In the first part of this article series, we uncovered that the average church in America has an attendance between sixty to about 200 on any given Sunday. Though the average church is small it makes up 94% of the total churches in America. In the second part, we found churches are using more traditional worship methods, like piano-based Hymns, than large worship teams with modern worship songs. Given the average church size and the limited amount of resources a small church has to tap into, I think this makes sense. In this installment, we’ll explore what the average church in America needs for worship music.
What Is Worship Music
Before I go any further, I want to make sure we’re all on the same page with what worship music is, specifically in a corporate modern church setting.
John 4:23-24 (NIV) says, “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
The Psalmist in 147:1 (NIV) “Praise the Lord. How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him!
Colossians 3:16 (NIV) says, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”
There are more scriptures I could include, but for now, I think these do well to set up a biblical guardrail on what worship music should be.
- Worship music is focused on God.
- Worship music comes from an outpouring of our spirit.
- Worship music should be encouraging.
- Worship music should be based on the truth seen in God’s word.
- Worship music should come from hearts filled with gratitude to God.
- Worship music should consist of Songs (The Book of Psalms being the primary example), Hymns (metric poems arranged to be sung corporately), and Spiritual Songs (songs with a spiritual theme that encourage the body and admonish others to love God and one another).
The Average Person’s Abilities
According to The Kennedy Center, the average man sings baritone (roughly A2-A4). The average woman sings mezzo-soprano (A3-A5). Although most people are physically capable of a three-octave range, an average untrained man has a singing range of 1.5 to 2 octaves; an average untrained woman has a 2 to 2.5-octave range.
For rhythm, there is more variance. According to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology, a person’s ability to distinguish and generate rhythms is correlated, interestingly enough, to the primary language they speak. The average American can match a steady beat but struggles to generate a steady beat on their own. They can also match some syncopation, but again struggle to generate syncopation on their own. It was also found that repeated beats and syncopation were easier to follow than unrepeated syncopation.
So what does that mean for worship music songwriters and worship leaders? The most accessible corporate worship song should have a melody within 1.5-2 octaves that lie midrange (A3-A4). It can have a good amount of syncopation but the syncopation should be directly repeated or with a close variation. The song leader should stay within the context of the melody so people can follow along. Since the average person requires melodic and rhythmic repetition to follow along, Improvisation or melodic variation will force the worshiper to go from participant to observer.
This does not mean that worship music has to be dumbed down or simplified, in fact, just the opposite. Look at the hymn Amazing Grace. It meets all these criteria and is one of the most beautiful, poetic, spirit-filled songs ever written. My favorite is When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. It too fits snuggly within this paradigm. In fact, almost all hymns do. And if you look at CCLI’s top 100, fifteen percent of the songs are hymns written decades ago, if not more.
Worship Industry Snap Shot
A study conducted between 2010-2020 found that almost all the top twenty-five worship songs came from four sources: Bethel, Elevation, Hillsong, and Passion. The authors of the study wrote, “If you have ever felt like most worship music sounds the same, it may be because the worship music you are most likely to hear in many churches is written by just a handful of songwriters from a handful of churches.”
Prior to 2010, before streaming started to take hold, the most popular worship songs were associated with individuals like Chris Tomlin or Matt Redman. As music streaming took over the landscape, the most popular new songs came from mega-churches and were released as singles. Interestingly, the study also found that worship leaders trust one person above the mega-church producers. That person is Phil Wickham. It’s unclear why this is, but his influence on worship leaders is significant. He is trusted.
Praise and Profit
Make no mistake, I think most, if not all folks in the worship music industry, whether artists, producers, or executives, have a desire to serve God and bring music into this world that will glorify God and further his kingdom. Those folks need to support their families with their ministry. Paul is very clear in 1 Corinthisnas 9:13-14, “Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.”
CCM is a multimillion-dollar industry, and worship music makes up a large portion of that industry. In a voluntary poll, we asked worship industry folks, including executives, producers, and artists, their opinion of what the worship music industry is today. One fact that came from all respondents was that the worship music industry’s goal is to make a profit. I’m sure this is no surprise to many. The glaring question is, with worship music specifically, should that be the case? Does John 2:13-16 where Jesus cast out the money changers and merchants from the temple apply here? At what point does it go from 1 Corinthians 9:13-14 to John 2:13-16?
My Challenge To You
First, for the small cadre of writers and worship stars, get out of the big church, big worship team format, and go to the small churches across America. Lead worship there for a Sunday or two. Ask the average worship leader and worshiper what they want and need. See the challenges they face and seek wisdom on how to help them meet those challenges.
Second, for those larger churches that have an abundance of resources and people serving in their worship ministry, help those smaller average churches that have needs. Do you have equipment you’re not using that could bless a smaller church? Do you have singers or musicians that are waiting their turn to lead worship that could go to a smaller church periodically and bless the saints there? Is there technical training your giving that volunteers from other churches would benefit from?
Third, start worshipping with styles. Whether it’s in the worshiptainment genre or more accessible corporate worship, where are the jazz or blues worship songs? Where are the bluegrass worship tunes? Where are those willing to rock a worship set? With so many styles of music, there is no reason worship music should so often sound the same. I understand these songs might not get the downloads, clicks, or sales, but we worship a creative God, who delights in our creativity.
We have to acknowledge that addressing the issues with the worship music industry is complicated, contentious, and can bring division. That is the last thing I want. I just think that those committing their lives to this part of ministry should pause and consider where we have been, where we are, and where we are going. Now more than ever, the average church in America needs worship music that clearly and boldly worships God, declares his truth, is accessible, edifies the brothers and sisters, and brings solace and refuge to hurting and tired souls.
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Christopher Watson is an author of six books, both fiction and non-fiction. He is also a musician and composer with a B.A. in Music from Azusa Pacific University. For several years Christopher led worship at The Springs Church while attending Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas Texas. He's been involved with worship in a number of churches in California and the Pacific Northwest both as a musician and in production and technology. Now he lives and writes in Washington State with his amazing wife, wonderful daughters, and highly intelligent dog, Ellie Mae.