I’ve heard it before, from one or another person: “We need to be more contemporary, and not keep using those old-fashioned hymns….The young people don’t understand them…We need to be more up-to-date” (etc. etc.). C. S. Lewis called this dismissal of the traditional, and the tried-and-true, “chronological snobbery.”
My answer is always: “Don’t capitulate…Educate!” Yes, use the best of the new songs. But it’s also possible to learn to appreciate the great hymns of the faith that have come from over the past twenty centuries. I’ve seen it happen, even with teens who don’t think they’re going to like these songs. But just how do we teach folks to enjoy hymn singing? This lengthy article provides some things you might try.
Note: The article began with “30 Ideas” years ago, but I’ve added others that have come to mind since, and more have come from readers of the blog. (About twenty of them came from my missionary son, Jim.) So, here are 30+ ideas, now amounting to over 80 of them!
First, a couple of general points.
1) If your purpose in singing is to be novel, to work up emotion, or to entertain, you’ve likely missed the whole point. We are to sing praises and prayers to the Lord, and sing to one another with biblical teaching and testimony (Col. 3:16). Above all else, we should exalt the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, and point people to Him. And in a well-planned service, much of what we sing should emphasize and enhance the subject of the preaching that day.
2) Don’t just sing hymns, use them thoughtfully. I mean by that, don’t just sing a hymn (any that happens to come to mind) because this is the time in the service when we do that. That’s ritualism, and God is not pleased with it. Let it never be said of us, “‘This people honours Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me” (Mk. 7:6). Far better, “I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding” (I Cor. 14:15). Every hymn in the service should be there because it serves a definite purpose–and you should be able to articulate what that purpose is.
And now for some practical ideas. I think I can guarantee that there are at least a few things here that will enrich the hymn singing in your church–maybe many more than just “a few.” I encourage you to study the possibilities, and use them with care and prayerful preparation. Don’t make the mistake of using too many at once. Introduce things gradually, and assess the response.
3) Instead of singing a hymn, use it occasionally for a unison or responsive reading. (Some hymns lend themselves to alternating lines between the service leader and congregation, between men and women, or between those on one side of the church sanctuary and the other.) Try this with the questions and answers in Bickersteth’s Peace, Perfect Peace.
4) Try some medleys: Combine 2 or 3 hymns (using a stanza or two of each) with no break or introduction between. (Unless you have an accompanist who can modulate or transpose, it’s best to pick songs in the same key.) If you use only a couple of hymns, it’s easy to have the congregation look both up ahead, and keep a finger ready in the second place. To make it simple, it might be best to sing the same stanzas of each (e.g. first and second, or first and last). Or you could combine a hymn with a chorus or two. To add the latter you could put the words on overhead transparencies or in the bulletin.
Tip: You should be able to read the unprojected print on an overhead transparency from 10 feet away. That will usually guarantee easy readability when the material is projected. Test it beforehand by trying to read the projected image from the very back of the room. Also test visibility from various spots in the auditorium/sanctuary, making sure the service leader will not block the line of sight.
5) Take a little time–perhaps in one service a month–for requests, so that peoples’ favourites will not be missed. You don’t need to sing all the stanzas. Sing one or two, so you can include more songs.
6) If you know your people would be at ease to do it, once in awhile, in a “request” time, you could ask individuals to tell why a song is one of their favourites. Or, you could ask them to choose which stanzas you’ll sing. (Again, do this only once in awhile, so you keep things fresh.)
7) Take a hymn poll, and build an entire service around the “Top 10” (singing a verse or two of each). With a bit of thought, these can often be arranged in a logical order so a related devotional message or theme will unfold throughout the service.
Tip: Take the poll for two or three weeks, well ahead of the date you intend to use it. That way, any who are absent the first Sunday will be able to contribute. It will also give the service leader and the pastor time to work out a theme.
8) Feature a hymn writer in a service, with biographical information, and a number of his/her hymns. It might also be possible to build a message around some “lesson from life” illustrated by the individual (e.g. God’s use of Fanny Crosby, in spite of her blindness; Philip Bliss’s sudden death at age thirty-eight in a tragic train accident).
