Songs for a household church

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.

2. Playable
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.


13 thoughts on “Songs for a household church

  1. Great thoughts. I wouldn’t have thought of a lot of these things — but they totally make sense. Thanks for sharing such practical suggestions.

  2. Couldn’t agree more! I love playing in worship bands, but since being involved in a house church have really come to appreciate the simplicity of just singing to God together. You have to get past the fact that no-one’s got an amazing voice, but that together we can still praise God. We sing along to CDs (which makes it particularly hard to find ones with a good range), but your practical suggestions will be really useful for picking new songs :)

  3. Another issue is that I know a lot of people like me (male, middle aged, in full time Christian work) who are jaded with singing in a large congregation. It just doesn’t do anything for me. In most cases, my experience of larger churches would be immeasurably improved by dropping the singing altogether. Singing meaningfully, with a small group of people, and sharing their joys and sorrows is wonderfully attractive.

  4. Thanks Tim. I am sure you are right that so much modern stuff is performance related and the needs of ordinary congregations are not considered. Self-indulgence is a temptation that needs to be resisted if the church is to benefit from someone’s musical/lyrical gifts. That is why I am so pleased that Keith Getty and Stuart Townend specifically address this issue when they are working on tunes for their new songs.

  5. Tim,

    Thanks for the word about music and worship. I agree with you that much of the music that is played and sung in many contemporary worship services must have been written for performance and radio…beautiful music and lyrics but difficult to sing. When your worship book is produced, please let us know how we can obtain copies.

  6. Great blog! We would like to invite all bloggers to an event we are hosting….

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  7. I’m not sure I entirely agree with the article. I think you have a point about most songs being written for large congregations, but I think the reason for the range in notes is so that songs can build and have a ‘high point’ which is often quite a good thing.

    I also think that today, compared with the Graham Kendrick era, music for most popular worship songs is actually much simpler. In the 80’s most songs were written for the piano and now we’re finding that most are being written for the guitar, which is a great encouragement to ‘three-chord’ guitarists who may well be in house churches.

  8. Hi Tim

    Yeah – much the same feeling about this – particularly the high notes. I find that if I am preaching somewhere I generally try not to sing beforehand because it strains my voice.

    On another disconcerting note – boom boom – what I have noticed about many of the songs is their ahistorical tone. They have lost the earthiness of the gospel and many appear ungrounded and divorced from the biblical narrative. They would sit well with the western style Buddhism currently doing the rounds.

  9. Hi Tim – interesting post and a very interesting project. As nearly all Welsh Language Churches are of no greater size than a house church in reality, publishing such a worship book in Welsh would be awesome. Drop me a line and we’ll see if i can get together a team here in Wales to do some translations?! Such a venture would be very very beneficial for our Welsh Language efforts. Getting a publisher and even money to take it on to publish in Welsh would not be a problem.


    P.S. we did meet briefly in the dwell conference – met up recently with Dewi Arwel Hughes and he told me of your Llanymawddwy connections! I used to spend all my summers as a kid at Bryn Uchaf with John and Mari. Have very fond memories. John, as you probably know, passed away and went up to the big party a few weeks ago but he had an honorable innings, he was 96 or something.

  10. thanks Tim
    on the basis that it’s great to learn from others, would you feel able to post your song book titles at all, please?

  11. good blog on music Tim. I think one of the key points is confidence… that is confidence in the person or persons who are leading the music… if its too hard for them or they think it doesnt work, it wont work. So they transmit confidence to the whole group. It helps if the tune goes where you think it should…
    but all of that is the technical side… The aim is for people to be free enough to allow their hearts and minds to be fully engaged with the words, the Lord and each other.
    Steve J

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