Participatory Church Music Choice

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Church music—a topic sure to stir lively back-and-forth—came up just before we said our farewells at a recent men’s retreat. I suggested that those in church congregations should have a voice in choosing the songs. Others doubted that could work. But we had run out of time, leaving no opportunity for further discussion. So I returned home praying and thinking about how to make music selection participatory in a shared-church context.

Most importantly, does the New Testament support making song choice participatory? In I Cor. 14, Paul clarifies the right use of spiritual gifts in a church meeting. In v. 26 he opens the door for anyone to bring a song to the assembly: “When you come together, everyone has a hymn. . . .” (NIV). “Has” translates a Greek word that can mean having something to share with others. Paul knew God had given his Holy Spirit to each Christian for the benefit of everyone. Back then, one-anothering reached even to mutually selecting songs to sing as they gathered.

But can we realistically let people in 21st century church settings take part in music selection? No one wants to return to the so-called “worship wars” that pitted organs against guitars and hymns against contemporary choruses. Above all, we should aim for the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17.

Drawing on my years of experience both on the platform and in the pew, I will propose a way to include the congregation in picking the music that should actually encourage unity. What follows are merely suggestions. I hope they will trigger further discussions and even better ideas.

Adopt Criteria for Congregational Songs

If people are going to participate in choosing music, they will need some pointers about what does and does not fit. Qualified church leaders could set forth and teach how to apply a few standards for song-selection. For example:

1. Theology. Are the lyrics of the song biblically sound? Does a song name Jesus or another member of the Trinity? Some songs lack any clear reference to the Lord. (Old song example: “Bringing in the Sheaves.”) Others might be sung to a boyfriend or girlfriend. (New song example: “In the Secret.”)

2. Vocabulary. Will the congregation easily understand what the words mean? (Old hymn: “Here I raise my Ebenezer,” does not connect, at least not without a lot of explanation.) Does the song repeat words and phrases to the point of producing mind-numbing repetition? (Contemporary chorus: I recently sat in a church meeting where much of one song consisted of “na-- na-- na na na.”)

3. Melody. Is the song singable to those in the congregation? Do intervals, syncopation, difficult rhythms, notes too high or low, or other characteristics put the piece out of reach of non-musicians?

The benchmarks should be few and easily grasped. Once leaders have adopted them, they should occasionally present and explain them to the congregation.

Provide a Way for Anyone to Suggest a Song

The church bulletin could include a simple form inviting people to nominate songs for congregational singing. The form could ask for the song title and the author (to prevent confusion over identical song titles). Space could be provided for briefly stating why the one suggesting it finds the song meaningful—perhaps God used it in calling them to Jesus or in their subsequent spiritual growth. The form should also make it clear that the suggestion will be reviewed and that filling out the form does not guarantee the song will be used.

Appoint Short-Term Task Groups to Review Song Suggestions

The completed song-suggestion forms could go to a small task group. To guard against this group becoming an entrenched power bloc, its members should serve for only a short time—perhaps two or three months, followed by another group. Each could include a younger member, an older member, and someone from the church’s music team. This group would evaluate each suggestion, asking whether it meets the church’s song-selection criteria.

Forward Approved Song Titles to the Pastor and Music Team

Songs that qualify could be passed along to the platform leaders. As the number of congregationally selected song suggestions grows, those leaders could select from the pool those that fit what they might need for any particular meeting. When appropriate, the song-selector’s reason for choosing it might be shared with the congregation.

The Pluses for Such a Plan

Something along the line of what I am proposing would offer several benefits:

1. Choice and Oversight. It would allow the congregation to participate and their leaders to oversee in the ministry of musical decision-making. Not everyone’s favorite classic hymn or contemporary chorus belongs in the Sunday-morning repertoire. Nor should musicians on the platform hold a song-selection monopoly

2. Old Songs and New. Because everyone would have opportunity to take part, the Sunday morning songs would include recent compositions (such as “There is a Redeemer” or “The Potter’s Hand.”) as well as musical treasures from the past (e.g., “It Is Well with My Soul,” or “To God Be the Glory”).

3. Across Generations. Such a plan would permit everyone, from children to seniors, to participate in the song-selection process. As a result, the music would reflect the life of the church body and not simply the tastes of one music leader or team. Older and younger generations could learn from and come to appreciate what each has to offer.

What do you think? Would a process something like this one increase participation your church? What changes might you suggest?