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Also see 30+ Ideas for Promoting Hymn Singing in your church.
We ought to plan carefully, when choosing the hymns to be used in a church service. It’s important, But some congregations may not be used to it. Perhaps their service leader chooses hymns at random, or selects ones he knows well, rather than taking the time to think and study, selecting what will work best. I know of one who flips through the hymn book five minutes before the service, and writes the numbers on his hand! This is unworthy of a sacred duty.
Also, I fear that those of us in non-liturgical churches sometimes become more ritualistic than we realize–or would like to admit! A hymn is sung because “that’s what we do now,” not because of what it will add to the service. “We always sing a hymn before the Offering is taken. Let me see, what would be a nice one? We haven’t sung that one for a long time. Let’s do that one”–with little or no regard for what the hymn is saying.
Aim at nothing, and you’re sure to hit it! Shame on us, if we’re that careless and sloppy! To lift a verse out of context, for the sake of the principle it expresses, “If the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle” (I Cor. 14:8). And if a hymn is not chosen to direct our thoughts and teach us, it is not fulfilling its purpose (cf. Col. 3:16). We are planning to gather in the presence of Almighty God. We need to give that awesome privilege some careful thought and preparation. What will we do? And why?
Planning a service takes time, and prayer. My father was a church organist. He planned his organ prelude with this same great care, so that it would lead into the theme of the service. Should we do any less with the hymns to be sung? Hymn books usually have a Topical Index to help with this. Other books provide this information, as does the Cyber Hymnal here. (It also has a section called Scripture Allusions, tying hymns to particular Bible texts.)
Who designs the service in your church? The pastor? The worship team? A service leader? What arrangements are made will vary with that. Ideally, early in the week, the pastor should share with the service leader what the Bible passage for his message will be, and what in particular he plans to emphasize. Then, the service leader should take as long as necessary to find the best hymns, decide on their order, and how best to integrate them into the theme. He can share the plan with the pastor, and they can fine-tune the result together.
If people are used to a more random approach, they may not notice the theme unless it is called to their attention. Either the pastor or the service leader can do that near the beginning of the service, and perhaps show how a hymn fits it. For example:
“Today, our theme is the friendship of Jesus. Notice the how this hymn begins, ‘I’ve found a friend, O such a friend! He loved me ere I knew Him.’ Think of that! Before we even knew the Lord Jesus, He knew us, and loved us. Isn’t that wonderful!”
There are alternatives–sharing a verse of Scripture on the theme, before the hymn is sung, or saying a relevant word about how the hymn came to be written. This need not be done with every hymn. But doing it once in awhile will get people giving more attention to why a particular hymn is being sung, and what it has to say to them.
One further thought. Planning does not, and should not, prevent flexibility. It is possible that the Lord will lead, during the service, for a particular song to be changed or added (or sung a second time), or for a time of testimonies to be inserted, or a time of prayer, and so on. We need to be open to the Lord’s direction. But this is no excuse for having no plan at all!