Yesterday I wrote extensively about the preparations for choosing music for worship, along with many of the resources I use for finding hymns and discovering new ones. So much of the legwork that goes into choosing music happens before you even pick up a hymnal, and if that’s done well, choosing the hymns and songs themselves don’t take long at all.
It’s these fundamentals of scriptural study and resource exploration that the Spirit uses to guide our worship planning and music selection.
So you’ve studied the scriptures, spent some time with your hymnal and other resources, and you think you’ve found a hymn that you think will fit with the scripture and theme. The first thing you do is read it through in its entirety.
I’m going to repeat this because it’s so important. Read it entirely. Every stanza, every line.
I can’t say it enough: Every. Single. Stanza.
Say you read the first stanza and it sounds good. The second one sounds good too, and you scan the last one and it looks fine, then okay– that’s good enough… but there’s a bombshell in the middle stanza that you didn’t read, and you don’t find out until the congregation is singing it on Sunday morning. Maybe it was written in the 1930s and that middle stanza has some serious gender issues. Maybe you only read the first couple of stanzas and in the final stanza or two, the hymn veers off course into an entirely different topic. Maybe you chose the hymn I wrote about the other day and thought the first stanza looked good, and didn’t bother reading the others 🙂
Gee, it sounds like I’ve made this mistake before… haha. Yes. Be better than me, learn from my mistake rather than making it yourself 🙂
Just as important as reading the entire text is singing through the entire melody. Is it one your congregation knows? Is it hard? Is it really high? If it is, but you really want to use the text, use the metrical index and see if there’s a better tune in that meter that you can pair with that text instead. For a primer on how to use the metrical index, see this past post.
The final consideration is song placement within the service. Is the choir and pastoral staff processing into the sanctuary during the first hymn? If so, that first hymn can’t be a dirge, as it has to send them into the church. Also, in a practical matter, it has to be long enough to get everyone up to the front, so how long is the aisle? How fast do they walk? How many stanzas are there? Can your organist improvise on the melody if it ends before everyone makes it up there?
The middle hymn/song doesn’t have to process anyone, so we have some freedom with the style. Is it before or after the sermon– will it set up the sermon, or is it a musical commentary on what has been preached? The final hymn/song sends the congregation into the world, so its purpose is to sum up the scripture and teachings in a practical way that the people of God can take with them when they leave.
Well, do you think that’s enough to consider? 🙂 Yes, there’s a lot to take into account, but when all of this comes together in a worship service, it can be an absolutely profound experience.
I’d like to share an example of a hymn from the worship I was a part of a couple of weeks ago. I don’t think there could be a more perfect hymn to tie in all of the different elements of that worship service.
It was Sunday, June 28th, about one month after Pentecost. The sermon title was “A Redemptive Word for the Marginalized,” and the scriptural focus was Mark 5:21-43, which includes the woman who knew that if she touched Jesus’ cloak, she would be healed, along with the synagogue leader Jairus, who begged Jesus to heal his dying/dead daughter.
The psalm reading of the day was Psalm 130:
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.
If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.
The first hymn of the day was Wesley’s “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” which was Charles Wesley’s poetic response to his conversion experience, and is a thorough praise of every aspect of Jesus’ redemptive love.
The two choir anthems were Rollo Dilworth’s “Witness for My Lord,” and “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” by Donald Busarow; the final hymn was “Only Trust Him.”
Working from this information, it seems that the worship was focused around the trust in Jesus’ power that comes from faith in Him, and the call to praise and worship that naturally results from that faith.
These hymns and anthems support this worship theme– the trust in God that leads to our call to worship and serve Him, through our faith in Jesus and His Word. But it was the middle hymn that was the most profound embodiment of this concept.
This hymn is one that’s known to this particular congregation, but it may not be well-known to others. Written by Daniel Charles Damon in 1989, “I Have Called You by Your Name” is a profound treatment of the complexity of the call, and of our response of praise and worship in our faith.
I have called you by your name, you are mine;
I have gifted you and ask you know to shine.
I will not abandon you; all my promises are true.
You are gifted, called, and chosen; you are mine.
I will help you learn my name as you go;
read it written in my people, help them grow.
Pour the water in my name, speak the word your soul can claim,
offer Jesus’ body given long ago.
I know you will need my touch as you go;
feel it pulsing in creation’s ebb and flow.
Like the woman reaching out, choosing faith in spite of doubt,
hold the hem of Jesus’ robe, then let it go.
I have given you a name, it is mine;
I have given you my Spirit as a sign.
With my wonder in your soul, make my wounded children whole;
go and tell my precious people they are mine.
The obvious reason for this hymn’s appropriateness in this worship service is the mention in stanza 3 of the woman touching Jesus’ robe from the passage in Mark. But let’s look deeper.
Stanza 1, third line: “I will not abandon you,” supports the plea in Psalm 130 for God to listen to our cries, and the assertion that we will be faithful as we put our whole trust and hope in God.
Pentecost Sunday was just a month previous, so at this point in the church year, we’re still considering the work of the Spirit in the world, though it’s not the central focus of worship. Stanza 4 alludes to Pentecost, “I have given you my Spirit as a sign,” in a way that reminds us how recently Pentecost had been, but rather than making the Spirit the central focus of the hymn, it speaks to the Spirit in relation to how the Spirit’s sign is a mark that God has called and chosen us for God’s work in the world.
Throughout the hymn are lines that tell us God has chosen us and that He sends us; we can identify with Jairus and the woman in the passage of Mark as we sing the final lines: “With my wonder in your soul, make my wounded children whole.” God’s transformative power is truly awe-inspiring, filling our souls with wonder and joy, and because we are “gifted, called, and chosen,” we can “go and tell my precious people they are mine.”
In this worship service, the two bookend hymns along with the two choral anthems address specific aspects of the worship theme. We’re called to witness to our faith experiences in the Dilworth anthem; we witness specifically with God’s Word in the Busarow anthem; we praise all that we have learned of Jesus through our experiences with the Spirit and the Word through Wesley’s hymn, and we commit to only trusting Him in the final hymn.
In just 4 stanzas, this hymn, “I Have Called You By Your Name” interconnects these pieces of music, along with the fundamental theme of the Psalm reading, the scripture in Mark upon which the sermon was based, and the season of the church year.
It’s a remarkable hymn, but even more– it’s an example of a very skillful selection for the worship service, and of the power that the right hymn has to tie together all of the different worship elements, but most importantly— to illuminate the Scripture and teachings when doing so. Identifying and incorporating hymns such as this one is a skill that one gets better at with practice, as we discover and learn new hymns, as we become more mature in our personal faith, more fluent in the nuances of how worship ties together, and as we better know our congregation, pastoral staff and worship planning team.
Through practice we also get better at listening to the Spirit’s guidance of our worship planning, just as practice helps us hear God’s direction in our personal lives. Just like the hymn tells us, God has called us, gifted us, and uses us to spread the Good News of His love to the world, using our study and work to guide our worship planning so that it speaks to His people.