Selection of hymns for a tiny church

I often think about little-bitty churches. They have fewer than two dozen in worship and worship might be twice a month or less often. It may be the one thing the congregation does with regularity, and it comes with a mix of pride and anxiety. Of course, I also tend to think of the surviving Christian churches within the Unitarian Universalist Association, and this describes many if not most of them.

Needless to say, there’s no hymn resource in print that would suit them well. (The humanist and theologically-mixed ones fare no better.) If I was forced to choose, I’d find a box of the old Beacon Song and Service Book and I wrote (and many commented) about that in 2007.

But that keeps me thinking: what belongs in a selection of hymns like this? Popular, not hard to sing, useful in a variety of settings, perhaps even with an option for guitar chords if the organ (or organist) dies. I’d leave out Christmas hymns — a particular beast — for now. Say, what forty hymns would you want easy access to? I have a few in mind, and will list them — once I distinguish between my own taste and what would be really useful.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Good luck! I have occasionally attended tiny churches, and they can be wonderful places. I recall one outside of Hightstown New Jersey in the late 1960s – my goodness, that was a long time ago! They had an tiny old organ that was not bad at all.

  2. That is a difficult one. Clearly with a small congregation, it has to be tunes that are well-known. But assembling a list of about forty hymns has its pitfalls:
    1) the 23rd and (to a lesser extent) the 42nd Psalms have a tendency to take over the list if you’re not careful
    2) you’re bound to miss someone’s favorite hymn and the list would quickly end up three times the length

    I’ve thrown together a list of hymns that came to mind, and it exhibits both of those problems:

  3. Being a lay leader in a small Church – one of the important factors is that most of the music these days in small Churches in played on CD, not played by organ or even guitar. So a great hymnal would also need to be tied-in with a licensed to the congregation CD (s).

  4. The problem with CD’s is that they are not true accompaniment. A musician who is able to accompany congregational singing modifies his/her playing to the numerous singing quirks of the congregation. A CD can never do that, and often the results sound awkward and stilted as the music and voices are often just a bit off.

    Before I would go with a CD I would go acapella with one or two strong song leaders.

    I’ve been to one very small Episcopal church which had no musician, no priest, and a deacon who led worship most Sundays when there was no supply priest. In place of hymns they sang acapella metrical paraphrases to different Psalms. The effect was quite nice. A woman who was a kindergarten teacher led the singing.


  5. I don’t recall which metrical paraphrase psalter they used. They printed the paraphrased words in their bulletin, with the notation S.M. (short meter), C.M. (common meter), and L.M. (long meter). The deacon did tell me that he got some of the paraphrases from a web site that had a collection of old paraphrased psalms. I believe that the song leader was responsible for finding an easy tune to fit each meter, although I noticed some tunes like the Old 100th got used over and over again for a wide variety of paraphrased psalms.

  6. One useful source for small Christian churches might be a list of the top ecumenical hymns, or hymns that have shown up in the broadest range of churches. I have a photocopy of an article from “The Hymn” that lists them, but am not quite sure that this is the same list (I think it is).

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