved into our own space. The problem is that we have no one that can play music at all. While in the home we have always used music videos on a TV, and now in our new space, we have been projecting the videos on a screen. But I really believe that people are attracted to live worship. What can we do? We do have a couple instruments, but no one that knows how to play them or even read music! Every article I read is always saying its great to be a small church because you have less worries, but this one worry has been big enough to make up the difference for me. What are other small churches doing that don’t have musicians? Is there anyone out there that has ideas?
    Thanks for the help! God Bless,
    Pastor John


      Praise the Lord. I too, am a part of a small congregation. We have found that encouraging people to practice the instrument while praying for direction can help tremendously. Matter of fact, I was one who feared to try to play the piano for example, but after practice and prayer, the Lord gave us grace to acquire the gift/talent. Hope this helps. Blessings.

    Dr. Wayne Earnest

    Music in the small church is a subject I’ve been keen on for years and I’ve written a monograph titled “The Organist Shortage and Surplus: A Solution to Both Problems.” There’s a surplus or organists for large, full-time positions but they comprise only about 1% of the market. The other 99% are small, part-time positions — most of which are “low pay” or “no pay.” In the monograph, I advocate the “Multi-Parish Church Music Position” (MPCMD) in which a qualified musician oversees several churches’ music programs — somewhat analogous to the “circuit riding preacher” in foregone days of the Methodist church. The concept has historical precedent (J.S. Bach in Leipzig and C.P.E. Bach in Hamburg) and modern-day precedent (Marilyn Keiser during her days in Asheville NC). I would be HAPPY TO EMAIL ANYONE INTERESTED IN RECEIVING A COPY OF THAT MONOGRAPH. Just email me at musicmanwayne@outloook.com and/or phone me at 724-206-8854.


    Our biggest challenge is finding a musician. No money or desire for backtracks. I’d like an article that addresses that challenge

    Nancy Smith

    The biggest problem in my area is not lack of musical leadership; it’s lack of musicians. Many churches are having to purchase backing tracks which often cost more than the music itself. Even with a state college with a good music department nearby, it’s difficult to even find musicians for special occasions, much less weekly service. While some may say that “backing tracks” are a solution, I feel that live music–including accompaniment–matters. With funding for music programs in schools withering, the church should be taking up the baton, but we’re not.

    I also strongly disagree with the casual dismissal of the role of a choir in worship. Would the “praise band” practice for a few minutes before the service and expect to present a worthy offering to the Lord and be prepared to lead in worship? Would the deliverer of the Word jot a few comments on the back of an envelope while waiting to speak?

    Even David instituted musicians with specified roles in worship which suited the temple congregation. Each fellowship should enjoy the freedom to structure its music as is appropriate to its context while selecting music that is both scripturally and musically rich regardless of genre/style. Should we remain mired in a static model? Absolutely not. Let us consider our musical heritage roots upon which an even greater vine can grow.


      “Would the deliverer of the Word jot a few comments on the back of an envelope while waiting to speak?”

      So it would sometimes seem. How many preachers do we know who are wrapping up their sermons on Saturday night. I certainly wouldn’t be dashing off a new hymn on Saturday night!

      Snarkiness aside, I don’t believe the writer casually dismissed the choir. He didn’t specify the length of choir rehearsal, and I am sure he does not advocate ‘a few minutes’ of rehearsal.

      The rehearsal could (should) be an hour, hour-and-a-half, etc. And perhaps (as worked in one congregation I served) the choir also could meet several Sundays a month after worship. The key is to get the singers while they are there and not ask them to come back mid-week. It’s not ideal, but it’s a way to make quality music and a quality choir viable.

      P.S. On your first point, singing a cappella would be far preferable to using backing tracks. And better stewardship of resources.


    Good call outs, but a little concerned you did not mention the #1 challenge in a small church…the inability to pay for a worship leader combined with the added responsibilities they are often asked to support.

    In all my dealings with small to medium sized churches there is usually a big disconnect between what the leadership wants, what they can pay for and what they get. I don’t think its a question of taking advantage of people, rather the pastor or board or leadership don’t know what it took to learn a craft, how much time is really involved and what they are really asking when they say they need to mentor, develop and be engaged with leadership instruction to the body (as many of the job posts I have read state)

    I constantly see posts for “Part Time” worship Leaders on blogs and FB sites but the job descriptions are really a full time job. I know, because I have been a part time WL in a few churches and trust me… it is anything but part time. (That also leads to WL burnout.. another story perhaps…)

    There is a place for doing this out of service and I am in favor of that, but it is very hard for them to attract individuals with talent in music let alone mentoring, leadership and all the other things small churches ask of them for little to no money.

    I think it starts with a good reality check and understanding of what it really is they are going to be asking of a worship leader in a small church.

    Thanks for the article.

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