Dr. Paul Hill, Worship Arts Pastor
First Baptist Church Marietta
The death of congregational singing will not be the fault of the congregation. The failure will belong to its musician-leaders. Evaluate the effort you are placing in your current worship service. Is it adequate? Are you playing it safe? How creative have you been? Are the hymns stale? Are you? Are you “phoning in” your worship service each week, just replacing last week’s music with this week’s music? Whenever you hear a worship leader bemoan the oldness of hymns, ask what they’ve done to make their hymns exciting – or have they even tried. That tired old complain almost always signals laziness and lack of creativity on their part. Maybe making hymns worship for worship is just too much work. The people God has put before you to lead are looking to you to put together a worship service that helps connect them to God in a corporate setting. The standard is high.
In my church, we attempt to lead our congregation in a healthy worship experience that by some definitions would be a sort of new form of traditional worship. Actually, I have grown tired of the word traditional and all the battles fought using that term, that we now define our worship as hymn-based and leave it at that. We’ve enjoyed steady numerical growth into our church from all age groups, but predominantly from baby boomers and now their adult children, who of course, bring their young children. This, at a time when popular church models have suggested that this age group prefers a more contemporary worship service. So, it can’t be said that one form over another form is attracting new church members!
We began the search for our church’s worship style with prayer because we can never forget that it is God’s people we are working with. Based on what we felt God’s leadership to be, and as a result of our own worship experiences, we began developing a worship service for His people that we felt would honor God and reach people.
Some of the decisions and conclusions we reached are as follows: • We had no intention of discarding hundreds of years of hymnody just because the latest commentary said it was old fashioned.
• We’d keep a fresh treatment of hymns, but make the music relevant without compromising the hymn for the sake of fleeting musical tastes. We present hymns as if they are brand new. (Remember, to many people, they are new!)
• Modulations (including “pseudo modulations”), orchestral accompaniments, instrumental soloists, organ and piano introductions and re-harmonization’s, new tempos, choral and orchestral descants, vocal soloists and ensembles, and a host of
what I call “hymn tricks” help bring the congregation actively into the worship experience through the singing of these timeless treasures. • The energy level of our opening hymn is crucial and sets the pace for the rest of the service. It has to be upbeat and almost overwhelming. Not only does this establish a sort of cathartic release for those gathered in the one place to worship, but it models Isaiah 6. It is our own form of smoke and trembling temple walls.
• There are new hymnals coming out almost every year. Each hymnal attempts to connect a new audience with older hymns by not only including the older hymns, but also sprinkling in newer hymns and choruses. Just like with the countless hymnals that have gone before, we use what we can and what speaks to our people focusing on doing the best we can to present it to our people in worship.
I describe my worship planning this way: a “skeleton” has been created (basic worship format) and which is then “fleshed out” differently each week. Our worshipers come expecting a certain familiarity (tradition) in the service, along with a sense of expectancy because they know it will be presented differently each week. The service is fast paced without feeling manic, or produced. Yes, our choir and orchestra “perform” but not in the secular sense. They present music vicariously for our congregation—singing/playing instruments on their behalf. Whenever the congregation and join in on a selection, we make a point to do just that. Our goal is to make sure each person is a part of the worship – not a bystander observing a performance by those on stage.
Musicians in Worship Leadership:
1. Engage your congregation and for Pete’s sake, smile and if you can’t smile, look pleasant while you lead worship! Look like you are happy they are there and that they are participating. If you look somber and bored, don’t expect a lot of excitement about singing.
2. Keep the tempos up. Nothing kills good singing like singing too slow. Just because it’s a hymn doesn’t mean it needs to be sung like a dirge.
3. Don’t slow down final phrases of each stanza. There is an obligatory pull of about 5% off the tempo to give the cadence time to, well, be a cadence. But if you slow too much, each following stanza will continue to get slower.
4. Speaking of musical introductions, don’t let the introducing instrument (piano, organ, orchestra, accordion, whatever), drag that last phrase of the introduction down or you’ll spend the next four or more measures trying to get the tempo back—only to be dragged down at the end of each stanza. Keep it upbeat—even contemplative hymns needs to have a sense of forward motion.
