in Worship is Selah's occasional
newsletter for church musicians, with interviews and helpful
articles for choir directors, organists, and leaders of congregational
Beyond Good Words and Good Sound to Worship
What are our goals, when we choose the hymns
for worship? One clear one is that the words partner well with
the lessons or the sermon or the day. A second is that the singing
sound good. Weak singing is distracting. People have the feeling,
"Well, this isn't going well, is it?" And the point
of the carefully chosen words is lost.
But a deeper goal is that the hymns enable
the worshippers to offer themselves to God. This goal is, in
other words, that the hymns are worship--not just good texts,
not just good sound.
I was struck recently by how poorly this goal
may be met, even when the hymns are appropriate and the singing
goes well. It was in a suburban congregation with perhaps 150
worshippers present. There were three hymns whose words fit the
lessons like a glove. Two of the tunes I knew and liked, and
the third I didn't know but thought interesting. The singing
But Jane, the member of that parish whose
guest I was, had nothing but complaints about the hymns afterward!
One of the tunes I liked she was tired of, the other she thought
bland, and the one I found interesting was, to her, faceless
and pointless: "No melody," she said. Jane is a faithful
worshipper and a musician herself, a good sight reader. She had
no problem reading and singing the hymns. But they were not worship
for her. They were a chore, something to be gotten through.
Jane's response to those hymns that day is
challenging. It may seem to pastors and church musicians that
if the hymn words work, and the singing sounds good, enough has
been done. There's more to be done. I asked my friend if she
would ever complain to the pastor about the hymns. "No,"
she said, "he has enough to worry about. That's just the
way they are most of the time."
As a pastor, a hymn poet, and an enthusiastic
hymn singer, that answer didn't make me very happy. I wonder
what we might do to ensure that we offer people more than good
words and more than a good enough sound--that we offer them real
vehicles for their worship. Careful consideration of tunes would
be part of it, and another part would be finding out what's really
going on with those we lead in worship, even if they can get
through what we choose for them to sing dutifully and well.