We’ve been working a new songbook for our house-based congregations. As we’ve done it, we’ve identified some criteria for selection.Some of the criteria are obvious: good theology, understandable to an unbeliever, good poetry (something that lifts the heart). We’ve also had a bias towards songs that express a communal experience of God.But I thought the musical criteria might be of interest.
1. Not too high
A lot of modern songs go very high (often during the new fade for a middle eight). Small groups of people find this difficult to sing, especially if the high notes are sustained. In some cases we’ve opted to take the song down tow or three semi-tones. But this is not possible in many songs because they cover such a range. Truth is, I suspect they were written to be performed rather than for a congregational setting.
In a congregation of 300 there is a good chance you will have an accomplished musician or two. In a group of 20 you may have some who is fairly competent, but not accomplished. Nor do you have strong singers to carry the song. So complex rhythms or melodies are non-starters. Songs really need to be playable on both a piano and guitar since you will not often have both.
3. No significant notes that are not in the chord
E.g. singing an ‘a’ while playing the chord of G. This links to the previous point. A small group of unaccomplished singers will struggle to hit this note. Obviously they’ll do so as part of a flowing melody, but not when expected to jump to it or at the beginning of a line (or even a bar).
All these points reflect a recent development in church music: the accomplished, heavily amplified band performing from a stage. When a church is known for having ‘great music’ this is usually what people have in mind. But almost always in my experience the congregation is mumbling along. There is no real participation. The band don’t realise this because they can’t hear the congregation. It may be a great performance, but it is not the people of God singing the praises of God.
People sometimes ask about praise in a household setting. They seem to think it will be deficient in some way. Many is the time I’ve been relieved to return from a conference to praise God with the 20 or so people who gather in my front room.This is where my heart is stirred – as a worship God with people whose lives and struggles I share. I know the kind of week people have had when they affirm the grace and glory of God. Or together we have been touched by God’s word and respond as a community with song. You wouldn’t buy a CD of the music we make! But it is the best worship I’ve experienced.