While congregations often want to cling to the safety of still waters, the vision of vital and life-transforming worship and music calls them to an adventure of the spirit. As every traveler knows, even small steps can lead to adventurous journeys. Singing an eclectic repertoire enables us to look beyond our own little world and to experience the expansiveness of God’s realm. Expanding our repertoire beyond just a single genre or two and a handful of “golden oldies” enlarges beyond measure our view of God, the world, and humanity.

We encourage worship leaders to be bold in this proclamation of faith. It is not about aesthetics—about what we like or dislike. It is about singing our faith in our local community while opening ourselves to new possibilities for singing and worship. Our desire is for worship teams to capture a vision of the rich possibilities of song styles and to grow in faith by singing the stories of those from the past and from other parts of the world.

Here is a brief overview of some contrasting styles and examples for putting songs into the context in which they were written.

Early American: The music of the American frontier exhibited a ruggedness displayed in strong accents on beat 1 and open-sounding harmonies based on the intervals of fourths and fifths. Many of these early American tunes still appear in our hymnals. However, we often lose the original vigor when we sing them today. To capture the spirit of frontier singing, experiment with dividing the assembly in half and having the two sides face each other. Proceed to demonstrate the energetic down/up pattern of directing and have each one try it while singing. If everyone puts a lot of energy into the downbeat, the ruggedness of the song will soar.

Irish Folk: Most people don’t know that the origin of the song “Be Thou My Vision” was an Irish folk tune. If you play it directly from most hymnals, it will sound more like a traditional Germanic hymn. When we simplify the harmonies and change chords primarily only once a measure, the mood changes drastically. The tempo can be lively. Adding a triangle, tambourine, and hand drum will enhance the Irish flavor.

Hebrew Traditional: The hymn “The God of Abraham Praise” shares the tune of the music used in the wedding scene in Fiddler on the Roof. To make the hymn tune sound like a Hebrew melody, rather than the traditional European sound we are used to, simplifying the harmony and changing chords mainly at the bar line will speed up the tempo so the dancelike nature of the song becomes evident.

African American Spiritual: African American spirituals include the stylistic traits of call and response, improvisation, flexible rhythm, covered voice quality, vocal freedom, sense of timelessness, and unaccompanied singing. Taking time to teach a hymn to the assembly will make congregants feel more comfortable singing without a hymnbook and free them up to clap in order to experience the emotion, freedom, and joy that are so prevalent in jubilation songs.

Gospel: The gospel song comes out of the African American tradition and is characterized by a free, improvisatory nature. The style of the piano or organ accompaniment best sets the mood for this type of singing. While most gospel pianists learn by living in the tradition, those who have not grown up playing keyboard in the gospel style find that improvisation can be learned by understanding a few basic principles and acquiring the tools to gain confidence in this style.

Global: African—The African style of singing today is a mixture of two elements: part singing brought in by nineteenth-century missionaries and the indigenous rhythms and tunes from Africa. The music was passed orally from generation to generation. The songs are generally easy to learn and will help your congregation better understand and relate to the life and culture of our brothers and sisters in Africa. Latino—The background and influences of Latino music are broad and diverse. Mexico, the Caribbean, Andean countries, Brazil and Argentina, Central America, and Spain each have their own unique stylistic traits but do share some general characteristics. In addition to the variety of harmonic instruments used—guitar, accordion, keyboard, xylophone, and mandolin—many other instruments enrich the tonal palette of Latino music, including the rain stick, pan flutes, maracas, claves, congas, bongos, timbales, guiros, and tambourine. Asian—Churches in North America have much to learn from the Eastern approach to music and worship. The sonorous quality of Eastern music is conducive to prayer, meditation, and stillness. The ancient Eastern practice of meditation encourages an environment in which worshipers can free their minds from clutter, worry, and anxiety and deeply experience the holy.

Contemporary: The popular and familiar sound may be a source of welcome to visitors or to those who do not have a history within the Christian church. Those folks may feel at home with a less structured approach to liturgy, an informal style of dress, and the contemporary language of the songs. Explore using this genre in conjunction with other song styles, but don’t fall into the trap of assuming that this style can be done only in what has been commonly referred to as “contemporary worship.”

