8 Creative Alternatives to Special Music in Worship

In many churches, "Special Music" is a fairly common occurrence in worship services. For some, the title is reserved for a soloist or small ensemble, and sometimes guest musicians or interns. For others, Special Music is anything other than the choir singing - a soloist or ensemble, an amateur instrumentalist from the congregation, a guest musician, etc.

Let me begin by saying there is nothing wrong with having Special Music in your services. However, there are a few problems that might arise:

  1. Expectation. It can be hard to live up to the expectation of having Special Music every week. It can be challenging to find people who are willing to do something musical and are readily available, especially if you’re in a small church. During extended periods when the choir isn’t singing (e.g. summer), it can become a week-to-week struggle. “Are you in town next week? Would you like to sing something, anything?"
  2. Content. When Special Music is planned relatively last minute (e.g. week-to-week), you often have less control over the music selection, choosing from whatever the person has in their repertoire already. Sometimes, it may feel like a nice solo stuck in the middle of the service with no apparent connection to anything else around it.
  3. Label. For some people, the label “special music” itself can be a problem. “Isn’t all music special?” they might say.

Sound familiar? If you’ve found yourself in this position, or if you're looking for a few creative alternatives to Special Music in your services, here are a few thoughts and ideas that might work for your church:

8 Creative Alternatives to Special Music

01  |  Familiar Song or Hymn

Choose something to sing together as a response to the first Scripture reading, or something that leads well into a time of prayer. Select specific verses that connect to that part of the service. For instance, a few weeks ago, we read Ephesians 5:8-14, which begins:

“For you were at one time darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of the light.”

After the reading, we sang “I Want to Walk As a Child of the Light” (vv. 1-2).

02  |  New Song or Hymn

Use this time in the service to introduce something new to the congregation. Invite them to sing on the chorus of a song like "Blest Are They," "Shepherd Me, O God," "We Are Called,” or "You Are Mine,” with the choir, an ensemble, or a soloist singing the verses, or teach them a new hymn or contemporary song that connects to the theme of the day.

03  |  Responsive Litany

Use a modern litany or take something familiar like the Apostle’s Creed and make it responsive by having a worship leader and the congregation read alternating lines. Make it musical by adding soft underscoring, perhaps leading into a hymn, chorus, or sung response of some kind. For underscoring examples, see http://www.worshipflow.com.

04  |  Responsive Psalter Reading

Use the psalter in the back of your hymnal, or take the Psalm of the day (in the Revised Common Lectionary) and make it responsive by dividing up the verses between the congregation and a worship leader. Mix it up by having different sides of the congregation read different parts; creating parts for men, women, and children/youth of the congregation; or creating a separate part for the choir to read. Make it musical by singing the response included in between verses or by adding in a refrain of your own that ties in.

Related post: Singing the Psalms: A Guide for Modern Worship

05  |  Musical Recording with Visuals

Incorporate visual art, video, dance, a mimed drama of some kind, or banners or streamers into your worship service, paired with a musical recording of some kind (preferably, something with text, though you could use an instrumental arrangement of a familiar song and include the text in the bulletin). Remember, the visuals should support the text of whatever song you choose to play.

We’ve done this recently with Mark Schultz’s “Cloud of Witnesses” and Chris Rice’s “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)."

06  |  Skit or Drama

This is a great opportunity to bring the Scripture reading to life. Set the story in a modern-day context, introduce a character from the story with an interesting monologue, or use a short skit to make the theme of the day relevant in some way. Add underscoring for an added effect.

We did this on Transfiguration Sunday with a short monologue from Peter’s perspective. It was very effective!

07  |  Passing the Peace + Greeting Song

I know, I know - sometimes, the Passing of the Peace can go on and on and on, but by following it with a Greeting Song, there’s an automatic cut-off point (30 seconds to 1 minute is usually plenty).

Choose a Greeting Song that is familiar to your congregation, something they can sing as they move back to their seats without scrambling for a hymnal or their bulletin. I’ve used “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit" and "Surely the Presence."

08  |  Pre-Recorded Testimony or Guided Reflection with Musical Underscore

Have you heard of The Liturgists? They have recorded several guided meditations and centering prayer reflections like this. Pair a pre-recorded testimony, story, or reflection of some kind with a simple (live or pre-recorded) musical underscore (think of this like film-scoring). Keep it relatively short (3-4 minutes).

You’re probably wondering: If we’re not going to call it “special music,” what do we call it?

Here are a few ideas for how to list it in the bulletin:

- Music, Hymn, Psalter, etc. (call it what it is, right?)
- Anthem (solo or ensemble)
- Solo (vocal or instrumental)
- Musical Offering
- Response or Musical Response (if it is tied to whatever comes before it)
- Music Moment

I’d love to hear: Do you have Special Music in your services, or do you mix it up from week to week?