A Worship Matters reader sent me this question:
With the hymns being so rich in lyrical content and theological ideas, there are often times where we can get to the end of the hymn and think “Well, what was all that about?” let alone getting to a point of engaging our hearts in response to the truth. From your experience, what could we do in terms of leading and arranging hymns with weighty (not a negative term) theological and lyrical content to allow room and time for people to engage God in meaningful worship through the song?
Before I answer this, let me share a few thoughts on words in corporate worship. One of the primary purposes for singing praise to God together is to enable the word of Christ to dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16). That can’t happen when all the words we sing are shallow, vague, or completely subjective. On the other hand, too much information at one time can result in people singing songs with disengaged hearts. As much as I think that churches should be singing songs that are rich in theology and biblical truths, I’ve learned that just singing words doesn’t mean people are understanding or being affected by them. The words may be biblical, even profound. But unless there’s understanding, there won’t be much worship happening. It’s like feeding a baby a 20 ounce Porterhouse steak. There won’t be much eating happening. This is another example of those healthy tensions I wrote about in the third section of my book.
So how do you know if people are understanding what we’re singing about? And what determines how much “content” people can take in at one time, in one song, or in a single meeting? It can be hard to tell. But here are some of the things I think about when I’m trying to find the balance.
What your church is used to singing.
A church that sings simple praise choruses might find any hymn difficult to digest. At my home church we regularly sing wordy songs. People tend to notice it more when the songs are simple than when they’re not. But with guests it can be the opposite. Newcomers often mention the theological content of the songs we sing. I take that to be a good thing.
The kind of poetry.
Wordiness doesn’t automatically equate to “hard to understand.” Amazing Grace has a lot of words, but no one thinks of it as a difficult song. Other hymns use more archaic or poetic language than is more difficult to grasp the first time around.
Three theologically rich songs in a row may be more difficult to take in than one wordy song that has a simpler song before or after. That means I might choose to sing You Are My King after In Christ Alone or How Deep the Father’s Love.
There are different things I can do to make it easier for people to take in what they’re singing.
- The musicians can play a brief musical interlude between verses.
- Repeat lines, verses, or entire songs.
- An obvious way to increase people’s ability to understand the lyrics to a hymn is to repeat it over several weeks. Their understanding and appreciation will grow each time you sing it.
- Sing songs at the right tempo and with appropriate enthusiasm. Too fast can make it hard to take in the meaning. Too slow can make a song sound laborious.
- Explain what a song means before you sing it. It’s okay to tell people what they should be thinking about when they’re singing.
- Sing a portion of a hymn rather than the whole song. Some of the hymns we sing currently were longer when they were first written (like Wesley’s O For a Thousand Tongues with 10 original verses). If you do cut lyrics out, though, make sure you’re not deleting a crucial part of the lyrical progression.
- Reduce the frequency of chord changes. That can make lyrics “sound” less complex.
- Write or find different tunes that make the lyrics more accessible. Critics of contemporary music say that modern worship songs can be difficult to sing. The same is true of some hymn tunes. Sources for rewritten melodies include Indelible Grace, Sovereign Grace, and Red Mountain Music. Make sure the music helps the lyrics, though, and doesn’t fight or trivialize them.
Over time, worship leaders and pastors should be training the church to think and sing in more biblical terms, without forgetting new believers and guests who may also be present on Sunday morning. My job as a leader is to make sure that there’s enough biblical truth in the words to stir people’s affections in the right way. I know people can genuinely worship God while singing lyrics like, “Fire, fall on me” or “Come and fill me up,” but I want to give them food to feed on, not simply an opportunity to express emotions, however sincere. I want them to clearly remember how great, good, glorious, and amazing our God is. That means my first priority in picking songs is words, not music. That’s not to say that music isn’t important. It’s just that music serves to support lyrics, not the other way around.
We want to do whatever we can to help people appreciate what they really need – the truth and power of God’s Word. As a member of our team said this past Sunday, we want to take what’s best and make it “popular.” In other words, it’s worth finding ways to sing songs with “weighty” lyrics. We worship a “weighty” God whose glory surpasses all we can imagine, who dwells in unapproachable light, and whose splendors will never fade.
