Part 2: How one small church found its ‘worship voice’

Last time we began exploring the concept of God’s singing in the new life of believers as the ‘sound of the spiritual harvest’ (as described in The Sound of the Harvest, by J. Nathan Corbitt) and the need for a gathered group of such people to find their own ‘worship voice.’
But many observe there seems to be two completely different church ‘worlds’—there’s ‘big church’ and ‘little church’—and when it comes to music resources, they’re worlds apart. Mega churches have choirs, praise teams, bands, worship directors, staff, and celebrity worship leaders. But for small congregations with quite limited resources, it often means singing along to CDs or videos.
So after some years of singing along to CD’s, here’s the story of how one little church prayerfully reevaluated their situation and decided to move in a different direction.
The little flock had come to a crossroads of sorts, and needed to address a number of challenges. In sitting down on several occasions to pray and share their feelings, one thing became clear—the congregational singing portion of the church service just didn’t feel right anymore. Oh, the songs were just fine, but after years of pumping slick recordings of voices and instruments through a sound system, they finally decided it wasn’t really them—wasn’t the sound of God’s spiritual harvest in that setting—wasn’t their own ‘worship voice’ and they yearned for a warmer touch of humanity.

No, they weren’t self-centered and stuck on the sound of their own voices, which were clearly nothing to brag about, but it seemed to them more important to more clearly hear the sound of their voices thanking and praising God than to be drowned out by voices and instruments that weren’t even present, and were merely recorded. Even if it meant singing without accompaniment, they decided it was more about the presence of people, and the actual humanity shared in Spirit with the risen, ascended Jesus, than it was about music.
So they identified someone with a strong voice who agreed to lead worship. Unexpectedly, a relative of that person soon began attending, and that person played an instrument and offered to play along. Soon a member who hadn’t picked up his instrument in decades decided to knock off the rust and join in. Soon each were comparing notes to see what songs would sound best given their particular involvement. Interest and attendance began increasing and the congregation began feeling more engaged.
They discovered it was a relational thing. Instead of pumping the sound of a mega-church worship service into their own small gathering, they found they were perhaps better able to appreciate what the Spirit was doing in and among them as they cherished the actual living presence and interaction of each participant.
Admittedly, every situation is different, but I’m glad my friend shared his story. If your small congregation is looking for ideas that go beyond CDs, here are a few suggestions.
· Contact the music department of a college or high school, or music school, to see if students might be available to help with church music. Offer a small stipend for their honorable work of assisting you with six or seven songs each weekend.
· Such a musician might appreciate the opportunity and welcome the experience. It is likely you have someone in-house who can sing well enough to lead, and only needs an accompanist to round things out.
· Some songs sound great on acoustic guitar. Sure, you’ve heard big arrangements of the Revelation Song, but the author wrote it on guitar, and sang it often in her small congregation and in other small settings before it ever hit the big venues with full bands and praise teams (click here to see an earlier post about song writer Jennie Lee Riddle and the Revelation Song).
· Live accompaniment can bring life to an old hymn. Besides, you can actually fellowship with an accompanist and go out for dinner!
· Small churches are intimate, but if you occasionally yearn for a bigger event, why not arrange to combine with several other small congregations for larger celebrations several times each year.
Your comments and ideas are most welcome! What does the spiritual harvest sound like in your congregation? Has it found its own worship voice?


Pastor Jonathan said…
Thanks for this post, and the last one. I think I have just started to wake up to the need for congregations to find their worship voice and as a small church pastor I can see how important this is. It also fits the gospel. The good news is that Jesus enables us to be ourselves, not yellow pencils copied from other people or churches. I do see a couple of challenges, though. For about 10-15 years small churches in my denomination have been told that they need to worship in a way that will appeal to outsiders and have been discouraged from being themselves. Also, it seems that worship leaders have a strongly felt need to sing what speaks to their own hearts and have trouble letting the congregation find its voice. I guess what I'm saying is that you are right and I realize that I and my churches are just taking the first baby steps towards finding our voices.
Mike Hale said…
Thanks Pastor Jonathan. Greatly appreciate your openness with these issues! (Your thoughtful comment could launch a thousand posts.) You are right—Jesus enables us to be ourselves. At the same time, in our ongoing journey with Jesus, we continue finding out more about who we are in Him—as new creation—while still not obliterating what is unique to begin with. We we may change and adjust how we do things during our journey, but we know that old or new songs, and whatever style, whatever accompaniment, it’s still just a faint echo of THE new song in the heavenly realm.

To the point about your denomination encouraging churches over the past 10-15 years to design worship that would appeal to outsiders, perhaps the intent had more to do with trying to break out of a rut that had included being overly parochial. There was a need to come out of a shell and learn more Christian ‘standards’ -- something a visitor had heard before, including perhaps in para-church settings. There was also a need to learn more songs that were both more intimate than all the big marching hymns that had been the norm, and more prayerful and vertical songs. Then as you know, the problem was made even more complicated in that the denomination was still coming out the other side of major doctrinal/theological changes. To some extent there was a need to bring in songs and ways of conducting a service that were a better match for those changes.

Regarding what speaks to the heart of the worship leader, and the heart of the congregation. Seems like the ‘worship voice’ will be a mix of both. At the grass roots level, the congregation typically recognizes a gifting and sensitivity in someone and then commissions the person or persons to serve in leading worship. But part of that person’s gifting and sensitivity is to be aware of what will fit, and to make try thoughtfully plan, bring new things to the congregation from time to time, and adjust as needed.

The original post had more to do with a congregation finding what accompaniment allowed them to find their ‘worship voice’—and not so much what songs they’d sing. They didn’t have all that much of an issue the songs they'd been singing. (Although it should be said that some especially BIG sings are better suited to large gatherings and simply don’t sound all that effective in smaller more intimate settings.) Also, once several musicians came along, some songs worked better than others for their particular mix of instruments and abilities. A different group of folks would no doubt be happy as a lark to continue singing to CDs, and that’s just fine. We’re all different.

Thanks again for sharing your insight and experience. Blessings to you and your congregation as you keep taking those steps. We can rejoice that Jesus has an unshakable hole on each hand along the way!