9) Occasionally, sing a hymn to a different tune than the one employed in the hymn book. (The Metrical Index can help with this. See my article About That “Metrical Index”.) Make sure the tune fits the word emphasis of the metre, and the mood of the words.
10) Occasionally, in announcing a hymn, give a brief biographical note about the author, or quote a relevant verse of Scripture. It is also helpful to give some insight into the meaning of the song, or explain unusual words. If there is a doctrinal error in the hymn, point it out, and either omit that stanza, or provide alternate wording.
11) Sing a verse of the hymn unaccompanied–and encourage people to sing a harmony part if they can.
12) You could have the men sing one verse, and the women another, on occasion. And if there are enough children in the congregation, and the song is familiar to them (e.g. Jesus Loves Me), have the children sing a stanza, perhaps with a little help from one or two adults.
13) If there is a soloist in the congregation, have him/her sing a verse. (Just be sure to forewarn the person–though I saw it done once when the person had no warning at all! She was used to singing solos, and she did fine.)
14) Plan a Community Hymn Sing, inviting other churches to join in a service of hymn singing. I’ve led many of these, and folks find them a blessing, and a great time of fellowship with believers from other congregations. You’ll find instructions and tips for doing this here.
15) Be on the lookout for new hymns and choruses of top quality (or older ones that are unfamiliar to most), and introduce them to the congregation over a period of weeks. (Don’t just sing them once. Use them several weeks in a row, so people have a chance to learn them.) Keep a record of these, and when they were used, and return to them from time to time.
16) As a service leader, if you are not familiar with a hymn, don’t automatically avoid it. Instead, work on it and learn it. You could look it up on the Cyber Hymnal (which will also play the tune for you) and learn it that way.
17) We’ve usually had a “live” instrumental prelude in churches I’ve attended. But here’s an alternative. As people are gathering for a service, play a good tape or CD of hymns that are suitably arranged and well sung (or played). The congregation may learn some new ones without even realizing it!
18) Have a Bible study (perhaps in the adult Sunday School class) that explores the biblical themes in a hymn. (Try it with How Firm a Foundation, a good choice since almost every stanza is based on a passage of Scripture.)
19) Encourage the pastor to use illustrations from the lives of hymn writers in his messages. (If a song by the writer fits the sermon’s theme, it could perhaps be used as the closing hymn afterward.)
20) If you are a service leader, work with the pastor to build each service (hymns, choruses, Scripture readings, music ministry, etc.) on a theme–preferably related to the preaching of the Word that day. Discuss: what is the goal for the message this week? What do you want people to feel or believe or do as a result? This will give better direction to the choosing of the hymns. Sometimes this may be more difficult, if not many hymns seem to suit the sermon topic. In that case, the theme of praise and thanksgiving in the hymns is always appropriate.
21) If you have instrumental talent in the church, could you start an orchestra? If the group becomes skilled enough, have them accompany the singing. (In my view, they should avoid loudly amplified instruments, or heavy repetitive percussion. The instrumentalists are to “accompany” and support the singers, not compete with them!)
22) Put a hymn quiz in the bulletin one week, with the answers printed there the following week.
23) Print a hymn on a bulletin insert that’s not in your usual hymn book (especially helpful if the hymn is needed to fit the sermon theme). Sometimes, when I’ve done this, I’ve included the story behind the hymn on the other side of the insert. (Check the Index of Wordwise Hymns for this information.)
24) Teach people to value their heritage of sacred music by sharing (from the pulpit, or in a bulletin insert) how hymns were born out of times of persecution, or times of personal suffering. My article here on the subject of suffering hymn writers will be a start.
25) Place books and videos on hymn writers and their hymns in the church library, and promote them occasionally.
26) Train a singing group to introduce a new hymn. It could be played as an offertory one week, and used as a ministry in music (a special number) the next. Then taught to all the week after.
27) Select a couple of key young men and train them to lead services effectively. Give them the opportunity to lead a service. Then offer some constructive criticism afterward. (Yes, women can do this too, but I prefer to see men in leadership.)