I grew up with a tradition of singing the old, ‘thick’ hymns, and many of them are so rich in spiritual truths but are difficult to translate because they are written in a style of English that we don’t speak anymore. One of the things I’ve done on my blogs is to take some of those hymns and paraphrase them – in other words, re-word them so that they are more easily understood, yet still hold the general Biblical truths contained in the original. Think of it as ‘The Message’ for hymns. To see an example, go to my blog and click on the category ‘Hymn Paraphrases.’
I think it is really important for people to understand the words they are singing. At first glance, many hymns may seem to be to wordy for the average church attendee.
But I do want to disagree a little. I think that if we think the primary purpose of our singing is for our benefit, it is easy for us to want simple songs. I think there is some serious eschatological undergirding in singing. To think that because of Christ we are able to join in the unending songs of heaven really stretches a persons understanding of why it is important to sing.
Maybe this is just a matter of teaching a congregation about worship. I agree that our song selection and placement can be helpful in this regard. The best way we can describe God is to use Biblical language and by starting to build a deep foundation of worship in the local church we can really solve these problems.
Thanks for stopping by. Very much agree that much of the issue is teaching the church what we’re doing when we gather to worship God together. We can wrongly assume that everyone knows. If the people we’re leading understand that worshiping God involves working hard with our minds, singing songs with rich biblical truth will be something they look forward to, not something they want to avoid.
great post, Bob. this is something I’ve been mulling over for quite some time.
thanks for your ever-gracious spirit in explaining these things.
My church sing wonderful hymns but to the most dreary baroque tunes ever and it’s really hard to concentrate as we sing them. I appreciate your comments about encouraging people to think as we sing, just waking people up to a state of conciousness will make a great difference.
Glad to see you back blogging again after the books been published. Hope you keep it up!
What I really appreciate about weighty hymns is that the worshiper can get something new each time the hymn is sung. Truth is weighty, and a weighty hymn helps to communicate that. Certainly he may not understand the entire text, especially if it is the first time it is sung. But weighty hymns are like bottomless wells – you can keep coming back for more each time.
I also agree that the leader can do much to aid in understanding in his introduction of the hymn, and I appreciate the comments and suggestions along those lines!
Thank you, Bob, for your comments. As a worship planner myself wrestling with the tension between “weighty” and “light”, your insights are well-appreciated. It’s quite easy to fall into the trap of always going with the light and easy when a theological heavyweight of a song would better nourish the congregation. A balanced diet is necessary!
I blogged on this topic this morning, using your excellent thoughts! Thanks again.
I grew up on praise chorus’ from Hosanna and Maranatha. They were a joy to sing…up until the 13th time thru. I was introduced to hymns later in my Christian walk and it was then that the words carried more depth and meaning as I sang them. The best of both worlds is hymns sung with excitement and passion from all instruments! :-)
I greatly appreciate the work of Sovereign Grace ministries as well as groups like Indelible Grace and artists like Sandra McCracken, Stuart Townend and the Getty’s in making many old hymns more accessible through careful (and I’m sure prayerful) revision, new hymn tunes, new songs written in hymn-style (I’m speaking both of meter and of theological width and breadth) and in sometimes simply saying, “You know what — here is a wonderful old hymn that really doesn’t need revision; let’s use it,” and helping the body of Christ to learn or relearn it.
Besides fulfilling the command to teach and admonish one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, this keeps us connected with our past, the “gread cloud of witnesses” that have gone before us over the last two millennia — we are not alone and we are not the first generation to worship at the foot of the cross.
These things — writing new songs in the spirit and lyrical style of the hymns (without using antiquated words), revising old hymns and bringing back old hymns without revision, when appropriate, represent what we’re trying to do at Sojourn, both with our upcoming Isaac Watts project and in our current and past musical endeavors.
Thanks again to Bob and everyone at Sovereign Grace for being great examples in this and for publishing posts such as this one.
Quick question…Is there a certain hymnal you like or would recommend above others? I have the 1951 Baptist Hymnal and a 1950-something Presbyterian Hymnal. A friend of mine has this Celebration Hymnal that has worship leading tips and song transitions in it. I was just curious if there is one you’d recommend. Thanks.
