How long should an offertory be?

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In many churches, the offertory is traditionally instrumental and has become the one spot in a service where a pianist often plays solo.  As a result, it is the biggest focus of many church pianists, who learn planned arrangements to fit into that slot.

There is a lot of angst about these “offertories” (the word used for those musical arrangements). For example, there is debate about whether musicians should use those opportunities to show off technical prowess.  Others debate what songs are appropriate.  (Should they be familiar songs and can you play classical music in those spots?)

And then there is debate about the length.  (Should offertories be timed to match the length of time it takes to actually pass collection plates?  What about 6 minute offertories?)

So how long should an offertory be? Of course, the answer is very simple: there is no real correct answer. And if there is a correct answer for your church, it is based on either tradition, preference or leadership wishes.

Let’s face it: there is no rule that says the offertory has to be instrumental.  There is no rule that there even has to be music during the offertory.  There is no rule that you can’t sing a hymn during the offering and have an instrumental right before the message.  Of course, there is no rule that you even need to pass collection plates in the first place but I digress. (A debit card swiper in the back of the church is not the worst idea I ever heard of.)

But that is not to say that what churches decide about this particular subject is meaningless.  Far from it. If a church decides that the offertory instrumental music needs to be no more than two minutes long because the ushers are done in two minutes, they are saying something about instrumental music. What they are saying is it is not very important, or at least as important as other things that might be included in the service.

The opposite is true of course.  Churches that make time for instrumental music value instrumental music.

By the way, a two minute offertory is possible but it is very difficult to do much in two minutes. Development takes time. After all, Beethoven needed in the range of an hour for some of his works and there are not many Beethovens running around in our churches.

What churches decide in this area is their business and I am not saying they are right or wrong.  As an instrumental musician, you might think I might lean toward a musician playing a real offertory (3-5 minutes) without being concerned about ending it at the exact moment the ushers leave the auditorium. But I really don’t have any strong feelings on it.

If a church wants just some filler music in that space and they want to use their time very efficiently, that is their prerogative.  I tend to operate that way in my church.  Often, I play without stopping from the first song through the message (under prayers and scripture readings) and just play straight through the offering collection in the same way.  I don’t look at the offertory as an arrangement; it is just part of the service and I stop when the ushers are done.

There is an inconsistency in thinking about this area that you need to be careful of.  If you insist that the offertory music is just filler music that needs to be timed carefully, it is inconsistent to also insist that it is very important.  If it is really part of the worship service, why does it need a timer?  So if you want people meditating on the music and worshipping during that part of the service, you need to turn off the stop watch and let the musicians do their job.

But if you don’t have time for instrumental music in your service, that is perfectly fine too.  As I said earlier, there is no mandate for that.  Church pianists should not get uptight about it.