Why the Worship Music Report Matters to Small Churches—Differently

Dear Ones,

By now, you’re probably one of the million-plus readers who’ve clicked on this title:

“There’s a reason every hit worship song sounds the same.” (Religion News Service, April 11, 2023)

This careful study documents a pattern you may have felt before you read about it. Here’s the summary. Most popular Christian praise songs are written by a very narrow slice of megachurch musicians. In fact, only four megachurches overwhelmingly shape the music that eventually shows up in thousands of congregations each week. Four.

Pause here. For a caveat about what the report doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that the listed songs aren’t beautiful. It doesn’t mean that the musicians aren’t faithful disciples. It doesn’t mean that the songs aren’t powerful to someone—perhaps you.

But there are some additional things to consider. Some awkward and troubling things. For the whole Church generally. And for small congregations specifically–and differently.

This study is more evidence of the trickle-down effect of worship resources. Most resources are developed in-for-with large settings. Then they trickle down to smaller settings. And these smaller settings must contort to replicate them.  Or adapt them entirely. Or else silently wonder what’s wrong with us.

Because here’s the awkward, overlooked truth. Our “trickle-down” worship resources were never meant to trickle-down. They were always designed to fit a very particular set of needs and aesthetics–a big congregation’s set of needs and aesthetics. 

These resources are born of a scripted, expert-driven, resource-intensive performance-driven approach to worship. So they work elegantly to deal with the practical challenges of crowds. But they’re clunky or awkward in other settings. 

They were never intended to offer a collaborative, laity-led, locally-gifted, each-one-matters participation-driven approach to worship. Even though this approach is deeply forming, powerfully rooted in our tradition, and readily available to small congregations.

Long-story short: The praise-song worship format currently dominates the Church’s worship imagination. But it doesn’t work well for 70% of all congregations. 

But there’s more. Something troubling and trickier to grasp. There are theological problems, not just practical problems with this popular format. Consider these two facts from the report:

  1. About 10% of all congregations are quietly shaping practices of Christian worship. In fact, over a few decades, the music-driven format has edged out other primary worship practices–like sacraments.
  1. These congregations are also disproportionately affecting the messages of Christian worship. The praise-driven songs center on “what God will do for you.” Personally. Like a narrow commercial endorsement. Because the songs are designed for success within a lucrative worship music industry. So commercial sale-ability matters.

In addition to “trickled-down,” megachurch worship resources appear “dialed-down.” 

So we need small churches to work differently. To dial up. To work with their distinctive strengths. To quit chasing how to replicate “success” somewhere else. To widen how the good news speaks in-for-with each community. To seek the fullness of our Christian tradition, not just the easy sells.

We need you to experiment, innovate, diagnose. Where to start? 

Insist on a lavish communion practice. Every week. Jesus shows up among the crumb-filled sharing of ordinary folks gathered around the table. The practice of communion can’t be replaced with marvelous music or stellar sermons. Our sacrament will always mean more. More than experts can reveal. More than well-delivered words. Unleash the more.

Don’t get stuck in what-God-will-do-for-me messaging. Our world cries out for unsettling lament, raging cries over injustice, prayer on behalf of others, calls to work, risky solidarity with the most vulnerable, and the wildness of Mary’s Magnificat—even though they make lousy commercial endorsements. Go beyond happy-time praise. Risk exploring the fullness of the good news. Add social justice verses to favorite hymns. Then sing them with bold participation voices!

Go local. With the people, interests, and talents already among you. Include them. Imagine and collaborate with them. Passionate worship doesn’t mean passively watching a few extraordinarily talented experts. It means offering your own best gifts. Together. To God and for all of creation.

Grace has never worried about being sale-able. And divine love doesn’t trickle down in mere drips. It washes over us abundantly, lavishly, completely. 

Show us, small churches. The whole Church needs you.

Thanks for your ministry,