I like that post very much. I’m new to the blog, but not to the ideas. I’d like to pick your brain over one point, though. The idea that a hymn can be too heavy or thick for somebody to really take in is indeed valid. However, there is power in proclamation. That is, just by singing the words, there is something happening. The glory of God is still being proclaimed, and a person’s life is still being changed, even if their minds aren’t really keeping up with the thoughts introduced in a song. Is there a more effective way to do it than by throwing hymns at people who aren’t accustomed to singing them? Yes, there is, as you pointed out. But, I don’t believe that their lives aren’t being changed. It doesn’t always take understanding for music to change us, only hearing.
Thanks for the post, I really enjoyed it.
Great insight, as usual.
This is particularly encouraging and pointed for me. I recently moved from a reformed church accustomed to modern hymnody (I introduced a healthy portion of Sovereign Grace songs, including several of yours), to a much smaller church used to a steady diet of far simpler (and more popular, if CCLI is accurate) contemporary songs. Would never sing a hymn unless it had been contemporized, far less theologically insightful lyrical content, more focus on contemporary instrumentation than insight into the person of Christ, etc.
I’ve found it an enormous challenge to introduce even a few new songs (I’ve tried Receive the Glory, All Glory to You, Before the Throne), and there have been a litany of practical impediments I’ve run into as well.
I appreciate you mentioning some of the practical challenges. Our flock needs to be gently brought along in their loving grasp of the manifold implications and nuances of Christ and His cross-work (how the Gospel really IS the center of all we are and do and love and adore), a predominantly vertical focus of worship needs to prevail, and of course I’m finding people can only accept change at a particular pace…and certainly going from less-wordy to more-wordy isn’t easy.
But what I think I’m being taught most these days is that our Lord must move in the hearts of His people or worship won’t happen.
There’s so much more for me to do, and so much to teach and so much more leadership and humility and gentleness and patience He needs to instill in me.
But I think He’s also teaching me that at the end of the day, it isn’t the song selection, and it isn’t the musicianship (this, from a professional jazz musician). Either God is pleased to move in His church, or we remain on our knees imploring Him to.
Ah – so far we have to go to even dimly reflect the image and character of our Beloved in our own hearts and lives. Thanks so much for the insight and encouragement along the journey.
A few Sundays ago at CLC, at the end of the 11:30 meeting, one of the songs sung to close out the meeting was “On Christ the Solid Rock” and one of the verses closes with the phrase:
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil
One of the shared on the ministry mic that the veil is a nautical term for how far a ship is allowed to seemingly drift once it has dropped anchor. Before I missed this powerful metaphor and thought it was some sort of reference to the veil in the Old Testament temple. The refrains tend to hit home because they recur. But the verses, with all their lyrical beauty, sometimes seem elusive either due to references like the aforementioned or, if you’re like me, blind anticipation of the long-cherished refrain.
Rich theological content should never be diluted or brushed aside but does sometimes need to be clarified.
Thanks for stopping by. I think you might have misunderstood what was said at the ministry microphone. The person was talking about how an anchor functions for a ship. But the line from the song is actually a reference to Hebrews 6:19-20, not a nautical reference. Your original understanding was right. This is what F.F. Bruce has to say:
“We are refugees from the sinking ship of this present world-order, so soon to disappear; our hope is fixed in the eternal order, where the promises of God are made good to His people in perpetuity. Our hope, based upon His promises, is our spiritual anchor. The figure of the anchor is not pressed; all that is meant is that ‘we are moored to an immoveable object’— and that immovable object if the throne of God Himself.” (New International Commentary on the New Testament, p. 131)
Hope that’s helpful.
I was looking around on your blog and came across this post, an appropriate post-worship reflection. I had the privilege of leading our command post “chapel service” this morning because our chaplain was out in the field. I taught on John 9, a follow up to a previous teaching on John 4, and had to have the iPod leading worship since all our musicians were involved in operations. From my limited selection I used “Here I Am to Worship,” “Be Thou My Vision,” “Who Is Like You,” (from the Awesome God CD) and “Beautiful Savior,” (I LOVE that song, “cries of WORTHY will honor the lamb!”) trying to emphasize the themes of Jesus as the light that provides true vision and appropriate responses to encounters with the Savior – worship, awe, witness. Although I hadn’t read this post, I was doing what you described because that was my experience from CLC: combining familiar songs with new songs, taking time to explain some of the lyrics – especially the irony of God as consuming fire when I know His love – alternating simpler lyrical content and some repetition with more theologically weighty lyrics.
Thank you, I continue to be the beneficiary of sound biblical worship and teaching about sound biblical worship.