In Joyful Noise, William Smith speaks of the “practical limits of the repertory” of a congregation. There are, he suggests (rightly!), only so many songs that a congregation can be expected to know reasonably well. In this connection, he notes, “less is more.” That is, while it is good for a congregation’s repertoire to be growing, it should be growing relatively slowly, so that the songs may be assimilated into the working knowledge of the church.
That’s tough for me. There are so many outstanding songs, old and new, that are not in our hymnal (and to one degree or another, that’s true of any hymnal), and more significantly, not in our congregation’s repertory (which is true for all churches, even those who have left hymnals behind). So it requires patience for me to expose our congregation at a reasonable pace to the richness of hymnody with which I’m conversant.
In most of the churches where I’ve led the singing, my standard practice has been to introduce a song that is new to our congregation at a rate of one a month, more or less. I long to do more, but even one a month is pushing pretty hard, from my experience. How one introduces new songs can make a lot of difference, of course, but for a congregation to make a song their own, it takes some time. Then there is the matter of not just introducing new hymnody, but keeping it, which means the “new songs” must be brought back to the congregation after being introduced and set aside for a little time. At twelve songs a year, it takes a long time to increase a congregation’s working knowledge.
At any rate, Smith goes on to make some good observations about familiarity when it comes to a congregation’s song:
Liturgical music cannot only bear repetition; it requires it. Liturgical music, if it is to have its full effect, must be repeated over and over; its work as the mother of memory continues over a lifetime, over the centuries. (243)
So, it behooves those who choose music for their services to make a concerted effort to choose and emphasize that which is really excellent, the songs that bear the weight of repeated years of singing, songs that may well reflect being written in one’s own time but draw heavily on the timeless as well, songs that are “built to last.” The sort of song where familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, but a greater and deeper appreciation over time. This is one reason, in my opinion, to lean toward the songs that have already stood the test of time and to whose worth generations of Christians have already testified.
Familiarity is not the only measure of congregational song, of course, and there may well be songs with which a congregation is very familiar, that should be quietly left behind because they are inherently deficient in one way or another. So one of my duties as a director of congregational song is to teach our congregation songs that are textually and musically excellent, so by increased familiarity they may sing those songs well, and so that those songs may be used by the Spirit to do their good work in glorifying God and edifying the saints and unifying the body.