Music in the Small Membership Church

Music in the Small Membership Church
Wanda P. Galloway

“…but we don’t have a choir.”

Small membership churches often have no choir or they have one of few numbers. This doesn’t mean there cannot be special music presented in a meaningful way each Sunday. Again, planning is the key. The pastor and those involved with music can plan the special music for a month or two in advance to make sure it takes place; otherwise, nothing different occurs.

Alternatives to a choir include:

1. Invite soloists from other churches to perform for you once a month. They may bring their own accompanist; but more likely will bring their accompaniment on a tape or CD. I have found many soloists are glad to do this, even those of other denominations.

2. Use those young people (and others) who play musical instruments This affirms them as people with talent who have a valued place in worship. “Fairest Lord Jesus” played on the flute and “Holy, Holy, Holy” played on the trumpet are wonderfully moving experiences.

3. Remember to let the children sing as a special even if there are only two or three. This is a marvelous moment everyone enjoys and could become an evangelistic outreach.

4. Let the congregation be the choir. For example, select a hymn and let the women sing one verse, all sing the chorus, then the men sing a verse, all sing the chorus, and everyone sing the last verse and chorus in full voice or very softly.

5. Use “specials” other than singing. Scripture maybe presented by two, four, or more people by having them read antiphonally or as a choral reading presentation. This can be rehearsed before or after Sunday School or church but should be practiced several times. Anything we present for worship should be our very best.

6. Introduce interpretative movement to express song or scripture. One of the most effective worship moments I’ve experienced was an interpretative movement done by four young girls to the music of “The Lord’s Prayer.”

The Contemporary Drama Service prints booklets titled Let’s Move and Let’s Move Again that tell what movement to do for each line of hymn or scripture. This can be learned by anyone relatively quickly. [PO Box 771042, Colorado Springs, CO 80933.] And look for other resources from Cokesbury.

7. Create an instant choir; have the women or men or some other group sing from their favorite book of hymns. This can be done just before worship. They will pick a well-loved hymn to sing for the group, and even if most of the congregation ends up in the choir, that’s all right It is a special moment for them when it is offered up in worship at its special time.

8. Have someone “sign” a hymn as would be done for a hearing impaired audience. The words will come alive in a new way when this is done while the congregation sings. Contact the local school speech therapist, community college, or school for the deaf for this resource.

9. Use the talent in your church or charge. Do you have someone who plays the autoharp or guitar and sings? They can do a special. Do you have a group who sing together even though they are not a formal choir – perhaps a quartet or small group that just gets together to sing for fun or entertain at a nursing home? These are untapped sources for special music.

Creative Use of Music

Some small membership congregations sometimes have to be taught to sing; others have a history of singing and will sing with gusto at every occasion. I believe it is vastly more important that the congregation sing with enjoyment, whatever the style, than to insist they sing from a certain hymnal, with the result that resentment and conflict occur. After all, congregations that already sing may be led to other music over time. Never should the congregation be made to feel that their music is somehow “not right.” After all, they are singing God’s praises the way their parents did, the way they were taught.

As we have noted, some congregations sing well already and others need to be taught Here are some suggestions I have found helpful :

1. Encourage people to sit closer together so that in hymn singing each one does not feel like he/ she is singing a solo. This situation is most discouraging, and people trend to become quieter and quieter as the hymn prognoses. They also develop a feeling of uninvolvement with the worship experience. To encourage congregational singing and to make visitors more welcome, newcomers should be invited to share the pew with those in regular attendance instead of being left to wander around and finally settle on the back seat

2. Take time to teach new hymns many times congregations have a bias against new hymns because they have been “sprung” on them without any preparation. Fellowship suppers and the time just before worship are good times to teach a hymn or chorus which will be used later in a service; they are times when people are more relaxed and open to trying new things. If the church has a choir, a new hymn may be sung as a special, or the accompanist can play it as a prelude or offertory, all of which allow the congregation to hear the hymn before they are called upon to sing it. Also, using a new “Hymn of the Month” in conjunction with familiar hymns will help the congregation really learn and appreciate the newer additions to the hymnal. However, don’t forget they need to be sung again to become “regulars.”