To assess how eclectic your repertoire is, have your worship team take an inventory of the songs styles you used in worship over the past year. Use a chart or a spread sheet with these and other styles as headings: chant, Renaissance/Baroque dance, European classical, Western European folk, Hebrew, African, Latino, Asian, Native American, early American, African American spiritual, gospel, and contemporary. Put each song you used under one of these headings, or under other headings you devise. Begin a dialogue about your church’s song style by answering these questions:

  1. What style is most prevalent?
  2. What styles do you use on a fairly regular basis (four or more times throughout the year)?
  3. What styles have you tried minimally (one to three times)?
  4. What styles would you like to add to your repertoire?

As your team explores the styles of songs you used over the past year, think about how your church has sung each style. What techniques can be used to enhance the singing? Are there new areas of worship you would like to explore? Study the context in which the song was written, determine the basic stylistic traits, and establish how to bring the song to life. Finally, develop a plan for the coming year to enliven the styles you already use and to expand your repertoire.

A congregation that uses diverse styles of singing has great potential to connect its own worship and music with the worship of Christians throughout the world. Using an eclectic repertoire may help the church find its mission expanding beyond measure. Pray that singing the songs from other times and places will open hearts to see new insights into God’s vast realm.

Comment on this article on the Alban Roundtable blog

Bruce Epperly and Daryl Hollinger will be hosting a book signing, lecture, and reception at Lancaster Theological Seminary on Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 4:30 pm.   


Adapted from From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church by Bruce G. Epperly and Daryl Hollinger, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.



AL406_SMFrom a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church 
by Bruce G. Epperly and Daryl Hollinger 

Small congregations can have beautiful worship! In From a Mustard Seed, an experienced pastor-professor and an experienced church musician provide a model for faithful and excellent worship in congregations that average 75 or fewer people in weekly worship. While the limitations of small congregations are obvious to their members and leaders, the possibilities for creative music and worship are often greater than we can imagine.

AL267_SMOne Bread, One Body: Exploring Cultural Diversity in Worship 
by C. Michael Hawn 

Hawn seeks to help bridge the gap between the human tendency to prefer ethnic and cultural homogeneity in worship and the church’s mandate to offer a more diverse and inclusive experience. He also offers a concise and practical theological framework as well as numerous strategies and an extensive bibliography for implementing “culturally conscious worship.” This book is invaluable for congregations that want to undertake the hard work of cross-cultural worship.

AL398_SMEncounters with the Holy: A Conversational Model for Worship Planning 
by Barbara Day Miller 

Many churches have active worship committees or planning teams, and an abundance of books and resources guide pastors and laity. Encounters with the Holy offers a conversational model of worship planning that was developed to train practitioners to be more reflective in their planning of worship experiences.

AL383_SMWhen God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By 
by Craig A. Satterlee 

When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By is a collection of stories of congregational worship in which God’s ongoing presence, speech, and activity are apparent. These stories of proclaiming the gospel, teaching the faith, praying, singing, baptizing, blessing, and sharing bread and wine in Jesus’s name share the purpose of these activities in worship yet still challenge the reader to explore the motives behind them.



Skjegstad,Joy 120 Webinars: Grant Funding for Your Building Campaign & Grant Searches – Finding Sources for Ministry
November 9 & 16, 2010, 2pm EST
Facilitator: Joy Skjegstad

These webinars, led by Joy Skjegstad, grantwriter and author of Winning Grants to Strengthen Your Ministry, will introduce you to strategies and resources, as well as give you advice and direction for funding your ministries through grants.

Peers,Larry 120x Seminar: Clergy Wellbeing: How to Balance Ministry and Life
February 1-3, 2011, Santa Barbara, California
Facilitator: Larry Peers, Alban senior consultant

Join Larry Peers for a workshop designed to guide you through a review of your ministry with the aid of self-assessment instruments, coaching tools and processes, and peer- and individual-coaching as needed.


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