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Digital Hymnal’s Demise Is Delayed

Lifeway still plans to end online music resource but apologizes for short notice.
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Digital Hymnal’s Demise Is Delayed

Update (July 24): Lifeway has decided to postpone the discontinuation of lifewayworship.com, the online Baptist church music resource that was once conceived as a digital hymnal without a back cover. The Southern Baptist Convention publisher announced it was shutting the site down last week, but backtracked after an outcry from a lot of surprised worship leaders.

“We are delaying the implementation of this decision until we have time to listen, allow for dialogue, and find out how we can best support churches’ digital worship music needs,” Ben Mandrell, Lifeway CEO, said in a statement. “We are actively considering alternatives to ensure minimal disruption and keep this essential catalog alive.”

Mandrell apologized the publisher “didn’t put the turn signal on soon enough.”

When Lifeway made its initial announcement, it was unclear whether the arrangements and materials available on lifewayworship.com would be fully preserved somewhere. Lifeway Worship director Brian Brown emphasized that music ministers needed to download what they wanted before September 30, raising questions about the fate of the vast catalog of musical resources maintained on the site. Brown told CT he had hoped to migrate all the content to Lifeway’s main website so it would continue to be available, but as he prepared to make the announcement, his team realized that wouldn’t be possible in the next few months.

“Each product has to be recreated individually, and it’s tens of thousands of products,” Brown said. “It’s not something that we are going to be able to accomplish by September 30.”

Lifeway still plans to shutter the online resource, but it will remain online until it can be made available elsewhere. The publisher said it is exploring partnerships with other organizations.

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Original post (July 19): Lifeway is closing the book on an online hymnal that was supposed to be the digital future of Baptist music.

The online resource lifewayworship.com, which provides church choirs and worship teams access to more than 3,000 songs as well as instrumental arrangements, sheet music, and chord charts, will shut down at the end of September.

Lifeway, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), announced the decision Tuesday. The publisher said it has decided to “focus its resources on areas where we can faithfully serve more churches in greater breadth and depth.”

When Lifeway launched the site in 2008, it was envisioned as a modern hymnal that would continually grow and expand, making Baptist music widely available. The website struggled to compete against other services, though, that did not have the same denominational limitations.

“The reality is the vast majority of churches have chosen SongSelect and PraiseCharts as their preferred services,” said Brian Brown, current director of Lifeway Worship. “We are prayerfully considering how we might continue to serve leaders.”

The previous director, Mike Harland, said the development of lifewayworship.com began with a conversation about the future of the Baptist Hymnal. Harland and his staff wanted to imagine a new, online future for Baptist church music.

“Our goal was to create a hymnal with no back cover,” he said.

They started with the 674 songs in the Baptist Hymnal, which was also revised in 2008, and started adding to and curating the growing body of music on the site. It grew well beyond the number that could have been included in a physical book.

Churches could submit suggestions for new songs to include in the site’s collection. But the staff also dug into the history of Baptist hymnody for older songs that might deserve a place in the expansive online resource.

“We weren’t trying to be prescriptive, we were trying to be responsive,” Harland said. “We would reach in both directions: we would reach back to songs we might have missed in the original hymnal and then we would be listening very closely to what was happening now.”

But from the beginning, lifewayworship.com was not intended to be a cutting-edge digital resource.

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

The emphasis on musical quality over a more advanced interface is one of the things that made lifewayworship.com a beloved resource for many church musicians.

John Strickland, pastor of worship and media at Tabernacle Baptist Church in New Bern, North Carolina, says that the instrumental arrangements for piano, strings, and winds are unmatched by what is available on similar platforms.

“A lot of people don’t have the ability or time to write custom instrumental arrangements,” said Strickland. “Pianists who don’t read chord charts or improvise easily can read these realized piano charts.”

Strickland also said that he has come to rely on lifewayworship.com for parts for individual instruments when he doesn’t have the musical forces for a full orchestra. Until recently, sites like PraiseCharts did not make instrumental parts available à la carte; directors had to purchase full orchestrations, which are more expensive.

“If I had a clarinet and a violin and nothing else, I could buy parts for them,” said Strickland, who noted that small ensembles and solo musicians are common features in worship services for smaller churches, many of which do not have a full-time worship director with the time to compose and write out instrumental arrangements.

Some ministers were dismayed by the news and upset it came so suddenly.

“What a mess,” wrote a music teacher and volunteer music minister from Texas on Facebook. “I am going to have to work even harder to find good arrangements for church.”

Lifewayworship.com has generally been the more affordable option. A full orchestration of Chris Tomlin’s “Holy Forever” is available on PraiseCharts for $52.95. On lifewayworship.com, the full score costs $6.99. PraiseCharts offers packages of à la carte arrangements for instrument groups—saxophones, woodwinds, brass—but not individual instruments. Lifewayworship.com breaks things down: $1.64 for an alto sax part, $1.64 for a cello part.

Lifewayworship.com also allowed lay musicians to purchase music without a paid membership, unlike SongSelect, which best meets the needs of churches and organizational leaders and has memberships that start at $180 per year for copyrighted songs. An individual looking for piano music for a recent popular worship song or two won’t be able to purchase it without a membership.

Despite its reputation as a source of affordable and high-quality arrangements, however, lifewayworship.com lacked some of the in-demand features now provided by SongSelect and PraiseCharts. Integration with programs like Planning Center wasn’t as simple with the site, the interface wasn’t as intuitive, and it didn’t provide charts using the Nashville number system.

Brown at Lifeway Worship told CT that the company hopes to make its lifewayworship.com library available on its website in the future and that the publisher will continue to sell church resources such as hymnals, communion supplies, and sheet music. People who purchased any resources on the site will still be able to download them through the end of September.

Lifeway Worship also plans to partner with the music retailer JW Pepper to make its instrumental arrangements from lifewayworship.com available for purchase. JW Pepper already has received titles from Lifeway’s choral collection and the company can offer on-demand printing services for out-of-stock products.

Lifeway Worship has no plans, however, to continue producing new music or musical arrangements after August 2023. But Brown is quick to point out that discussions about the future of Lifeway Worship are ongoing, and new music hasn’t been ruled out.

Will Bishop, associate professor of church music and worship at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of a recent study on musical practices in the SBC, sees this as the end of an era for the 82-year-old Lifeway Worship, formerly the church music department of the SBC Sunday School Board.

“If a resource is not being used, it’s going to go away,” Bishop said.

Lifewayworship.com may have benefitted from the credibility of being affiliated with the SBC in its early days, Bishop said. But there has been a shift away from denominational musical resources. Lifeway stopped producing choral music in 2021. There hasn’t been a new printed version of the Baptist Hymnal since 2008, and there are no current plans for a new edition. The SBC publisher’s decision to stop creating new arrangements of contemporary worship music is another step away from denominational music production.

According to Bishop, the signs of this coming change have been visible for several years. The trend was already going that direction and the pandemic only accelerated it.

The director who led the development of lifewayworship.com is sanguine, however, about the future. Harland thinks the church music market still wants some version of the ever-evolving digital hymnal he and his staff developed.

“Other companies will step in to fill the void,” he said.

Since he’s left Lifeway, he and his church, First Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, have used lifewayworship.com alongside other tools. He anticipates some challenges as they adjust to the absence of the site he helped create, but he voiced overall optimism.

“The song will go on,” he said. “The church will keep singing.”

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