Friday, September 11, 2009

Music, Music, Music

It’s been said (by whom I don’t remember) that most Christians form their personal theology based on the hymns they sing while growing up and into maturity. That may be something of an exaggeration, but only a slight one. Surely the hymnody of the church through the centuries contains a rich treasure of religious wisdom and insight in format designed to teach and be remembered.

Selecting what is to be rendered musically in a service is a critical matter. Yet I suspect for many ministers it is something only a tad more than casually done. It’s easy to neglect if not ignore the power of hymns to enhance and uplift worship.

I remember going to a service some time ago when the total hymnody amounted to one verse of one hymn. The rest of the music offered was pseudo pop tunes to which were set what someone has called “seven-eleven” lyrics—seven words repeated eleven times over. It was easy enough to sing, and everyone seemed to have a grand time doing it. Yet it didn’t cut it—not for me, anyway.

The problem was that the songs were paper thin theologically, and had a memory life of about ten minutes out the door. My wife and I tried to remember the tunes as we drove out of the parking lot, and, aside from the single verse of the standard hymn (which we already knew), we struck out.

The upshot of that kind of service is that children and adults have nothing to stash away into their faith memories--no images, no poetry that sings along with a melody that won’t go away. Music isn’t everything in a worship service, but musical shallowness can be deadly over the long haul.

So, here are a few ideas.

Once a year, at least, the minister(s) should sit down with the primary musician and run through the entire hymnal to unearth the pearls that are there. Sing them happily and heartily. You’ll be surprised at old friends you’d forgotten and new ones you never knew were there.

Notice that a number of hymn tunes are from folk sources. I’ve been told on good authority that most all folk tunes from whatever country and time were originally dance tunes. They should be played to dance to, and then they will be fun to sing—and memorable.

For example: “The Lone, Wild Bird” (#320 in the Presbyterian Hymnal), so often is sung drearily—it’s ¾ time, a waltz, and will soar when so treated. Even that old stand-by, “Amazing Grace” (also in ¾ time) benefits from a dance beat.

For an example of a rousing hymn from an unlikely source, turn in your hymnal to (#194 in the Presbyterian Hymnal) “Peoples, Clap Your Hands!” from the Genevan Psalter of 1551. When done aright (and it takes some practice, but is well worth it), this syncopated tune will set your toes to tapping and stand the hair up on the back of your neck. In the process of discovering they can sing exciting music, people will find their faith deepened as well.

What hymns do you know that can perk up worship, teach the faith, and actually be fun to sing?


  1. This is a subject close to my heart - I can't STAND the 7/11 music we have at our church. We do a full TWELVE minutes of 'praise songs' at one clip. It's like being force-fed Wonder Bread when what I really crave is a hand made whole grain loaf.

    I agree that there are two parts to the problem: 1 - many worship planners treat the music as an afterthought, an 'add on', or a performance opportunity to showcase a choir or soloist, and 2 - it seems that ministers of music coming out of the schools today are woefully undereducated in their musical legacy.

    In addition, our church has mostly dispensed with the hymnal, and taken to projecting lyrics on a big screen at the front of the church. The problem with that is while we've gotten our noses out of the books, I can't easily sing the harmonies like I love to, and I can't use the opportunity to teach my children to follow a line of music.

    I know my earliest music education was in a pew following along with the hymnal, learning where the repeat went back to and reading the harmony lines.

    So in addition to depriving our children and our community of the uniting effects of a common canon of music, we've 'dumbed down' our next generation, making it even less likely that they will appreciate and seek out music of substance.

    No wonder I don't really feel like going to church most Sundays.

  2. Dear Don,

    Thank you for a wonderful blog.

    My favorite hymn writer today is Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. Check out the UMC Worship Office web page that includes a number of her hymns:,22,1131

    Grace and Peace,
    Bruce Gillette (Carolyn's husband and co-pastor)

  3. The wonderful thing about hymns is the way they allow us to sing what we would struggle to say. And those soaring notes add an extra layer of meaning to the words. I've got several favorites, both old and new but a few that I pick over and over again: "I Love to Tell the Story," "Live Into Hope," "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," and several African-American spirituals such as "I'm Gonna Live So God Can Use Me." Each of these hymns has a wonderful uplifting beat that our church organist is faithful to. I never realized how much an organist's sense of timing and performance affect the presentation of the hymns (and, by extension, the singers). Yet we had a guest organist who played every hymn at a "stately" (read "funereal") pace that was almost impossible to sing.

    Listening to our choir sing the anthems or introits is wonderful, but nothing is quite as wonderful as singing them ourselves. Our music director took the time to go through our Presbyterian Hymnal and rank the tunes from 1 to 5 to help us pick more singable hymns. 1s are those tunes that everyone knows and they get progressively more obscure or harder to sing. Keeping to 1s and 2s and nothing below a 3, makes for a joyful worship service.

  4. Don,

    My father was a presby minister. He had times when the church music director and choir was a 'war zone' and times when it was heaven on earth. Much depended on the director's self understanding. Can you suggest a resource for the pianists at the 2 churches I serve which can help them, me and the congregation to develop their role and authority in the service of God?

  5. David, there are three resources I'd suggest your having available for your musicians and you:
    A Survey of Christian Hymnody, by William James Reynolds--this has been updated as of 1999. It leans heavily in the direction of 19th and 20th century Protestantism, but has lots of insight and information to offer.
    The second is Te Deum, The Church and Music, by Paul Westermeyer. Lots of historical background, and a clear theological understanding of the role of music in the church.
    The third is The Church Musician, also by Paul Westermeyer. This a handbook for church musicians of all sorts and pastors, including helpful material about pastor-musician relationships, and an annotated list of books you should have in your church musician’s library.
    I hope these are helpful.


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