When I came to my church several years ago, one of the biggest fears from current members was that I would try to “go contemporary.” Some were okay with the idea of adding a second contemporary service, but I wasn’t going to let them off the hook that easily. I intended to do something even more fearful: figure out how to get college students and young families to invade their pews and worship side by side with them.
A huge part of shaping a unified, cross-generational worship service was figuring out how to get members with different musical tastes and expectations to learn a Philippians 2:4 kind of looking “not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Our older members were deeply shaped by mid-century revivalist hymns. As college students and families began to join, they were shaped by the worship playlists and radio they listened to during the week.
We had to come to a realization as a congregation. Our objective was neither to sound like CCM radio nor to sound like the camp revivals of the 1950s. Our objective was to sound like College Street Baptist Church. We wanted to lift the spirit-filled authentic voice of our saints to the praise and glory of God.
Part of this process was finding new ways to sing hymns together. I wanted to help our older generation pass down these precious gems to the next generation. I also wanted the next generation to be able to take ownership of these hymns. Here are five suggestions for any church who wants to foster this melodic giving and receiving in the body of Christ.
1. Add an interlude
In a traditional four-line hymnal, there is no recovery between verses. The congregation holds the last note for anywhere from one to four beats, then must hurry its eyes back up to the top of the page and start immediately into the next verse. This can be vocally taxing and make hymns feel unnecessarily archaic.
I was talking to my friend Ben Brainerd, worship director at Immanuel Baptist Church in Louisville about ways to encourage stronger singing from our congregation, and he taught me this trick. He said, “Just hold the last note. Just hold the last note of the song between verses, and everyone else will follow.” He was talking about an interlude. Giving the congregation a break between verses would allow them to recover their breath and prepare for the next verse–making for more vibrant singing.
An interlude between verses can make hymns more accessible without extra effort. A traditional four-line hymn has a readymade interlude: musicians can simply repeat the first or last line of the hymn between verses. I also love how this provides the congregation a few moments to pause for contemplation or prayer.
2. Change the tempo
Sometimes all it takes is speeding a song up or slowing it down. Many hymns can take on a very different feel if you simply sing them at a different pace. A while back, we sang the Southern Baptist standard “There’s Pow’r in the Blood”. It has the word “pow’r” multiple times in the chorus, as in “pow’r, pow’r, wonder working pow’r” — not super user-friendly to younger believers. However, our musicians played the melody at a quicker pace with driving energy, turning the hymn into a celebratory anthem that the whole congregation sang with joy.
A great way to change tempo is by adding light percussion. Is there a member who can keep really good time? Sparing use of a shaker, cajón, or tamborine can be peppered in during congregational worship to set a hard tempo to prevent the congregation from falling into a familiar dragging cadence. These instruments require little experience or space, but they can be a great help in bringing unity to the voices of the church.
3. Add an instrument
Look around your church. Is there someone with rhythm? Someone who plays guitar? Others with musical talents going unused in congregational worship? Believe it or not, we had a member who was a very gifted clarinetist. When we added her to our small group of musicians, it was a perfect fit. When you have piano led congregational worship, the additional of a few supporting musicians can help church members both old and young take ownership of their hymnals.
It’s important for the members of the church to realize that they have musical gifts and talents for the building up of the body. A particular favorite hymn of ours emphasizes this truth from Psalm 150: “Praise with every tuneful string; all the reach of heavenly art, all the powers of music bring, the music of the heart.” Restraint and creativity will be key as any instruments added should serve the voices of the people not drown them out.
4. Give an introduction
An introduction can make a hymn with outdated language more engaging. Consider the line from verse 2 of “Come Thou Fount”: “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy grace I stand.” The typical complaint goes: What on earth is an Ebenezer? Here’s a suggestion: Rather than throwing out the word or the whole song, maybe your song leader should simply explain what an ebenezer is? Here’s an example:
Ebenezer is the Hebrew word for “stone of help”. In the Old Testament, God’s people would set up a stone, like a monument, as a permanent reminder of the real, tangible help God provided in a moment of crisis. Ebenezers are the milestones we can point to in our lives and say, “This trouble happened, and God’s undeniable grace delivered me!” Ponder those sweet moments of God’s help as we sing “Come Thou Fount” together…
5. Sing acappella
The human voice is the one instrument that never goes out of style. Singing acappella builds confidence and gospel boldness in God’s people. Choose a last verse or a final chorus and drop the instruments altogether. Let the voices resound. Kevin DeYoung once said, “The test of a really great hymn is this: can it be sung acappella?”
The church’s voice should be the one instrument that rings out loudest and clearest in the midst of the congregation. A church that sings together is attractive to all generations—and glorifying to God.
Firmly rooted in Scripture
The singing of the local church should be an ever-evolving process. As the Lord multiplies his church and adds to those who are being saved, the congregation’s harmony of ages, colors, and backgrounds must be heard in the midst of the congregation.
Firmly rooted in the Scriptures, spurred on by the saints of old, and enlivened by the indwelling Spirit, congregational singing ought to be a unifying endeavor for Christ’s church. To echo the words of Paul, my prayer for your church is “that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:6).
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