What happens when churches, especially small rural congregations, find themselves without musical leadership? Perhaps no one feels comfortable leading songs, or maybe musicians are scarce, and what if there’s no room in the budget to hire musical leadership? Often, says Randall Black, the result is services without music and the loss of the hymns cherished by the church for decades. He finds both very troubling.
“That sense of corporate worship is really missing in many churches,” he says. “When we sing, we need to be heard by others so that we can support them in community in their own worship. Hymns should be a part of corporate worship, but in many places it’s not what it used to be.”
Remembering the classic hymns he sang as a child and the way they were sang, Black, a nationally-acclaimed tenor and professor of music at Kentucky’s Murray State University, wanted to assist churches without musical leadership and to promote and preserve the hymns themselves. With the assistance of pianist and retired MSU music professor Marie Holifield Taylor, he began “The Old Country Church,” a collection of hymns available online for download and use by churches or individuals, free of charge.
Black and Taylor have recorded hundreds of hymns, with many more planned.
“We started recording about a year and a half ago,” Black explains. “We meet together for an hour or two and record as many as 12 or 13 hymns for churches to download.”
He added that 60 hymns have recently been recorded and now are in the process of being engineered and converted to a downloadable format. Murray State University is donating both the recording time and hosting services for the website, Black says. He added that the songs can be made available without any copyright infringement issues, since all of the services are provided free of charge.
Response to the project has been very positive.
“I’ve had some ministers of music comment that this is a great gift,” he says. “Another person told me that he had a very tiny church that did not have any professional musicians. The Old Country Church allows them to sing these hymns.”
Larry Stevens, pastor of First Baptist Church in Johnston City, Ill. says his congregation is one that will be taking advantage of the website.
“We’re going to use the service for our worship,” he explains. “I think the congregation will respond very positively. After all, these are the songs that they know and love.”
Black says he hopes the songs will inspire Christians to sing out in churches.
“When we sing we need to be heard by others so that we can support them in community and in their own worship,” he says. “That’s the thing that’s wonderful about hymn singing, and these hymns are hits because they’ve lasted so long.”
Stevens says he appreciates the website not only because of the service it provides to churches, but also because the project is safeguarding the old hymns.
"It preserves the old classics of Christianity, the old traditional hymns that, for the most part been pushed to the back burner. They’re keeping them alive. That’s so important,” he adds.
“We hope that people will share this with one another and with other congregations,” Black explains. “It’s the sharing that has to happen and that’s what makes the difference. We are just trying to promote hymns and to preserve hymn singing as well as giving small churches some support and joy.”
Stevens adds that the project does more than providing joy, saying it brings churches alive.
“It’s a lifesaver for churches that don’t have musical leadership,” he says. “I can see where it will be very good for a lot of churches.”
Hymns can be sampled and downloaded from the project’s website, www.theoldcountrychurch.us.