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Southern Baptist Digital Hymnal Gets Saved

Worship leaders convince curriculum company of the value of lifewayworship.com.
Southern Baptist Digital Hymnal Gets Saved
Image: Vlad Shalaginov / Unsplash

Lifeway no longer plans to shut down its online music ministry resource lifewayworship.com .

In July 2023, the company announced its plan to retire the platform—a “digital hymnal” that provides users with chord charts, vocal arrangements, and orchestrations—then paused those plans a week later after a strong response from customers. After a year of reevaluation and interviews with worship leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) who use the site, Lifeway has changed course and decided to continue maintaining and updating the resource.

“Lifeway is a curriculum company,” Lifeway Worship director Brian Brown said. “These worship leaders reminded us that music is their curriculum. It ministers to the whole body.”

Lifeway arranged panel discussions with more than 200 worship leaders between July 2023 and May 2024. The ministry was surprised to learn how many of these leaders—who served in churches of many different sizes and with a wide range of musical styles—relied on lifewayworship.com .

“We undervalued some of the unique things we provided, and we didn’t see how much support we were giving these churches. Much more than we realized,” said Brown.

Will Bishop, associate professor of church music and worship at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that when Lifeway announced the end of lifewayworship.com a year ago, he didn’t think it would be controversial.

“I sort of thought, Who’s going to ever miss this?” he said.

But six months ago, Bishop began leading worship at a small SBC church in Louisville, Kentucky, and says the experience has completely changed his mind; the resource is invaluable to his ministry.

“I have spent many years in bigger ministries with bigger budgets, but now I’m leading a church with a choir of about 18 people, a piano, organ, flute, violin, and trombone. I would absolutely miss it.”

Bishop says that lifewayworship.com is unique because he can find quality arrangements à la carte. Instead of purchasing a full orchestration of a hymn for $70, he can buy individual parts for his team of musicians for about $8 total. And for small and medium-sized churches on limited budgets, that makes a big difference.

“The majority of Southern Baptist churches are small ministries with maybe 15 people in the choir and 3–4 instrumentalists,” said Bishop.

Services like MultiTracks, PraiseCharts, and SongSelect offer tools that allow big churches to replicate the recorded versions of new worship songs. Bishop says that for larger churches with the teams and budget, those resources are ideal. But it’s not what most smaller churches need.

“Lifeway doesn’t have to be everything. No one tool can be everybody’s tool. It’s a wonderful thing to be focused on small and medium-sized churches.”

Brown says that in addition to hearing from users that lifewayworship.com provides a unique set of musical tools, his team found that many of the worship leaders look to Lifeway not only for resources but also for theological guidance—something they can’t get from other non-SBC resources.

“One of their key concerns was the theological vetting of the lyrics of songs,” Brown said. “They wanted to make sure that the songs have been theologically vetted from a Southern Baptist perspective.”

Lifewayworship.com was originally envisioned as a digital SBC hymnal. Launched in 2008 under the direction of Mike Harland, the site started out with the 674 songs in the Baptist Hymnal and gradually expanded its offerings over time. But it wasn’t designed to be a groundbreaking tech resource; it was designed to make it easier for congregations to have access to new, approved music.

“We were a music company first, we weren’t a computer company,” Harland told CT last year. “There were certainly other companies that had more user-friendly platforms, but we aspired for our content to be the very best.”

SBC congregations don’t have to utilize music approved by Lifeway, but some church musicians said they are overwhelmed by the amount of new worship music they have to choose from, according to Brown. For them, trusted curation is welcome.

“Ultimately, worship leaders and senior pastors are going to make decisions about music in their local context. But these leaders rely on us to add some guardrails,” Brown said.

Lifewayworship.com also offers orchestrations with simplified, readable rhythms and emphasizes congregation-friendly arrangements and key selection. Those services are crucial for time-strapped worship leaders or those with limited formal musical training. Some worship leaders told the ministry they do not feel well-equipped to rearrange songs or select singable keys.

Moving forward, lifewayworship.com will continue to provide arrangements of new music but will also seek to provide guidance and create community among worship leaders across the denomination.

“We want this to be the beginning of more regular communication with our churches, and we’re looking to continue talking more intentionally and more regularly with our worship leaders,” said Brown. “This is just a starting point for us.

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