Monday, September 6, 2010

Being Picky

Preparing a sermon isn’t necessarily the hardest part of getting ready for Sunday. There is always the selection of what hymns to sing.

Sometimes rummaging through some 600 hymns in the Presbyterian Hymnal to snag three or four perfect ones for a particular Lord’s Day can be an arduous task. So it helps to have a plan, a process for locating fitting songs for the congregation to sing in praise of God and in affirmation of their faith.

Finding the needle-like hymns in the hymnal-haystack can be made easier if you know what all the choices are. We preachers are more occupied with the texts before us and think in terms of words rather than music. Therefore, it is a good idea to enlist the cooperation of our musical colleagues, the choir directors, organists, and ministers of music whom we work with.

Here’s an idea: Set aside an evening for clergy, musicians and worship planners and leaders to gather around the piano and sing through the hymnal. Of course, you won’t get very far in just a couple of hours, but you might well cover hymns for an up-coming season, at least enough to make selecting the right ones for those Sundays easier. The process can be repeated several times through the year, and you can bet that after a while clergy will know better what the possibilities are.

With the foundation of the sing-along sessions supporting them, clergy and musicians will be better equipped to fulfill other criteria in the selection of hymns.

A primary consideration, of course, is that the hymns (at least the one following the sermon) appropriately connect with the preached message. When the hymns and the proclamation from the pulpit jibe, the message is reinforced considerably. Singing enables memory, and the sung words of a hymn will stick in the congregation’s consciousness beyond the front door of the church.

Furthermore, a thematic agreement among the hymns and sermon provides integrity to the whole service. This is no small thing. When hymns are randomly chosen and plopped in the designated slots without thought, the orderliness of the worship service is left in shambles. Such disarray is not lost on the worshipper but translates into confusion of faith.

Worship planners also need to pay attention to the location of the hymn in the order of service. Sometimes, for example, the hymn following the sermon may also provide a suitable lead-in for what comes next, the prayers of the people. Opening hymns will most likely be praise-oriented, but may also introduce the time of confession and pardon. How the hymn moves the service along is an important consideration.

In the sing-along sessions, clergy and musicians will find wonderful hymns with melodies that are less than easily singable. These can be flagged for introduction by the choir as anthems in services prior to the service when they will be sung by the congregation. It’s okay also to have a brief rehearsal for the congregation during the announcements before the beginning of the service.

Inevitably, people will clamor for selection of the “golden oldies.” There’s no denying that there are in the church’s song bag a number of wonderful hymns, and it would be a mistake to neglect them. Novelty is not everything. Hymn selection is a balancing act, and the old and the new can work well together.

We should never underestimate the power and value of hymnody in our worship. Someone once said that most of us Christians learn our theology from the hymns we sang as we were growing up, and those we sing now. Therefore, it is critical that we pay attention to the theology expressed in hymns. Is the hymn individualistic, a me-and-God approach, or does it place the worshipper in the company of faith? Does the hymn offer only rewards at the end of life, or does it point to resources to meet life’s challenges now? Is God perceived as our buddy and pal, or as the Other, the Almighty who is nevertheless reaching toward us? And so forth.

It’s an important task to be performed in picking hymns, and it’s necessary to be picky about it.

What kind of process is followed in your church to choose hymns? Do the clergy and musicians consult regularly about hymn selection?


  1. Thanks, Don, for this thoughtful and practical article. It reminds me of the years of service in one congregation where the pastor and I (the musician) would choose hymns in advance, but then sing through those for the current week in his study to make sure we had not made a mistake of any kind. The music is the vehicle for the text, and the tune must "say" the right thing for the text on that day, and for the placement in the liturgy. The music creates mood and emotion that accompany text. Your article today also brings up the issue of choosing hymnody from sources other than the hymnal. Our hymnal is not prepared specifically for one congregation, but its contents have been thoughtfully considered by a committee for us all. That is not necessarily the case for hymnody from other sources, where music and text may not be so carefully vetted. We are lucky to have what is considered to be one of the best hymnals in print, referenced by other denominations frequently. And we have another on the way!

  2. Getting together to sing through the hymns can also help avoid the "OOPS" which sometimes happens when a hymn is picked because the title is familiar but the actual music might not be. It's too late to notice when the organist/pianist begins the introduction. 462 and 463 are just two examples.

  3. I'm grateful to you, Don, and Charlotte Kroeker for the insightful words you both offered regarding hymn selection in the worship service. I am reminded that Erik Routley, the wonderful Congregational minister and musician, said that hymns are "precision tools, and not all are designed for the same purpose." You brought this out, but I was in a worship service last week that provided a meaningful example of how hymns can be used as an extension of the Word of the day. The lectionary reading that provided the sermon text was Jeremiah 18: 1-6. The emphasis was on God's people being molded to do God's will as a potter molds his clay. Especially relevant to the conclusion of the service was the singing of Adelaide Pollard's hymn, "Have Thine Own Way, Lord." All of us old timers have grown up singing this hymn (tiresomely) as an "invitational" hymn to join the church, a selection dropped into the service with no connection whatsoever to any other part of the worship experience. In Sunday's usage, the words " mold me and make me after thy will" took on a degree of relevance of unusual proportions. I applaud the minister for making the effort to include this hymn as an extension of the sermon, especially since the hymn is not included in the 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal and had to be copied for the bulletin. It would be wonderful if all church musicians could assist ministers who are weak in choosing hymns to fit sermon topics. As we know, however, musicians who work in the church are often not trained in church music and they, themselves, don't know how to use the index of the hymnal. Fortunately, we live in a time when there are many aids to improve this lack of knowledge regarding hymn selection. I recommend denominational supplements to hymn books and copious lectionary aids that pair hymns with scriptures. No worship service should include randomly selected hymns with little purpose other than to fill a slot in the liturgy, and the decision of hymn selection works best when the minister and musician collaborate.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!