3. Make familiar hymns interesting again by telling something about how the hymn happened to be written or something about the writer. M any have fascinating stories behind them; personal stories that people can relate to. This enables them to see the words in a fresh light, providing a more meaningful worship experience.

4. Stop them and urge them to sing. When the congregation is singing i n an unenthusiastic, uninvolved manner and the hymn is a rousing one, just stop them. Point out the meaning of the words and encourage them ID sing from their hearts. Don’t forget to express appreciation when they do well.

“but we have no accompanist!”

In order for a small membership church to have music that is a positive part of worship and good congregational singing, a competent accompanist or a dynamic song leader is really necessary. But many of our small churches have none of these. One of the following suggestions may be of help:

1. Contact local piano teachers or music departments of college/community colleges. Often they have students who are capable of playing and who need the experience of playing before groups. I know one pastor whose accompanist is a teenage girl who travels to both services with him each Sunday in order to play. This is the way I got my start in church music, and the experience was invaluable.

2. Hire an accompanist. I know this is a radical thought, but if the congregation can be encouraged to see this as an investment in the future of their church rather than an unnecessary expense, it will pay great dividends. A church needs someone who will be there every Sunday to support congregational singing and special music. If a church cannot afford it for a year, try it for a month or every other month. The result might encourage them to budget for it.

3. Use a congregational member who plays an instrument other than piano or organ. You may have in your congregation someone who plays the guitar, or even better, plays the guitar and sings! Hymns can be sung well when accompanied by guitar, especially if there is someone ID help the congregation get started singing, and there are accompaniment books for the hymnals that often provide the necessary chords. (In fact, The Faith We Sing has a separate guitar accompaniment book available.) Other instruments that are useful are the autoharp and electronic keyboards. Both of these can provide helpful musical support. The keyboard is designed so that it can provide support even if just the melody line is played. It also has other sound capabilities, such as bells, which can be used creatively in the service. You may be lucky enough ID have a teenager who plays the synthesizer in the school band, which gives you yet another option.

4. If there is no accompanist to be found, try locating a song leader. Sometimes a member of the congregation can be persuaded to perform this ministry. It’s not necessary to have a “belter,” just a person who sings with confidence and enthusiasm who can encourage others to participate. An inexpensive pitch pipe can be used to give everyone the pitch. If there is no one to lead in the congregation, look around in the community. Many rural communities have persons noted for their singing who might agree to be involved in this service to the church, if only for a month or two. Even members of other denominations will sometimes agree to do this since their worship may be at a different time. A cappela (unaccompanied) singing can be as effective today as it was in the early days of the church when all singing was done with just a leader and no accompaniment.

5. Plan. Plan. Plan. The worship committee can meet and plan the hymns for a month or two. This allows the accompanist time to practice the hymns so they can be played confidently, with a marked beat, a sense of rhythm, and an identifiable melody. The accompanist will then be able to feel good about his/her contribution to the worship service. Be sure to emphasize that this is indeed a ministry and as such should be done to the best of everyone’s ability.

6. Apply praise and recognition liberally. One thing the church ohm fails to do is Express thanks and appreciation for work done by volunteers. All who give of their time and talent need and deserve recognition periodically. Special words of appreciation in the bulletin or from the pulpit as well as honor at fellowship dinners are al I valid means of affirming their ministry.

7. Encourage all to participate. Some may fed they cannot sing because they are older and have little breath. However, they can be encouraged to participate by silently reading the hymn as it is sung rather than by simply waiting for the hymn to end. Other people have just gotten out of the habit of singing. Read John Wesley’s instruction for hymn singing found at the front of the hymnal (especially the one about singing “lustily”) and encourage all to try again.

8. Be creative in the use of the hymnal. It is a treasure of wonderful material that can be used in Exciting ways. Worship should never be boring or routine; it should be an exciting, renewing Experience for the congregation. Don’t forget, a hymn can be read as well as sung when its message is appropriate to the meditation or sermon.

9. Teach the wonderful choruses found in the hymnal; the congregation can then be the choir. They can sing a chorus to gather for worship, to prepare themselves for prayer, to express thanks or praise, or to share in the benediction. The choruses provide a wonderful chance to include the congregation in worship more actively, and the more a congregation takes part in the worship service the more alive it is for them.

