Home Christian News Big Churches Sound Alike. Little Churches Are the ‘Wild West’ of Music,...

Big Churches Sound Alike. Little Churches Are the ‘Wild West’ of Music, Study Finds.

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(RNS) — Step into a big Baptist church on Sunday morning and chances are you’ll hear the same popular worship songs played at other big churches around the country.

But show up in a small church, and you never know what you’ll find — anything from “How Great Thou Art” to “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

“Smaller churches are like the Wild West,” said Will Bishop, associate professor of church music and worship at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. “Anything goes.”

Bishop has been working on a recent survey project to better understand the worship music used in local churches, especially smaller congregations, in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

He said companies like Christian Copyright Licensing International — better known as CCLI — do a good job tracking the most popular songs used in churches. But they often miss out on some of the details of worship in local congregations — such as who is picking songs or who plays them. They also miss when churches sing out of hymnals or other songbooks, rather than projecting songs on a screen.

The charts also can leave the impression that the only songs being sung in worship are hits from Hillsong, Bethel and other megachurches.

That’s true in big churches, he said, but not everywhere. Music at big churches is often put together by full-time staffers who have time to track down all the latest songs and follow the latest trends.


“They’re all going to the same conferences; they’re all kind of hanging out with the same people, he said. “If you’re in a small church, you may not have any connections. You’re not going to conferences. You may not know what’s going on in the bigger world.”

Bishop said he started working on his survey to help his students know what to expect when they start working in churches. He sent surveys to more than 900 congregations in five different parts of the country: Louisville, Memphis, Oklahoma City and New York, along with rural Colorado and Louisiana.

He eventually collected data from 127 congregations — not a representative national sample, but enough, he said, to give a snapshot of the worship life of local churches. He asked details, like who picked songs, whether churches sang contemporary songs or hymns, whether some songs were banned, as well as asking for a church’s favorite hymns.

Among the findings:

About 1 in 5 churches sang more hymns than modern songs, while a third sang as many hymns as modern tunes. Four in 10 sang more modern songs than hymns. Only 1 in 10 sang mostly modern songs, while the same percentage sang mostly hymns.

Worship leaders pick most of the music, often with no input from the church’s pastor. Almost every church (89%) projects lyrics on a screen, while two-thirds of churches (65%) said they never use hymnals. One in five said women were not allowed to lead worship singing.