Familiarity is the Key to Selecting Songs for Worship

About a year ago, I had a conversation with a church member who, among other things, wanted to know how and why I chose the songs for worship here at our church.  I asked more specific questions such as: what are some of your favorite songs for congregational singing and why? Do you like newer songs and if so, why? What I usually get in response may be boiled down to one word: FAMILIARITY! In the course of the conversation, I learned that this man wants to be able to participate, but doesn’t always know every song we sing. Isn’t this true of all of us? I don’t think people are necessarily opposed to learning new songs, but what they really crave are songs that are familiar. I think this word should guide the worship planner/leader in choices that are made when selecting songs for the intergenerational church. Here are a few points to consider regarding choices in worship planning for congregational song:

  1. Familiar songs may be new or old. Familiar songs do NOT necessarily mean time-tested hymns. Familiar songs are songs that are sung enough that most in your congregation knows them well enough to participate. Further, familiar songs for one congregation may not necessarily be familiar in another context. Some songs have special meaning to a congregation that might not be on the radar of another congregation. Songs used for special occasions or at special times in the life of the church can have powerful meaning not found in any other congregation. Just remember your context and be sure to include worship music that has special meaning to the congregation often.
  2. New songs should stand the test of time. There have been many new songs that I’ve taught our congregation over the course of many years as worship leader here at the church. In my conversation with the man who asked me about my choices for worship music, I explained that the newer songs chosen for worship here at the church have been very intentional and told him to stick around, he’d know it well enough in time.
    I try very hard to pick songs with memorable text, melodies, and harmonic interest. I told him while there are some very popular songs in our evangelical world, many of them will not become part of what I call “time-tested hymnody.” I always aim to use songs that I believe will be sung by our children and grandchildren for years to come. One more note about this: I try to stay current in what new worship music is out there. Most of the time I wait some time to see if a song is going to “fall off the radar.” By the time we sing the song, it’s usually something that will last.
  3. Familiarity may be taught.  When I introduce new songs, I try make sure we sing it often enough for it to catch on. Many others have offered wonderful ideas for introducing new songs. Have someone sing the song as a solo, have one of your choirs or praise teams sing the song, have the children sing it first, etc. Once the song has been heard, try to sing it with the congregation. The tune should be easy enough to catch on by the end of the song. Continue to use the song judiciously in worship so it becomes familiar enough. If you’re pastor does sermon-series or if you have a revival or something where a new song can accentuate that series, try to introduce something then. I’ve found revivals are a wonderful time to introduce  new songs because if it’s used in all those services, the people will have many daily interactions with the songs. Some of our favorite songs here at Ivy Creek were “learned” during this intensive times of worship.
  4. Familiarity may be gauged by watching the congregation. Once of the things I do every week is look at our people as I’m leading. Are the people singing? While I expect time-tested hymnody to have greater participation, I’m watching to see what’s going on with different generations. Here’s what I’ve noticed:

    *Unless your people are die-hard listeners of Christian radio, they are not likely to know the newest songs. PERIOD. There is no age stratification here. This is why I’m not convinced that specific generations like specific types of music.

    *The songs in which more people participate are the ones that have been around longer. Okay, I get it; this is axiomatic, but I want to clarify. We sang “How Great is Our God” with the chorus of “How Great Thou Art” yesterday in worship. The former song is thirteen years old. I remember when I heard the song for the first time…I remembered thinking, “this one will be around for awhile.” As I watched, the majority of our people (young and old) sang along to both songs. We also sang an even newer song, “Lion and the Lamb” yesterday and I watched as not quite as many sang along. We’ve only sung this one for a few years, but it’s becoming more familiar.

POINT: BE CAREFUL TO “MARRY” VERY FAMILIAR SONGS WITH SONGS THAT ARE EMERGING IN FAMILIARITY! I recommend there be familiar song(s) to most people in your congregation every week. I hope no one in our congregation leaves without being about to participate if they wish to.

I don’t think worship leaders, especially in intergenerational contexts, should strive to insert some hymns and new worship songs into worship services and call it a day. While there is much to be considered in terms of the sermon, the theme (if you have one for the day), the key is to consider YOUR church context when selecting songs each week. Because there are SO many songs from which to choose for worship, be choosy worship leader! If you’re intergenerational in make-up as we are, stop trying to select songs based on your preconceived notions of what each generation prefers.

