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Music in Worship is Selah's occasional newsletter for church musicians, with interviews and helpful articles for choir directors, organists, and leaders of congregational song.

Pastoral Viewpoint
Beyond Good Words and Good Sound to Worship
Richard Leach

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 sounded good.

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.

Richard Leach


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