Making a hymn…”Special!”

photo-greatisthyfaithfulnessWe have all heard “special music” that was not…special!

He sat on the front row, awkwardly attired in a white, v-neck t-shirt. Anxious about his monthly “special music” slot, his contribution awaited him. His name was called, thus beginning a very awkward, yet consistent trip to the pulpit. He had known for a number of weeks that he was to provide the special music, yet strangely the Spirit would only breathe upon him on his travels between the front pew and the pulpit!

He would grab the ole’ red standard Church Hymnal and peruse its pages. Arriving at the sacred desk, he would suggest that he did not yet know what song he was to provide but that we should pray for him that the Lord would guide him. Some prayed, others slept, and me…I was annoyed!

He normally arrived at the same one or two songs, and I am sure that he did what he knew to do, and to mention, he was allowed to do it. Some church atmospheres provide for such spontaneity and unpreparedness. However, if you believe that the Lord deserves better and that we ourselves are capable of more for God’s glory, please keep reading.

My question is this: how DO YOU make a hymn special?

I love the singing of hymns. When they are properly led to the congregation, incorporated into the choir’s repertoire, played as instrumentals for the offertory, or sung as solos or with special groups, no other musical genre has the spiritual resume as do the hymns! They are our heritage set to music. They are our creeds set to treble and bass. They are the biography of the last half millennia’s greatest saints.

Thank you for loving them, too. Thank you for singing them. Thank you for extending them to the next generation. What we need to ensure, then, is that we sing them with the energy, passion, and power that they deserve. Dry, dusty, lifeless hymns are great for doctrine, but you can cross your T’s and dot all of your I’s and still, through the absence of power, create a hunger and thirst for contemporary, strange-fire worship in your church.

Let them live!

Consider the following suggestions to add life to your singing of hymns:

Some songs deserve to be left alone

There are hymns that we sing that are timeless. Their spiritual resumes gleam with gospel light. Offering hope in despair and pointing to Calvary, God has blessed them for centuries. Spice them up, but do your best to leave them alone.

Recently, I traveled to Georgia to record my second recording of hymns. I chose as the last selection Amazing Grace. To me, Newton’s song is timeless. Recognized by people around the world, I sought to record it in such that paid respect to it in its originality. It deserves to be left alone. You may change melodies from time-to-time, but please be careful with the “greats.”

Learn to Interpret the Story

It has been a passion and drive of mine for many years to know as much as I can regarding the writers of the hymns and their personal stories. Knowing these helps me to interpret the song.

A soloist is, for all intents and purposes, a musical storyteller who paints a word picture through music. Their face, hands, and heart convey a message. Face connects to face, hand-to-hand, and heart-to-heart. It is not just that the congregation knows that the singer believes it; rather, the congregation is led to believe it, too!

Ask the Lord to deliver you from yourself. Be free to be real! For many years I sang in a prison of my own making, wanting to be more expressive but failing. Singing with a continuously flowing highlighter, everything was power. Looking back, what many of those songs needed was a voice that matched the message.

When singing Come Thou Fount, I personally identify with Mr. Robinson, whose third verse describes his Christian experience, therefore we should sing earnestly, “Prone to wonder, Lord! I feel it! Prone to leave the God I love!”

The greatest soloists you will ever hear may not have the greatest voices but have learned to tell the story of their songs!

Minor keys

In keeping with the idea of interpretation, the use of minor keys can be wonderfully incorporated. Obviously, the skill and preparation time of the pianist is variable, but the masterful use of the minor key can add great emphasis to your number.

Certain verses have that uncertain, eery, mysterious feeling.

“Does Jesus care when I’ve said ‘Goodbye’ to the dearest on earth to me?”

“Lord, whence are those blood-drops all the way, that mark out the mountain’s track? ‘They were shed for one who had gone astray, ere’ the Shepherd would bring him back.’
Lord, whence are thy hands so rent and torn? ‘They’re pierced tonight by many a thorn’.”

“See from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down. Did ere’ such love and sorrow meet? Or thorns compose so rich a crown?”

Consider the use of the organ or the violin for these minor verses as well. They seem to paint mysterious hues to greater affect.

A cappella

Sometimes, we have to sing it like they did in the days of old! Mr. Spurgeon’s gospel tabernacle was not filled with the sounds of instruments. He said, “What a degradation to supplant the intelligent song of the whole congregation by the theatrical prettinesses of a quartette, the refined niceties of a choir, or the blowing off of wind from inanimate bellows and pipes! We might as well pray by machinery as praise by it.” He stated further, “Praise the Lord with harp. Men need all the help they can get to stir them up to praise. This is the lesson to be gathered from the use of musical instruments under the old dispensation. Israel was at school, and used childish things to help her to learn; but in these days, when Jesus gives us spiritual manhood, we can make melody without strings and pipes. We who do not believe these things to be expedient in worship, lest they should mar its simplicity, do not affirm them to be unlawful.”

While I do not agree with his conclusion entirely, I agree with his emphasis on the human voice. Quoting the 33rd Psalm, he said, “Sing unto Him. This is the sweetest and best of music. No instrument like the human voice. As a help to singing the instrument is alone to be tolerated, for keys and strings do not praise the Lord.”

There is something natural, raw, and freeing in the absence of accompaniment. We should place the emphasis on the spoken word.

In my experience, a cappella works tremendously well in congregational song leading and amongst singers with relatively good pitch. Some singers tend to go flat, eliminating their ability to be effective, particularly in singing lead, or the melody, in a small group. That can be disastrous!

Number of verses

Straightforward, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus…may not be special! Effectively combine verses or eliminate others. With a few exceptions, specifically stories that tell a story in which case you must sing them all, most songs have a verse that can be eliminated when sung in special music.

I worked for a pastor who limited the number of verses to three and the number of choruses to two. This is not to suggest that you adopt the same rule; rather, it is to suggest you take each song as its own entity and consider how to make it most effective.

Minor adjustment to the timing

When I was a child, I spake as a child, and I understood as a child, but when I became a man, I became a…soloist! Hymns were written for use in congregational settings where structure is paramount; singing them individually gives you the flexibility to personalize. Let’s be honest: some of our hymns were written centuries ago, and their rugged and rigid rhythm are much more marshall than we would write them or sing them today. I am not suggesting that we shelf them. Rather, I am suggesting that you can sing and play them less rigidly, giving them a freshness that does not violate their character or the author who wrote them.

Combine two songs with a similar theme

I love medleys, and I have come to realize that one song may be the key to unlock another one. Such connections may be found in the last phrase of one and the first phrase of the other. For instance, “Yes, Jesus love me, the Bible tells me so…..I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene, and wonder how He could love me, a sinner condemned unclean!”

Choose a song that is right for you

There are many songs that are great, but they may not all be great for you. Some songs are given to male or female voices, while other hymns need more power, lending themselves to those with fuller voices. Also, hymns tend to have a natural range appropriate to their lyrics and music. Lowering many of them will kill their inherent power. Song selection is 75% of singing. Argue the percentage but not the point!

If you like hymns now, you may discover a great love for them in incorporating these ideas and those of your own. God gave us music, and our ministry is to return that gift to Him with our very best. Selah!

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