28) Choose a hymn (or chorus) of the month, and sing it each Sunday. One week, you could include some background information on the hymn in the bulletin. You might also teach it to the children in Sunday School, Children’s Church, or week-day club, with a story about how it came to be written.
29) Take a few moments to explain something about music in the service, so that we can worship with excellence. How can we improve our singing? Why is the melody of this song the way it is? (For something more extensive, see the next item.)
30) Have a singing lesson during the service. (Yes, you read that right.) Depending on your church, there are various ways to do this. You could have folks come early, and have a ten-minute session before the service. If you have an evening service that’s less formal, try it then.
For example, you could teach a little bit about music notation, and teach the proper use of the diaphragm in singing. You could maybe try a bit of two-part singing. Even practice in how to hold a hymn book (as flat as possible, with the head up) will increase the sound. Don’t take more than five or ten minutes for this. But if you do it even once a month, you should hear an improvement in congregational singing over the course of a year.
You could also hand out the words and music to a song and challenge people to learn parts at home. Use the song several weeks in a row, and have the worship leader teach the harmony. Sing all or part of the song a capella (without accompaniment) when parts are learned, so the harmony can be more fully appreciated.
31) Sing more hymns in the services–even if you use fewer stanzas of each on that occasion. There is no need to sing all the verses, all the time. Pick ones that suit the theme. Save the other stanzas for another time.
32) Once in awhile, repeat the final chorus of a song. It can add to the impact. (Try it with Blessed Be the Name.)
33) Occasionally suggest a slight change to a hymn that can be enjoyed by the singers, or make the song more meaningful. (Try not to make the changes so complicated that folks won’t remember or be able to follow them.)
Following are a few examples:
34) The last music line of Immortal Invisible–”‘Tis only the splendour of light hideth Thee”–can be repeated as a four-fold Amen.
35) The last line of When I Survey the Wondrous Cross can be sung as, “Love so amazing, so divine, / Shall have my soul, my life, my all.”
36) Try repeating the last line of How Firm a Foundation three times, slowing down considerably the last time” “I’ll never–no never, no, never forsake!” (It definitely will help to make the point!)
37) One or more stanzas of Take Time to Be Holy can be sung as, “Take time to behold Him.”
38) Try singing the final refrain of He Keeps Me Singing at about half speed, with a hold on the second syllable of “Jesus” each time.
39) You could include some excellent stanzas of hymns now and then that are not in the hymn book, projecting them with the overhead, or printing them in the bulletin. (Often you can find the complete version of our hymns on the Cyber Hymnal.) Here are just a few examples of stanzas that are sometimes missed:
40) Most hymn books miss the last stanza of There Shall Be Showers of Blessing, but it is important: “There shall be showers of blessing, / If we but trust and obey; / There shall be seasons refreshing / If we let God have His way.”
41) A wonderful last verse of Fairest Lord Jesus is seldom used: “All fairest beauty, / Heav’nly and earthly, / Wondrously, Jesus, is found in Thee; / None could be nearer, / Fairer or dearer / Than Thou, My Saviour, art to me.”
42) The hymn Nearer, My God, to Thee is based on the record of Jacob fleeing from his brother, Esau. But it was written by a Unitarian. English hymn writer, E. H. Bickersteth, felt it was incomplete. He offered this lovely final stanza: “There in my Father’s home, / Safe and at rest, / There in my Saviour’s love / Perfectly blest; / Age after age to be / Nearer, my God, to Thee.”
43) Consider including the missing stanzas of It Is Well With My Soul once in awhile: “For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live: / If Jordan above me shall roll, / No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life / Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.” And “But, Lord, ‘tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait, / The sky, not the grave, is our goal; / Oh trump of the angel! Oh voice of the Lord! / Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!” (These are actually Stanzas 4 and 5, with the final one usually found in the hymn book being Stanza 6.)
