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.