On Short Songs in Worship


I am a fan of short songs in worship—simple songs that don’t take a lot of rehearsal. No one on my praise team is all that interested in this. Help me convince them


I am happy to take a crack at this! Short songs (coritos) offer much:

  1. They can easily be memorized.
  2. They often can be sung quite easily without accompaniment, making them easy to include at other events at which there are no available instruments or instrumentalists (Bible study groups, church meetings, campfires, etc.)
  3. They can promote intergenerational singing, especially when they are taught intentionally to young children.
  4. They can enhance spoken elements of worship—introducing singing and congregational participation into a spoken congregational prayer, for example.
  5. They can be repeated in ways that allow the congregation to dwell deeply, meditate, or “center” around a given emotion or expression.
  6. They are ideal expressions of oral culture—a helpful balance to the literacy-oriented expressions in many congregations. In many contexts, repeating a well-crafted short song is an ideal way to respond to a sermon, following many words with a few words of particular intensity.

Why do people resist?

  1. Musicians in nearly every style often gravitate to more complex musical forms. Contemporary worship artists have spent the past decade increasingly adding bridges, codas, tags, and other elements. This is not unlike arrangers “dressing up” a hymn in concertatos that feature choral or organ elaborations. These complex forms are often musically challenging and satisfying, and it’s hard to give that up.
  2. Some short songs are simplistic and sentimental. They are childish—even silly. Others feature displays of musical and textual cliché. Congregations tire of them after only a few repetitions, giving a bad reputation to the entire genre.
  3. Sometimes musicians who lead short songs introduce them poorly, in ways that are overly apologetic, in ways that talk down to the congregation, or in ways that put too much focus on the leader, not realizing that one of the merits of a short song is that the leader’s personality can recede from the center of attention.
  4. These songs rarely elicit the kind of affirmation reserved for more elaborate songs. People are not likely to say “Wow, that was really something!” after “Be Still and Know.”

If we set aside simplistic, clichéd, and childish (but not childlike!) short songs, and if we can learn to lead them unobtrusively, we have a lot of goodness to explore.

Start with “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow Ken, LUYH 965. Arguably the most recognized worship song worldwide across Christian traditions, this doxology is wonderful to have ready to sing at any time, including church meetings at which no musician is present. In my travels, I have often been pleasantly surprised by a host of a meal or leader of a conference who invites us to sing it together without prior announcement or rehearsal. Knowing that many congregations that used to sing this every week in worship now never sing it, I hope every congregation will reconsider and ensure their children learn it.

Next, consider “Lord, to Whom Shall We Go Iona, LUYH 748, SNC 87. Very few praise teams will thrill to spend precious rehearsal time on these four short measures. That’s because it’s meant for oral leadership, not complex instrumental accompaniment. Without accompaniment, a leader can sing the first two measures: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Everyone can respond, “Yours are the words of eternal life.” This could be done prior to Scripture readings in worship as well as in every church education class all week long. It’s simple, but not silly. It’s childlike, but not childish. It sets a tone of warm attention to God’s word as the “words of eternal life.” A song like this is also remarkably fitting across the stylistic spectrum. I can imagine this being chanted in a formal cathedral service or sung at an informal summer campfire. This is one of many short songs developed by the Iona Community in Scotland.

Next, consider “Come and Fill Our Hearts Taizé, LUYH 528, GtG 466, SWM 162. What a hauntingly beautiful short song! It conveys the same feeling of serene poise that it prays for. It expresses the deep longings of our hearts in a busy, frantic world for a peace that surpasses understanding. It can be prayed beautifully in a hospital or hospice room or in a church meeting dealing with a challenging topic. But first it needs to be learned (and repeated). What a beautiful way to begin worship each Sunday during a given season of the year until it can be sung from memory at any time. This is one of many short songs developed by the Taizé Community in France.

Next consider the brilliant two-measure refrain in “Perdón, Señor/Forgive Us, Lord Lockward, tr. Martinez, LUYH 642, SNC 59, SWM 154. These two measures use only two pitches and convey only two words. No one needs to see this music printed out to be able to sing it. A leader can sing it once, and everyone can echo it. (For leaders nervous about leading music without instruments, this is very good place to start!) A leader can complete the prayer by singing the verses provided, or a spoken prayer of confession can be inserted. Following that prayer, a leader could improvise on those same two notes, singing “Gloria a Dios/Glory to God” or another simple response. Think of this more like a musical way of enhancing a spoken prayer rather than a “replacement” for one of the spots reserved in your service for a more elaborate song or hymn. (For praise teams reluctant to embrace these songs, it may be better to frame these not as something that will take away from the normal roster of songs, but something done to complement that).

I warmly encourage you to experiment with these kinds of examples. Some churches might be ready to set a goal of choosing five or ten short songs to learn to be able to sing at a moment’s notice at any point in congregational life—and then of ensuring that the songs are taught to children and regularly used in worship throughout the year.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 128 © June 2018, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.