44) You will notice that Bickersteth’s hymn Peace, Perfect Peace has a most unusual structure. The first line of each stanza but the last is a question, for which the last line provides the answer. Try singing this hymn antiphonally, either with the ladies singing all the first lines, and the men all the second lines, or perhaps with those seated on one side of the sanctuary singing one, and those on the other side responding. (The gospel song No, Not One works well this way too.)
There are a number of stanzas of Peace, Perfect Peace not usually included in the hymn book, covering other troubling circumstances. For example: ”Peace, perfect peace, death shadowing us and ours? / Jesus has vanquished death and all its powers.” And when one of the pastor’s sisters pointed out that the hymn does not deal with physical suffering, he added: “Peace, perfect peace, ’mid suffering’s sharpest throes? / The sympathy of Jesus breathes repose.” Then, there is a final stanza which does not contain a question (both groups could sing it together): “It is enough: earth’s struggles soon shall cease, / And Jesus call us to heav’n’s perfect peace.”
45) Encourage families (or singles) to purchase a copy of the church’s hymn book, and use it in personal or family devotions. I am convinced this should be emphasized. It’s important to have this devotional resource in each home. Good hymns can be read with profit in daily devotions, as well as sung.
Tip: See if you can order hymn books with a different coloured cover for home use–different from the ones at church. Then they won’t be confused with church copies.
46) Instead of having visitors to your home sign a guest book, you could have them neatly sign next to their favourite hymn in your book. Great memento! Each time you sing or read that hymn, it will remind you to pray for the person.
47) Encourage Bible colleges to teach a course on hymnology, and be balanced in the music they use. (Otherwise, graduates will move into pastorates uniformed about this key area robbing their congregations of their heritage.)
48) Perhaps you could form a children’s choir and purposely teach them hymns. That will benefit both them and those that listen later.
49) A blogger talked about a project being given to children in a choir in which she sang years ago. If they memorized the first stanza of twenty hymns, and could recite them in front of the group, they earned their own personal copy of the hymn book. That is an excellent idea!
50) Here’s another idea that came from a fellow blogger. Find two or three families who love to sing hymns. Then, arrange to get together once a month, in a different family’s home each month, for a mini-hymn sing. A sufficient number of old hymn books should be easy to find (or perhaps you could borrow some from your church).
51) Once in awhile, you might try singing a hymn twice in a service (not one right after the other, but spaced out by other items). Or, if the words suit it, you might try reading the hymn one time, and singing it another. If it’s a great hymn, with important doctrinal teaching or rich devotional content, this would be especially appropriate. Or if it ties in well to the subject of the sermon, it could be sung early in the service, and again right after the message.
52) Children’s summer camp programs and Vacation Bible School programs are especially valuable for teaching hymns, since there is likely singing every day–perhaps a couple of times each day. Leaders should plan to teach at least two or three good hymns during the week, and tell the stories behind them. (Not all the stanzas need to be used. Pick ones that will be meaningful to the children–sometimes a single stanza will do.)
Tip: Sing these hymns in the program in following years, adding others each time. Children who are repeat attenders will help others to learn the ones they remember.
53) If your church has the luxury of having sufficient copies of two or three hymn books used over the years (as ours does), why not switch books for a few weeks, and sing some old favourites that aren’t in the book you’ve been using?
54) If you know of musicians or musical groups that have some traditional hymns or gospel songs in their repertoire, why not book them to minister to your people, encouraging them to focus on some of the great hymns. (Perhaps some of their selections could involve the congregation in a sing-along.)
55) If folks feel comfortable doing so, have them suggest several hymns they would like to have sung at their Memorial Service. (Ask this in private, and be ready to make some suggestions, if they’re stuck. You can find a list of a few suggestions here.) When all the contributions are in, compile a list, and work the hymns into the regular services in the coming months–especially ones that are lesser known, so that the congregation is more familiar with them.
56) Obviously it doesn’t work if you are planning the service for a particular person who has passed away, but you could ask for suggestions for Memorial Service hymns during a church service. Distribute slips of paper and have individuals write the songs down, and put them on the offering plate. You could do this several weeks in a row, so that all have a chance to take part.
