Tag Archive for congregational song

A Thought about Congregational Singing

Like everyone else, I have my own preferences for congregational singing.

But the people of God are to come from all
classes, and
If the Church is what Christ died to make her,
she will be beautifully, amazingly diverse.

Congregational singing is communal.
It is inclusive.
It is uniting.
Its goal, its dream, its aspiration is to connect
all that we are as God’s people to
all that He is.

The Church is bigger than me.
It is wonderfully vast and varied.
Father, don’t shrink her congregational song to my size.
Expand my mind and heart to
embrace everyone You embrace.

Listen and sing:
Hymn: The Reason We Sing
Printed Music & Lyrics


Most of the time I’m certain that I am doing what the Lord has called me to do. But every once in a while the doubts creep in. You probably have your own set of familiar doubts. For me as a hymn writer, I occasionally fear that I’ve wasted my life by writing in a relatively traditional style. Should I have consciously reached out to my children’s generation by learning to write in a more contemporary style? Do most who hear my hymns dismiss them as old-fashioned?

But as I pray, I see my situation in a better light. Maybe these observations will help you when your fears whisper in your ear.

1.       Don’t follow the crowd. In my case, thousands, perhaps millions of songs are being written in the contemporary style currently popular. Would I really be of greater service to the Church by simply adding more to that growing number? Even business thinkers like Seth Godin, writing from a non-religious perspective, advise creators not to think mass market but to be content serving their own particular customers.

2.       Be yourself. I need to be the writer God created me to be. I’ve written some songs in a more contemporary style, but for the most part, that style is not native to me. I naturally think and feel in the style in which I write. But it’s more than familiarity that draws me. I genuinely believe that a more traditional style will, in the long run, have a broader and more inclusive appeal.

3.       Each of us is a member of the Body of Christ. We are called to fill our particular role, not to be all things to all people. I read Numbers 4:16-28 and see that even in the Old Testament sanctuary, God appointed each group of priests and Levites to their own very particular duties. They were to focus on doing their daily tasks faithfully and wholeheartedly, out of love for God. That is still the way I approach my hymn writing.

Father, my goal is not to be successful. My goal is to please You. I want to be Spirit-driven, not customer-driven. Where I have failed, please forgive and redirect me. I am Yours completely, now and forever.

Listen and sing:
Hymn: God Alone
Printed Music & Lyrics

Hymns in Personal Devotions

This is the 29th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

To plant hymns in your heart, sing them as part of your daily devotions. Hymns are wonderful devotional aids. They express timeless truths in ways that are heart-felt and life-centered. They declare God’s Word and make it easy to understand and apply. Hymns lead us into praise. They provide words for our prayers and express our deepest longings for God.

Go out and buy your own hymnal, and keep it with your Bible. Start at the beginning of the hymnal and sing your way through it. During each day’s devotions, sing through one or more hymns. Don’t skip any hymns or any verses.

Don’t let a lack of musical ability hinder you. Sing as best you can. If you don’t know the music to a hymn, just read the words, aloud if possible.

You’ll be amazed at the wealth of wonderful devotional material you find. The hymns will become your own. Then when you sing them in public worship, it will be like visiting an old friend.

Hymns in Small Groups

This is the 28th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Christian jailed and executed by the Nazis during World War II, found great strength in prison through singing hymns with fellow prisoners.

Hymn singing was a key element in the Methodist class meetings in 18th century England. These hymns fueled the Methodist revival, which is still bearing fruit today.

Sunday school classes, Bible studies, and other small groups can benefit tremendously by hymn singing. Spiritual formation is often the main focus of such groups, and hymns are a powerful spiritual formation tool.

For hymns to be usable in small groups, simplicity is essential. Sometimes a keyboard and keyboardist are available for accompaniment, and sometimes recorded accompaniment is an option. But in many situations, the singing will either be unaccompanied or it will not happen at all. Hymn tunes that are easy and familiar will work best.

Someone should take care to choose the hymns ahead of time. The right hymn in the right spot is a powerful tool. A meaningful context is a hymn’s best friend. As much as possible, prepare hymns that fit the lesson hand-in-glove. When the match is right, hymns are a perfect way to drive home a scriptural lesson.

Since necessity is the mother of invention, singing hymns in your small group might be just the opportunity needed by some budding hymn writer among you. I started writing hymns for that very circumstance, to use with Bible studies I was teaching. I always provide a hymn with the Sunday School lessons I teach. A hymn works well as an opening or a closing. Or if time allows, sing a carefully chosen hymn at the opening of the class, with a brief spoken introduction, then repeat the same hymn at the end of the lesson.

Take the time to make hymns part of your small group gatherings. You’ll find your efforts richly rewarded, and perhaps in some surprising ways!

Hymns and Spiritual Formation

This is the 27th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

Do people want to live better lives?
Yes, we do!