5. Sing/play/lead the hymn like it’s the newest, hottest thing to hit worship. Treat it like it’s new because, trust me, to someone in your congregation, it IS new. If you treat it like, “sing it if you must…it’s JUST a hymn,” then don’t be surprised if they do just that.
6. Each and every stanza MUST be different in timbre or dynamic. The orchestra can play strings/woodwinds on stanza two, brass/percussion on stanza three, all on stanzas one and four. Or stanza two has woodwinds/strings play until the refrain then brass/percussion join on refrain. Stanza two can be mezzo-forte, but stanza three uses
more intimate language so let’s pull it back to mezzo-piano. On and on it goes. Never, ever let each stanza sound alike. The instructions are written out ON the hymn sheet the orchestra plays from so they know exactly what to do on each stanza. We have rehearsal on Sunday mornings for the orchestra and usually practice and/or just work our way through what is expected to make sure there is no confusion. 7. The organ and piano are not exempt from coloring each stanza. Their volume and style needs to be creative for each stanza as well. The organist must determine how to be another instrument on stage and not the biggest gun in the room, just blaring away and covering up any and all instruments (and voices!) on the stage. Select stops and settings that complement the sounds of the orchestra, not duplicate them. We have about 25-30 in the orchestra on any given Sunday and they not only deserve but need to be heard. The organist must be a team player.
8. Stop preaching (rambling on and on, usually) before you sing. Get out of the way of worship. So many congregations are getting their attention focused on God and up pops the music minister putting it back on him/her by talking the hymn setup to death. Have an appropriate sentence, announce the hymn (with or without the number—I never announce numbers since they are printed), and sing. The introduction to the first hymn in our church starts the moment the pastor says “amen” to his opening prayer. I gesture the congregation to stand and off we go. Why would I feel the need to speak? Let the music speak for itself.
9. Add your own observations to this list. Determine how to make the congregational singing in your church the most important musical element of the service. Not the anthem. Not the offertory, or prelude or postlude. Set that as a goal and see what it takes to elevate the people’s voices in worship and you’ll have a noble goal to work toward each week.
Some Concluding Observations:
1. We are in a society that is constantly changing at a faster pace than at any other time in history. A weekly worship service that has stability and continuity to it and yet holds surprises, fills a need for today’s Christian who is desperately in need of a safe place.
2. We do all we can to NOT embarrass those who worship together. What does that mean? We do not try to introduce a new song/chorus/hymn every week and have people fumbling around trying to catch on. Many times worship leaders turn the introduction of a new song into a format to show off their performing skills. A lot of planning has to go into introducing something new so that the worshipers are brought along carefully. Otherwise it begins to look like corporate singing has turned into yet another performance that they are sort of invited to participate in.
3. The mandate to worship God is at the heart of our relationship with God. Though given basic principles and examples of worship in scripture, there is a reason why a clearly defined worship service is absent from scripture. I think it falls along the same reason why there are no known relics from Jesus left behind: we would worship the relic of our Savior more than the Savior Himself. Our recourse is to seek God’s will for each local church based on the principles of worship found in scripture. Whether your worship style is traditional, blended contemporary, or whatever, the bottom line remains the same: is true worship taking place? If not, why?
Leaders of traditional worship honor the past by drawing on all the creativity we can muster to further explore and build on the rich history, heritage, and depth of worship in the local church. Hymns are reborn through a creative presentation each week, requiring much work and preparation. The failure point of traditional worship has typically been the practice of repeating last week’s success while failing to reach out with fresh ideas for next week’s worship experience. Some people would just call that being lazy.
I have long stated, almost weekly, to my church musicians that God sees our heart long before He hears our music. What is He hearing each week from the planning you have put into the worship service you have planned? Whatever style of your worship may be, please do not ridicule or mock other worship styles just because you go another direction. I’m completely satisfied with the style of worship I lead in my church. We have a growing congregation who appreciates the impact of hymns in worship and we work hard to keep it fresh and engaging. And although I may have opinions about other styles–and I do–I make a point to keep them to myself and do whatever I can to make the style that I lead the very best it can be.
Our standard for excellence is pretty high: “And whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Colossians 3:17.