To say hymns will produce healthy congregational singing is a little like saying a spade will produce a healthy garden. The spade will not do all the work or avoid all the difficulties, but one will get along better with it than with a coffee spoon. A hymn is simply an apparatus that one uses to obey Scripture’s mandates for congregational singing. We may hope, by this stage, the reader has seen why it is still the most useful apparatus for that end. Like all types of apparatus, however, it may be used unwisely and thereby rendered less useful. Holding the blade-end of a spade and digging with the handle is a quick way to be put off using it. There’s nothing as sure to make hymn-singing fail as bad hymn-singing. Once it has failed, its replacement, even by a less useful form, will be welcomed as a blessed relief. In this section we address some of the practical problems that can still arise, even when using this better form of congregational song.
The reader will remember that in both Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 the singing is done by a plural “you” to a plural “you.” This is best accomplished in an acoustical space designed for such a purpose—a space in which everyone in the room can hear everyone else in the room while they sing. Professional acousticians may understand what such a room would be like. For the rest of us, it is perhaps easier to see this by contrast. Consider the modern (or even ancient) amphitheater. In order to hear the speakers on the stage, distant as they are from the audience in the back, the space is shaped to reflect and amplify sounds made on the stage and minimize the ambient sounds made by the audience itself. A concert hall in which the cough of an audience member is as present as the first violinist’s melody is not a very good concert hall. What makes for bad concert halls makes for good sanctuaries. Here, as with the song itself, a different purpose begs for a different form. As a generalization, the ideal space for congregational singing will be longer than it is wide. This configuration brings most voices and ears close enough to a sidewall to benefit from its reflective properties. It also positions as many congregants as possible directly in the path of as many voices as possible. This is important because the greatest concentration of sound energy from the human voice is projected forward.
A church at liberty to build a sanctuary from scratch would do well to hire an acoustician, explain to him their sonic goals, and solicit his advice. He will design and arrange walls and ceiling to avoid problematic flutter echoes, hot spots, and dead spots. A church that emphasizes the preached word in its liturgy may naturally be inclined to prioritize the acoustical requirements of preaching over the acoustical requirements of congregational singing, but this is a mistake. Any difficulty in projecting a preacher’s voice can be remedied through an electronic sound amplification system. This cannot be done for the congregation’s voices.
At this point, however, most readers have shelved such advice beside the cloud castle for which it is the blueprint. For most of us, rebuilding the sanctuary with congregational acoustics in mind is an impossibility. Nevertheless, small measures can be and are taken by congregations interested in hearing one another while they sing. Principal among these is to avoid carpet on the floor and padding on the pews, since these absorb sound, whereas hard surfaces reflect it. The more reflected sound, the more likely every congregant is to hear himself and his neighbors. Consider how, as the renowned church musician Austin Lovelace observed, “the person who joyfully sings in the shower becomes muted and embarrassed when asked to sing in a funeral-parlor atmosphere.” Having as many hard surfaces as possible located as close as possible to congregants is especially critical for sanctuaries with high ceilings or ceilings made of soft material such as absorptive acoustical ceiling tile. Unpadded pews and hard floors can be visually beautiful and need not be uncomfortable: most congregants willingly sit in less comfortable places for longer stretches of time at sporting events.
Walls of masonry, wood paneling, or uneven plaster work better than does drywall. Irregular surfaces distribute sound evenly through space, whereas smooth walls can produce undesirable effects: standing waves, amplification of certain frequencies, and other distortions.
Of course, the very posture of the congregant can also help to make his voice audible to the rest of the congregation. Pastors can encourage their congregations, both by instruction and example, to sing with their heads lifted up (like the “gates” of Psalm 24). Given the advantage of such a posture, the reader might wonder why we discourage the use of projected lyrics, since using them should certainly force a congregation to look up while singing. As with all adoptions of technology—whether the printed word or Power Point—the format brings advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps we might be permitted to address some of the disadvantages that come with projected lyrics and leave the reader to decide whether those outweigh the advantages.
The first drawback to projection is the all-but-impossibility of providing music as well as text. One may wonder why it matters, given the mnemonic nature of hymns and their relative ease of acquisition, that a congregation can read music. Surely they will memorize the songs soon enough and then no longer need the music anyhow. This is obviously true, but there are several benefits to a musically literate congregation. The first is that such a congregation can take on more, and more difficult, repertoire. Even in congregations with limited musical literacy, the visual prompt of the melody’s contour printed in the hymnal is often sufficient to remind a congregant of how a tune—one perhaps not sung very frequently—goes. This relates to the second benefit of musical literacy: congregational confidence. When a congregant knows exactly how a tune goes, he is more likely to sing it with conviction even without the prompt of the piano or organ. The tune becomes his own. He is no longer singing along, he is simply singing.
Certainly, some might rightly point out that merely using hymnals with tunes included will not in itself create musically literate congregants any more than a plane will create a pilot. Yes, but there are no pilots without planes and there are no musically literate congregations without hymnals. We would do well not to contribute to our own regression here by removing a necessary tool.
