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On Song Diets and Sixty-Minute Services

Q. Why is the musical repertoire in our church so limited? We sing only about fifty of the top choruses and hymns. I tire of singing the same songs all the time.
—British Columbia

A. Many worship leaders employ a “least common denominator” approach to music selection. They choose only safe music that people love to sing. The result is a steady diet of hymns like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and “Amazing Grace,” along with choruses like “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” and “Shout to the Lord.” No wonder the CCLI top twenty-five songs list has remained largely unchanged for a decade.

The problem with this restricted diet is that congregations never get a chance to grow in their mode of prayer. Pretty soon, we sing on automatic pilot. We lose the ability to engage a new song prayerfully. We miss out on singing about all sorts of important themes and topics that may be less likeable, but nevertheless are spiritually significant. How many lament songs make the top fifty on the worship charts?

Of course, the opposite approach is not good either. Some worship leaders choose way too many unfamiliar songs and never give the congregation a chance to sing well-loved songs from memory.

The best approach lies in the middle. I advise seminarians who are planning their first services to choose a balance of music: Three-fifths well-loved, familiar songs; one-fifth new songs that challenge us to grow in affective expression; and one-fifth new songs that engage us intellectually. All the songs should be theologically sound and liturgically appropriate. When it comes to the worship of the triune God, why settle for anything less?

This recipe needs to be adjusted for every congregation. Maybe your congregation would be stretched by adding one less familiar song each service. Others might be ready to handle a bit more. And when new songs are introduced, musicians need to prepare carefully to make it a success—perhaps by using a choir or worship team to teach the congregation.

Q. Why do services have to be limited to sixty minutes?
—Kansas

A. I can’t think of any good reason.

Many churches continue to suffer from the considerable influence of the wristwatch, the ultimate technological tyrant. Of course, this is an entirely cultural matter. Services in many cultures last two or three hours. How ironic that the same people who complain about a seventy-five-minute worship service will attend a three-hour baseball game and cheer when it goes into extra innings!

If your church suffers from “wristwatch syndrome,” consider having one or two special services a year that are intentionally longer (perhaps on Good Friday or Christmas Eve). Or consider writing a winsome church newsletter article explaining why slightly longer services may sometimes be better—they allow more time for silence, for participatory prayer, for deep celebrations of the sacraments, or for in-depth preaching. (It’s interesting that services in both charismatic churches and in so-called high-church settings are likely to exceed the sixty-minute mark. That’s because it’s difficult to engage in high-octane worship with a stopwatch on).

Whatever you do, don’t try to make people like longer services by making them feel guilty. That method will likely backfire. Worshipers may resent you and keep an even closer eye on their watches.

In any case, we should never equate length with spiritual quality. Good worship can’t be quantified. It’s not the extra length that makes a service good, but rather the kinds of participation that a longer service may make possible.

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Any questions?

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