Do people want to live closer to God?
Yes, we do!

Do people want help praying?
Yes, we do!

In the press of daily living, it’s difficult to stay on focus. It’s difficult to keep our eyes on our heavenly Father, to remember His presence, His power, His goodness, and His unfailing promises. It’s hard to think, feel, and be the persons we need to be.

Singing hymns can help. They plant truth in our minds, hearts, and imaginations. They immerse us in the realities of God and His faithfulness, of Jesus Christ and His life within us, of the Holy Spirit and His empowering, guiding presence. Hymns help us embrace the truth physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The truths we sing weave themselves into our thoughts, feelings, and perspectives.

Remember, it is vital that we sing the hymns, not just listen to them. If you want to be entertained, listen. If you want to be transformed, sing!

Hymns draw us to Jesus Christ. Hymns encourage us to trust God and approach Him with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith (Hebrews 10:22). Hymns strengthen us to stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured (Colossians 4:12). Hymns help us comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18-19, NRSV, adapted).

That is the power and potential of hymn singing. Don’t get sidetracked! Singing is not about enjoying a pleasing sound or emotional stimulation. Hymns are not fantasy music. Hymns are reality music. They nurture our relationship with the Living Christ. They turn our attention to His constant presence and interaction in absolutely every aspect of daily life. Hymns help form Jesus Christ within us.

Unchain Our Hymns!

This is the 26th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

If hymns are important, they are too important to limit to an hour a week on Sunday. If hymns can nurture our personal relationship with God—and they can!—then why not take them beyond our worship services?

Hymns need to spill out of the sanctuary into our daily lives. Hymns can enrich our devotional practice and nourish prayer. Hymns need to go wherever prayer goes.

Paul and Silas had had a difficult day. A good deed got them attacked by an angry crowd, dragged before a magistrate, stripped and beaten and then thrown into prison with their feet in the stocks. So what were they doing at midnight? Moaning in pain? Complaining about injustice? Feeling sorry for themselves? They were praying aloud and singing hymns! No piano or organ. No band. No recordings. Just two believers, sitting in the midst of suffering, darkness, and injustice and singing hymns. Read the whole story in Acts 16:16-40 and find how it all turned out.

A similar story comes to us from the 18th century. Crossing the Atlantic, the ship in which John Wesley was sailing was caught in a storm. Though an Anglican priest, he was terrified, afraid for his life. While having his crisis of faith, he heard a group of German Moravian believers calmly singing their hymns. The experience had such a profound effect on him that it would change his life.

In both cases, hymns were a natural, deeply personal expression of the believers’ faith. They bubbled to the surface in life’s most difficult hour. The hymns gave them a way to mentally and emotionally affirm their confidence in God. They were thus able to face their trials with joy and unshakable peace.

Their hymns also became a life-changing testimony to the unbelievers around them. Note that musical style wasn’t what appealed to the listeners. The stories don’t even mention it. The attraction was the joy and faith of the singers, not the songs themselves.

So don’t leave our hymns locked up at church. Don’t let our hymnals stay nailed to the pew. Up until the last hundred years or so, hymnals were a personal item. The Bible and the hymnal were the believer’s most treasured devotional possessions. Whether or not you use hymnals in your church services, get your own hymnal and keep it with your Bible. That will be the first step toward getting hymns into your heart and into your daily life where they can do the most good.

We or I?

This is the 25th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

In our desire to worship God with one heart and one voice, some suggest that “we” language is more appropriate in worship than “I” language. As a hymnwriter, I believe that stance is well-intentioned but misguided.

Yes, a “we” perspective in worship is a worthy and constructive goal. Both scripture and experience point us toward that synergy where worshipers join in heart and voice. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

But individual worship is still the essential component. Though “we” language is highly appropriate and expressive in some hymns, in others it can hold the truth at arm’s length. It can lessen the impact of the hymn on the individual worshiper. When it does, corporate worship is weaker, not stronger. A.W. Tozer said it this way:

“Someone may fear that we are magnifying private religion out of all proportion, that the `us’ of the New Testament is being displaced by a selfish `I.’ Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshippers met together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become `unity’ conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship. Social religion is perfected when private religion is purified. The body becomes stronger as its members become healthier. The whole Church of God gains when the members that compose it begin to seek a better and higher life.” (from THE PURSUIT OF GOD, by A.W. Tozer, © 1948 by WingSpread Publishers)

To underscore this point, look at our classic hymns. The following powerfully corporate hymns were all written as “I”:
Amazing Grace
And Can It Be?
Arise, My Soul, Arise
Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Great Is Thy Faithfulness
Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
How Great Thou Art
I Sing the Mighty Power of God
O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing
Our Great Savior
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
This Is My Father’s World
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
…and many more

Through these “I” hymns we experience a powerful “we” in worship. Would we be drawn closer together by eliminating such from hymns from our worship? Certainly not. It is our common experience with God’s universal greatness and love that binds our hearts together. Shared personal faith is what unites us, not imposed “we” language.