57) Use only one hymn in a service. This will work with a longer hymn of good quality, in which each stanza says something important. (For example, try it with My Jesus, As Thou Wilt.) Build the whole service around it. Intersperse the stanzas with Scripture verses, devotional readings, or testimonies. (For the latter, you may wish to ask the people before hand, requesting them to illustrate the lesson of a particular stanza from their own experience.)
58) I heard of a parent who had children in the home memorize a Bible verse and a stanza of a hymn, each week. Having children and adults recite hymns could become a fun family activity. It highlights this great treasure, and reinforces these songs in the memory, also encouraging participation when the hymns are sung in church.
At tea time every Sunday (4:00 to 6:00 p.m.), English hymn writer Edward Bickersteth (Peace, Perfect Peace and other songs) asked each member of his family to quote a hymn. He did this himself–or recited a new one of his own. His son remembered this, years afterward as their invariable practice.
59) Make use of this site and the Cyber Hymnal to gather background on hymns you plan to use on a particular Sunday. Short, helpful notes could be included in the Sunday bulletin about a hymn, or perhaps a picture of the author. Or a few facts could be shared from the pulpit before the song is sung. If you check the Almanac section of Wordwise Hymns (see the sidebar), you may occasionally find that the author of a particular hymn was born or died on the very day you plan to use it.
60) Something I’ve done once in awhile is have members of the congregation sit in parts sections (soprano or melody singers, altos, tenors, basses). It’s easier to sing a harmony part if those near you are on the same note! (You’ll know your congregation. This won’t work with all.)
61) If you are a small congregation, put the seats in a circle, or semi-circle once in awhile, so you can all see each other. The sound of singing will be directed toward the centre and it tends to be heard better by all.
62) A song such as He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands lends itself to adding stanzas about your own congregation. With a little thought, you can make various names fit. “He’s got Jack and Mary in His hands…” Or “He’s got the Dempster’s new baby in His hands…” Or what about reminding folks of your shut-ins: “He’s got Helena and Lois in His hands…” It’s a fun thing to hear your name sung in church, and a wonderful reminder of the personal care of the Lord.
63) You could read through a song such as No, Not One (skipping the repetitive “No, Not One’s”). This could either be done by the service leader, by some volunteers, or as a unison reading. Then, ask for testimonies of how a particular truth expressed in the song has blessed individuals recently, or how they’ve been a living example of a particular line. It may make the singing of the song especially meaningful.
64) If someone says he (or she) can’t understand the old hymns, you might suggest this project. In his/her own copy of the hymnal at home, read through each hymn, looking up words not understood, writing a brief definition in the margin. Then, suggest he/she read the hymn through again, underlining significant things. (Suggested: A promise to believe; a command to obey; a blessing to enjoy and share; an example to learn from.) This is bound to increase an appreciation for these songs.
65) Did you know the Index of the hymnal can be a special blessing to you. It can. Here is something to try on your own, and share with the whole congregation. Check out the article Blessings in the Titles. Encourage folks to try it later, during a time of meditation and prayer, just before the start of a service.
66) I heard recently of a church where some fall asleep during the sermon. (It happens in other churches, too.) Here’s an idea that may help to solve the problem. Have the pastor plan for a congregational hymn at some appropriate point in the middle of his sermon. It could accompanied, but it’s probably easier if it isn’t–if the pastor or service leader can simply get it started. Have folks stand for this. Sing only a stanza or two. And above all, if at all possible, make what is chosen relevant to the theme of the message at that point. The change of position, and the use of the lungs will refresh everyone.
67) Here’s a project for pastors and/or service leaders. It will take some time, but you can do it over several weeks, a bit at a time. Go through the hymn book and mark or list hymns that have not been used over the past year but could be. (This presupposes that you keep a record of that. A very good idea!) In my own long experience, a congregation tends to gravitate toward the familiar few, and many great hymns are never used. I just did it, as an experiment, with the first 52 hymns in our present book. I found a dozen that haven’t been used in the past year–some familiar, some less so (but we could learn them).
