Every local congregation has a corpus of congregational song that serves as a basis for the selection of music for corporate worship. In churches of the nineteenth and twentieth century that was often the hymnal of the church. In many churches today, hymnals have been replaced with digital resources that instantly grant access to thousands of songs. The possibilities with digital resources are limitless. This technology, however, should be utilized in a manner reflective of a hymnal editor since that is in essence what the worship planner is doing; creating a new body of congregational song, a hymnal without binding.
Hymnals and songbooks are put together with a specific focus. The type of focus spans the gamut from hymns for a specific ordinance such as baptism or the Lord’s Supper to folios from the album of a current CCM artist. The corpus of congregational songs for particular congregations reflects hymnals in this way. The focus of a congregation’s songs may be what is popular on the radio, songs that are being used in another church or parachurch organization, or songs that were popular in our youth.
Regrettably, the focus is not always planned but often is a reflection of the worship planner’s MP3 player. This is drastically different from using a denominational hymnal, which has been filtered through the lens of theology and musicality to arrive at a recommended body of texts and tunes. The worship planner must assume the role of editor when planning worship services to be certain the songs chosen rest within the focus of that congregation.
It is imperative that as worship planners we not abdicate our role in shaping the congregational song of our congregations to popular trends or personal preferences, but in forming the corpus from which we draw on a weekly basis, we must test every song against a set of standards.
The principle focus we must maintain is the doctrinal integrity of each song we utilize in worship. It is therefore essential that the minister of music clearly understands the doctrinal position of the church, be aligned with the doctrinal position of the pastor, and be able to objectively ascertain the doctrinal streams running through each song. If the song aligns with these positions, it can be tested against the next standard. If the song falls short of meeting these doctrinal standards, it must be discarded or the text altered to align.
The second filter is the musical integrity of the tune and it’s pairing with the text. The tune must be complimentary in communicating the text; if it is not, another tune might be sought out that would be more complimentary. With many congregational songs written in the past few decades, text and tune are inextricably linked, making it difficult to use either if the other does not meet one of the standards.
When it is determined that tune and text do indeed compliment each other, the tune should be analyzed for its usefulness in congregational singing. Of chief considerations are range and tessitura, as well as melodic contour and rhythmic simplicity. If the tune lies outside the singable range for the congregation, which includes our children and senior adults, it should be altered or discarded in favor of a more suitable tune. Also, if the melody is disjunct or the rhythmic organization is too complex, it may be unsuitable for congregational singing. If a tune passes this analysis, the tune and text pairing should be considered for inclusion in the congregation’s corpus of songs.
Even though a song is suitable for inclusion in this body of texts and tunes, we must be discerning in what the focus for our corpus should be. Just as hymnal committees over the years have chosen to exclude worthy texts and tunes just because of the sheer volume of potential options, we too must evaluate just how many songs should we use in worship.
A specific challenge in a post-Gutenberg and denominational publication age is that different churches in the same denomination sing very different songs. This likely means that our congregations have varied backgrounds in congregational song and often have little shared repertory. It is however, essential that we draw on common experiences as we plan worship services. We must then create a shared corpus and build a common index within each congregant from which to draw for corporate worship.
There is no exact science for creating such a common repertory, but only a model that may be useful for any church. We must choose the most doctrinally significant texts that have tunes that are the most musically excellent. In essence, we begin with the best of the best congregational songs written. For each congregation the number will be different, but in our setting we chose about seventy-five. These seventy-five songs now serve as the corpus of congregational song from which to draw when planning a worship service. They also serve as the basis for repertoire for choirs ranging from pre-school to senior adult, since each one chosen is suitable to be sung by all ages. These may or may not be the only songs sung in worship for a period of time, but should be a great volume of what is sung in worship. After the congregation has this common repertory, then is the time to expand the corpus by working in new additions that fit within the above framework. Following this model, we can thoughtfully shape the song of our congregations and make congregational singing truly congregational.
Robert Pendergraft is Minister of Music at Woods Chapel Baptist Church in Arlington, TX, and a Ph.D. student in Music Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX. He holds Bachelor and Master degrees in Music Education from Samford University in Birmingham, AL. He has served churches in Alabama and Texas as Minister of Music for the past 8 years.