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How many songs can one church sing?

Have you ever thought about how many songs your church can sing in a year?

If you consult the average transdenominational hymnal published today, you might assume that churches can sing 700 or more hymns in a given year.

The truth is that most churches–and I’m being very generous in my estimate here–can only sing around 150 songs. And that’s only if you sing ten hymns per week in your church (how many churches do that?) and rotate your songs to sing everything only once per quarter. Add on some seasonal hymns, and that brings you to around 150.

Think that number is low? The truth is that the number is actually probably much lower. This is especially true for churches that sing only off a wall and sing primarily “contemporary” songs from the radio or even “modern hymns”–those churches tend to sing the same handful of songs over and over again. But even churches who do sing more of a variety of songs tend to sing fewer than ten per week and likely rotate those songs more than just once per quarter, bringing their number much lower than 150.

In my first church, we sang ten hymns per week between the Sunday morning and Sunday evening services, which is on average very high. I always aimed for the goal of singing everything in our repertory once per quarter, singing a few things more or less often, and allowing for the teaching of “new” hymns (usually old “new” hymns), which we did regularly. This was a good goal that allowed us to sing songs with enough frequency to keep them familiar but not too much to make them grow stale. Add to that seasonal hymns (mostly Christmas), and we averaged about 150 hymns in our repertory. Of course, that’s texts; when we look at tunes, the number is much lower since we sang the same tunes for several different texts.

So why, then, do most hymnals today have anywhere from 400 to 800 songs? Answer: marketing. Many hymnals published today are attempting to appeal to the broadest constituency they can; hymnal editors typically poll their target market to determine what the churches are singing, and then they put all of those songs form the widest variety of churches in the collection, hoping that a large number of churches will purchase their hymnal. This means that your church’s hymnal probably has many things you’d never sing, either because the theology of the text doesn’t match yours, the tune is not fitting for your congregation, or you just don’t know it.

If you are in church leadership and involved in shaping your church’s song repertory, I would encourage you to give this some careful thought and planning. You can’t sing everything–so choose the best. Teach new things, and cultivate familiar songs that are worth singing.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.