68) If you are a small congregation, don’t neglect good recordings as a means of a special ministry in music–or to teach an unfamiliar hymn. As well as being on CD’s, these songs are often available on YouTube. And there are archival recordings (of Ira Sankey and others) that will allow your people to hear how songs were sung way back when. (Check out Tinfoil.com for this.)
69) If you are a larger congregation, and able to offer adult electives in Sunday School, what about having one on Music Appreciation–focusing especially on sacred music. You could include music from the great oratorios, as well. But it’s a great opportunity to share the history of our hymns, and examine the words more closely. Or you could have a series through one quarter (13 weeks) studying the biblical message of some great hymns.
70) Have a time of silence for prayer and reflection after the singing of a hymn. Or this could be done before the hymn is sung, asking folks to read a stanza, or all of the hymn, and meditate on it and pray for a few moments.
71) Sing several songs in a row, and choose people from the congregation (ahead of time) to read Scripture between the songs. You might try going through a passage of Scripture with your songs (and words), perhaps a psalm.
72) Help everyone to memorize a passage of Scripture over perhaps several weeks, then recite it together and sing a song (or songs) related to the theme. (Try this with Psalm 1.)
73) Have someone share a testimony related to the next song to be sung.
74) Have a service, or series of services, on the theme of the gospel, with songs and Scriptures related to each point. For example: Our Great God; Sin/Repentance; Jesus, His death and resurrection; Salvation/Forgiveness; Growing in Character and Service.
75) Celebrate Christmas in July, singing Christmas carols. These songs will bless you in a new way when you do. The sermon also should relate to this theme.
77) Celebrate Christmas and Easter together in a service, halfway between Christmas and Easter (around the middle of February). Remember the incarnation, why Jesus came – sing songs of Christmas, the cross, and the resurrection.
78) If you have a gifted person that can do so, have him/her write a new song and sing it, or perhaps set a passage of Scripture to music that the congregation can sing.
79) If your services are informal enough for it to be appropriate, sing a children’s song and teach the actions to everyone!
80) Invite a missionary to teach a stanza of a song or hymn in another language. If this is done with a familiar hymn using a familiar tune, it will be meaningful to sing it again in later weeks.
81) Unplug: Have a whole service with no amplification. And/or have a complete service with the singing unaccompanied. This could be tied to an explanation of worship in the early church, or worship in lands where gathering as a body of believers is forbidden. You may be surprised at how enjoyable unaccompanied singing is, and want to do it more often!
82) Explain the meaning of a word in a hymn, or the song overall (don’t assume that everyone knows).
83) Briefly explain to the congregation why you–the pastor or service leader–chose a specific song to sing this week.
84) Once in awhile, remind people to think about what they’re singing. If you are singing a true hymn (i.e. one addressed directly to God in praise or prayer), remind folks they are singing to the Lord–who is present in the service.
85) If it suits your numbers and the logistics, try having a service outside once in awhile.
86) During the service, record a message and a special song for someone who cannot attend due to illness or infirmity. Pray for them. Then have the pastor or another person take the recording and play it for the individual during the week.
87) As I have said before, everything possible should be done to integrate the hymns into the service. Whether he himself chooses them, the pastor should know what hymns will be used days before the Sunday when they are sung. As much as possible, songs should be chosen that reflect the message to be preached. Here are two ideas for connecting these two elements more closely.
a) The pastor should search for memorable lines or phrases in the hymns that he can quote in his sermon. This should be done by calling specific attention by name to the hymn sung earlier, or one to be sung after the message. Over time, this will educate people to look for connections and see the hymn singing as an integral part of the service.
b) If the announcements are given right at the beginning of the service, you might try having someone (the pastor, the service leader, or someone else) take a couple of minutes to comment on the hymns to be used, showing their connection to the coming sermon. This might involve quoting the hymn, or a related Scripture, or giving a brief biographical note about the author, or telling about the occasion that inspired the writing of the song. Keep it short, and interesting. Something along this line could also be put in the Sunday bulletin, and referred to at this time.