This is the 19th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.
When I sit at my desk, a large sign stares me in the face, shouting this reminder: Simplicity. It’s a reminder I constantly need. Simplicity is a discipline, and a challenging one. Yet it is vital to effective congregational song.
Congregational singing involves people from a broad range of ages, cultures, stylistic preferences, and personalities, all singing together. Most have little or no musical training and usually no rehearsal. Further, the music must be easy enough to be sung comfortably and naturally, leaving the singers free to focus on the words. The music must serve as a vehicle for the text.
What happens if the tunes fail the simplicity test? At best, the tune soaks up so much attention that the words are ignored. At worst, the singers grow frustrated and fold their arms in stony silence.
Often the problem is trying to use performance songs as hymns. Lacking the discipline of simplicity, such songs are more suited to be performed by a well-rehearsed artist than to be sight-read by a highly diverse, untrained congregation.
With performance songs, the leaders are counting on people’s ability to sing back almost anything they hear, no matter how complex. Go to an artist concert, and you’ll hear it happen. Fans will sing along with the band or soloist, no matter how intricate the song. But that doesn’t make the songs congregational. Devotees can join in songs they have heard many times. But what about the people not immersed in such styles? They cannot follow. They are left out. And eventually, the ever-changing music scene will leave the songs unsupported by constant recorded exposure. Complex songs, when not heard regularly, ultimately prove too forgettable. Left unexposed, and by then out of style, most of the songs will die.
Hymns must cross barriers of time and culture to serve the diverse and enduring Body of Christ. Musical simplicity is a must.
Does that mean that the styles themselves are unsuitable for our hymnody? Do we have to abandon popular styles and limit our hymns to traditional styles? Absolutely not! Down through history the Church has regularly enriched its hymnody by adapting popular music. But our congregational songs must submit to the discipline of simplicity. Our hymns must appeal across cultural and stylistic lines, and they must endure beyond the recorded support provided by popular music.
If you are choosing and leading congregational songs, consider your entire congregation. The Church has a wealth of quality hymns in a wide range of styles. It may take some looking and careful thought to integrate them into your service. But approach the task prayerfully, and the Spirit will faithfully enable you to do what He wants you to do.
For you writers, accept simplicity as a creative challenge. Composers have usually had to write within the limits of their own situation. Such limits have often become a creative stimulus rather than a hindrance. Many great masterpieces have flowed from narrow circumstances.
No, it isn’t easy to compose hymn tunes that are expressive and musically interesting yet comfortably singable by a diverse group of untrained singers. Yet for two millennia now, the Holy Spirit has been helping Christian composers do that very thing. If you want to compose hymn tunes, do what successful composers have usually done:
- Prepare yourself musically. Learn the basics.
- Learn from the best. Go through a good, diverse hymnal and study the tunes that are the most expressive, memorable, and broadly-used. Note their use of form and repetition. Look at how they balance predictability and surprise. (Hint: many current congregational songs lack predictability and thus are too complex.) Immerse yourself in the finest tunes. Absorb their qualities.
- For now, forget being published and just write for your local situation. (Many of my early hymns were written for my Sunday School class.) Listen to how people respond to your hymns. Be your own toughest critic. Learn from your successes and your failures.
- Practice, practice, practice. Writing is like basketball or playing piano. It requires skills that come only through repetition.
Be bold! Write hymn tunes in a variety of styles. But submit to the discipline of simplicity. Keep the tunes easy and enjoyable enough for the Body of Christ to sing together.