Minority-Dominate Congregations are More Likely to be Intergenerational.

The other day I was rereading an article written by Michael Hawn “Singing Across the Generations: is there Hope?”and I came across this statement on page 20, “congregations that are virtually all African American or Latino most often worship together as multigenerational families.” He goes on to say that Anglo-dominated, middle-class congregations from 200-400 in attendance were more likely to offer two or three different patterns of worship (based on musical style). According to Hawn, minority-dominant congregations tend to worship intergenerationally. Hawn does not aim to explain why this data exists, but focuses on strategies for how churches can find unity in their musical worship.

I’m curious as to why. Why are Anglo-dominated congregations more likely to have multiple types of styles of services? The argument that a new, improved, more energetic contemporary service is going to bring the young families in doesn’t necessarily apply if the church isn’t an Anglo-dominated church. Many of our minority-dominated churches are thriving. The African American and Hispanic dominated congregations I’m familiar with aren’t dying…in fact they are growing! I’ve been to several Latin American churches (all intergenerational) that are THRIVING and the gospel is proclaimed and received.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking, praying, strategizing about how to bring musical elements that transcend generations into our worship context. I’m very interested how minority-dominated congregations have managed to avoid the “worship wars.” This post is not designed to find ways to bring multi-ethnic elements into a content. Anyone with Google can find hundred of articles and books on the subject. However, to begin the conversation, I want to discuss some traits I’ve found in minority-dominated churches that might give a few clues as to why these types of churches have chosen to worship intergerationally. I have a few ideas I’d like to share–all anecdotal although observed many times. As always, there are doubtless others. I’d appreciate feedback so the conversation may continue.

  1. Minority-dominated congregations are made of families that VALUE being together. Go to any Latin American country and you’ll see multiple generations living together. They value all; church is no different. Most non-Anglo cultures are ultra family-centric. The “it takes a village” mentality is evident. My observation is women in minority-dominate churches are taking care of many generations of children and raising in a “pack-mentality.” It’s not uncommon to find many Hispanic and African American grandmothers helping raise their own grandchildren.
  2. Minority-dominated congregations are not afraid of emotionally-driven, passionate times of worship. One of the reasons many Anglo-dominate churches have decided to add “contemporary” services alongside their “traditional” services has been that some feel that traditional worship is stuffy, uninspired, boring, and lacking passion. Those who find comfortable in the predictable liturgy of a traditional service find contemporary services irreverent. Minority-dominate churches just don’t have (my opinion) boring or dispassionate music. It’s always been passionate and will continue to be. Ergo, there is no need to separate services based on style.
  3. Minority-dominate churches cling to their ethnicity while embracing new.  The musical worship in these churches is rooted in who they are historically. While they aren’t afraid to embrace new styles of music, they would never create a worship service that excluded one musical style over another.
  4.  Participation comes from all generations in minority-dominate churches. Some of this is due to the size of the church. Many are small churches that need everyone to work together. However, my experience has been that even as these churches have gotten larger, (some of our largest churches in America are African- American dominated) they have not lost their intergenerational nature. All have a role in worship leadership.
  5. Choir participation in minority-dominate churches is still HIGH. I can’t think of an African-American dominate church today that doesn’t use a choir. This could be said for many other non-Anglo ethnic groups as well. While authors of the “National Congregations Study” (Chavez and Anderson 1998 and 2008) reported that choirs in churches has decreased from 72.3% in ’98 to 58% in ’08, I do not see evidence of decreased participation in minority-dominated congregations. In fact not only does it remain common, it is intentionality intergenerational (not just choirs of members with with white hair)! These churches have figured out how important a choir can still be relevant.  In fact many leaders of these churches depend on the energy that the choir brings to musical worship, an energy that cannot be replicated by any other means.

I’m positive I’ve only scratched the surface and there are always exceptions to these comments, but I can’t help but notice that it seems to me that only Anglo-dominated churches (and generally in America) think creating separate worship events which contains only one style of music and liturgy is ultimately healthy for the church. This can lead to generational separation, but more importantly, separate services also prevents the fusion of multi-ethnic musical variety. It is only through cooperation and inclusion of multiple styles that we may paint of picture of how heaven will truly be—all peoples worshiping together in many different ways, but worshiping…together

1Liturgy, 24 (3), 2009: 19-28.