The Value of the Hymnal

This is the 24th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

I have no interest in revisiting the whole debate about hymnals versus projection. But whichever one you are presently using, it is constructive to remember the continuing value of the hymnal.

For those of us who choose and lead hymns, we need to keep at hand a large and varied collection of hymns. Not only is it a useful source, but it challenges us and holds us accountable. When we were compiling the Sing to the Lord hymnal, we sent out a usage survey for its predecessor, the Worship in Song hymnal. We asked worship leaders to tell us how often they had used each hymn in Worship in Song in the past 12 months. Respondents told us over and over again that, having been forced to go through the entire hymnal, they were shocked and disappointed at how few of its riches they had been enjoying.

Without a hymnal to stretch us, we are more likely to take the path of least resistance. We draw from our limited memories and reuse the same familiar hymns again and again. A hymnal disciplines us and draws us deeper into the wealth of wonderful hymns that are always at our disposal.

The hymnal is also a priceless devotional book. More will be said about that in a later post.

As you look to the future, are you hoping for improvement of projection technology, or are you planning for a hymnal purchase? In either case, it’s helpful to remember the advantages unique to a hymnal. Here’s at least a partial list:

  • With a hymnal, we can see the music and visually follow it, even if our musical ability is limited. For some of us, trying to sing a melody we can’t see is unnerving.
  • Part-singing is a beautiful tradition in the church. Current projection systems will make it extinct.
  • With a hymnal, a glance at the page shows us the size and shape of the hymn. As we head into the hymn, we can see where we’re going.
  • With a hymnal, we can also look back. If a verse stirs us or puzzles us, we can read it again and ponder it.
  • Most hymnals tell us not only who wrote the hymn but when. Readers want to know when and by whom a book is written, and the same information is helpful to singers.
  • A hymnal can go places a projection system cannot. Hymns need to reach beyond our church sanctuaries, and a hymnal helps make that possible. Again, more about that in a later post.

As we move forward, let’s not leave behind treasures that are still irreplaceable. No matter how useful our projection systems, a hymnal remains one of those treasures.

Toward Your Leaders

This is the 23rd in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

During a lifetime in Christian service, I’ve worked with thousands of others also in Christian service–ministers, ministers of music, and leaders of various types. I’ve worked for leaders, and I’ve been a leader.

Together we are as human and as imperfect as anyone else. We pray and try to keep our motives pure. Though we give our best, sometimes our job performance is less consistent than we wish. We try. We fail. Our abilities are narrow and are regularly stretched beyond our talent and training.

Yet the God who called us is faithful. Somehow He uses what we do to help people and to glorify himself.

When our humanity is apparent, don’t condemn us. Forgive us. Don’t gossip about us. We know our failures better than you do. Pray for us.

And when we do something that works marvelously, give God all the glory. He’s the only one who deserves it!

Praying for Fellow Workers

This is the 22nd in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21, NIV)

I urge… that requests, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving be made for everyone–for … all those in authority. (1 Timothy 2:1-2, NIV)

We all have to work with other people, whether on our jobs, at home, or in the church. Some are our co-workers. Some are our supervisors. In both cases, our work is interconnected with theirs. If the other person doesn’t do a good job, our work is damaged.

This is particularly true in music. Singers, instrumentalists, writers, directors–none of us is an island. The quality and effectiveness of our work is dependent on other people. That can be very stressful!

In dealing with such situations in my own life, the Lord has brought me back to what the Bible says about submitting to one another and praying for one another. I’m discovering that is great, practical advice.

Instead of fretting about whether another person will do a good job or whether a supervisor will make the right decision, I’m learning to pray for them. I pray that God will guide them and work through them to accomplish His will.

Then, having prayed for them and trusted the Lord to work through them, I can more easily rely on them and be submissive to them. And when I still feel I must disagree, I can do so in a non-defensive, non-territorial manner, remembering it is God’s work, not mine, and He will accomplish it.

Sometimes we feel that if everyone would just leave us alone, if we weren’t so dependent on others, everything would be terrific. The Bible declares that that simply isn’t so. Each of us has a particular role to play. By ourselves, we are so limited. We were designed to work most efficiently and productively in relationship to others. We are each like one part of the body that must work with other parts if the whole body is to function successfully. God created us to be dependent not only on himself but on each other.

Prayer is the best way to make such relationships work. Through prayer, we lift up those on whom we are dependent. Through prayer, we maintain the right attitude toward them. Prayer for fellow workers fosters the unity and interdependence essential for all of us to be and do our best together.

And through prayer, we keep our faith focused on God’s will and on His ability to accomplish that will through us, not just through me.