10. Vary the way hymns are sung. They do not have to fall in the same place each Sunday nor do they have to be sung in the same way. Too often hymns are announced and sung with little focus on the singing of the message. Varying the way a hymn is sung puts more emphasis on its message. The congregation may be asked to sing the verses from soft to loud in volume or vice versa, to sing one verse without accompaniment, or to hum as a verse is read. Instruments such as flute, trumpet, tambourine, or even drums will add emphasis and interest.

11. Sing at every opportunity. The more people sing, the more they fed a sense of community. A chorus can be sung before as a blessing before fellowship suppers. Let the children sing for worship even if there are only two or three so they will know they are an important part of worship. Help the congregation learn that worship is an action verb meaning “participation.” Many have gotten into the habit of being “preached at and performed for,” and when worship becomes a spectator activity, the congregation is untouched and uninvolved. Singing can involve everyone, and it is a natural expression of joy, pain, and praise, making worship an Experience all can look forward to each week.

Other Suggestions:

* Start a children’s choir. It only takes a few children (three or four), and an accompanist is not necessary. At any Christian bookstore you can find songbooks are suitable for children which have an accompanying split-track tape. One side of such a tape has a children’s choir singing the songs, and the other side is just the accompaniment This way the children can learn the song using the choir side and perform it using the accompaniment side. (Songs from V BS are usual I y in this format and can be shared with the congregation.) If it is difficult to find time in the week for this, a few minutes before or after Sunday School or church may be used.

* Learn a snail musical presentation for Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, or special emphasis service such as missions. This can be done with choirs of only six to eight members. The musicals are usually fifteen ID twenty minutes long and are easy to learn. M any incorporate songs and hymns with which choir members are already familiar. Again, this can be done with tape or CD.

* Give members of the congregation a chance to be “choir angels.” In small membership churches funds for music are often short However, an appeal may be made for a family or individual to purchase one set of anthems for the choir; that would make them a “choir angel.” ($.90 x 10 members = a $9 donation.) Then, when that anthem is presented at worship it could be dedicated to them. We purchased fifteen new anthems this way as we began to build our choir.

* Form a choir from the different churches on a charge. They could perform only at special time during the church year, if preferred, or regularly if the interest was there. This way a mini-musical could be presented at all the churches on a charge and perhaps other places in the community such as nursing homes or community meetings.

* Form a choir of senior citizens This could be an ecumenical effort involving al I those who like ID sing and are retired. Too often this group feels somewhat left out, and this is one instance where they can participate in worship in a way that is meaningful ID them and ID the congregation. There are musicals written especially for these groups which can be found at most music stores or purchased from music publishers. They could perform twice a year, giving them something to look forward to with a rest period between.

* Join a music service dub. For a low fee (under $50) a church may join a club and receive from them samples of anthems, children’s songbooks and musicals, adult collections and cantatas (mini and full length). Included will also be tapes of each of the samples so you can hear what each one sounds like. These will arrive four ID five times a year for the one-time annual fee. Especially helpful to churches in rural areas where a music source is not located nearby. Some include:

Lorenz. Free samples of anthems after the first order. These are usually simple hymn arrangements quickly learned by a small choir. For samples, write ID PO Box 802, Dayton, Ohio 45101.

Beckenhorst Press, Inc. Provides a booklet of anthems of contemporary and traditional music with a tape of each. This is a free service. P.O. Box 14273, Columbus, Ohio 43214.

Brentwood/Benson Music. $35 annual fee. Gospel and contemporary music. 5300 Patterson SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49530, 1-800-111-1012.

Also investigate these products for accompaniment:

Synthia Hymnal Player, which plugs into an electronic keyboard and plays hymns from the new hymnal in piano or organ. It can be programmed for key transpositions and tempo. Suncoast Systems. P.O. Box 7105, Pensacola, Florida 325347105. 1-800-741-7164.

Wanda P. Galloway has many years of experience in leading and resourcing music ministry in small membership congregations. She has served as pastor of two small membership congregations in Western North Carolina and has also been on the program staff at Hinton Rural Life Center.

Hinton Models: Visioning and Planning for Effective Ministry

The above article, “Music in the Small Membership Church” was written by Wanda P. Galloway. The article was excerpted from

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”