Hymnals present the entirety of a song to the congregant. The singer can read ahead while the piano plays the introduction. While singing, the singer can read ahead at his own pace to think about the text before he comes to it. The singer can quickly reconsider a text he has just sung before moving on to the next line, or he can even consider it more thoughtfully after the song has finished but before the next element of worship begins. Indeed, the singer can, in the privacy of his own home, take his own copy of the hymnal and read through it at whatever pace he likes. When texts are projected, the singer must progress at whatever rate the Power-Point operator decides—usually one related only to the tempo of the music, not the density of the text itself. He cannot return to ideas already sung, and he cannot—unless he has a copy of the text and tune—consider the song in private.
There have been churches who abandon hymnals because of their foreignness in our contemporary culture. The idea that pages of paper imprinted with words and music and bound between boards strike the eye of many moderns as foreign we are not prepared either to defend or dispute. For that, you would need a sociologist. If such an object proves the more useful for accomplishing the goals set out for us in Scripture, we need just that object. That the modern man spends more time reading from screens than from paper is perhaps verifiable. The same man spends almost no time singing, and certainly no time singing corporately, outside of the walls of the sanctuary. If he is going to take on such a foreign affair as congregational singing, we might as well give him an adequate tool for the job, instead of equipping him with a handful of words at a time, and asking him to make a song of it. The reader will perhaps have a sense for the difference if he takes out a copy of a long and unfamiliar poem and a piece of blank paper. Place the paper so that it covers all of the poem but a single line. Then read the poem, one line at a time, moving the paper only to reveal the next line. Try this in front of an audience (perhaps one with children in it) and see the effect. Now try the same process without the piece of paper. The difference will be clear enough.
It may be apparent, however, that in this discussion we have created a false dualism whereas reality offers a multiplicity of options. The choice is not either tune-less projected lyrics, offered a couple of lines at a time, or a sturdily bound hymnal with full tune and text. There are endless intermediary options, though for the purposes of illustration we will mention only two. All of them, it seems, fall between two stools, and the reader will be able to see how this is the case from these two examples. Any attempts at projecting the full music and text of a hymn on a single slide will leave older eyes straining and create a problem easily solved by a hymnal. Printing the full text of the words on a bulletin insert still removes from the congregation any tool for making sense of the tune and it is, in the long run, more financially burdensome than a one-time investment in hymnals.
Part of the genius of Protestant catechesis is that it puts books in the hands of laymen. The church has a vested interest in seeing to it that her members are comfortable with books. Decisions of this kind have a small—but real—influence on the culture of the church. Will it be a throw-away culture of bulletin inserts? Or will it be a literate culture that appreciates well edited and designed books? A people distracted from pulpit, sacrament, cross, and community by a glaring light? Or a people who, during familiar stanzas, are able to look up from their books to see something beautiful with the eyes of their hearts, without the coercive draw of an illuminated screen?
In summary, hymnbooks promote a rudimentary grasp of musical notation that is a huge aid to congregational singing. It can be argued that they are more reliable, easier to use, and lovelier than screens. Above all, they foster the kind of reflective engagement with texts that should be habitual to people of the Book.
But which hymnal should one choose? All hymnals are documents of compromise. The publishers of these books have it in their best interest to include a repertoire that will be beloved by as many congregations as possible. Editors are charged with the task of selecting and emending (and often abbreviating) hymn texts to suit certain doctrinal or poetic tastes and to alleviate certain practical concerns. In the real world of hymnal publishing, then, there are all sorts of editorial criteria that compete with those of biblical richness, poetic beauty, and congregational idiom. Therefore, church leaders responsible for evaluating hymnals must read through them to determine which hymnal includes the best hymns, the best versions of those hymns (including text and tune pairing), and the fewest bad hymns. They will prove some of the best spent hours of these leader’s ministries, if in this way their flocks are supplied with enough great hymns for the word of Christ to dwell richly. A hymnal with the wrong kind of hymns, on the other hand, will stifle hearty worship at every turn and encourage sentimentalism, aestheticism, bad doctrine, worldliness, boredom, and—in a nutshell—disobedient worship.
There is a kind of exuberance a boy knows when he receives his first pocketknife, perhaps one with many blades and tools attached. So happy is he to have at his disposal—indeed, in his own pocket—such an abundance of tools that he feels the need to use every one of them as often as opportunity affords. After a little while, he realizes that a full-sized screwdriver really does work better than the thin attachment that comes with his knife and that the corkscrew attachment cannot really live up to its full potential in the context of his seven-year-old cuisine. A church that purchases a hymnal is often a bit like such a boy. It sees at its disposal sometimes as many as seven hundred hymns and, ever frugal, wishes to get its money’s worth out of the book. But to sing all seven hundred is to make the mistake of the boy with his gadget. The hymnal cannot do everything and there may be some items in it that cannot do anything. The first thing to do, with the hymnal as with the pocketknife, is to figure out what is useful and what is not. You did not buy a hymnal so that it can foist upon you songs you know are no good to sing. But even at this point, some further sifting may be required because the average congregation has both a limited memory and a threshold for repetition.
If a congregation sings a song once and then doesn’t sing it again for three years, the “word of Christ” in that song will not “dwell richly in them.” This is a neurological certainty. We remember our boss’s phone number, though he may have changed it only two months ago, because we dial it twice a week. But we cannot remember the phone number of our family dentist, whom we have called twice-yearly since we were in our early twenties. The one, we have called only sixteen times and the other almost sixty. The important ingredient to memory, in congregational song as elsewhere, is not bare repetition but frequency. To accomplish such frequency, a congregation must use fewer hymns and repeat them more often. This will mean that some hymns cannot be used, not because they are bad, but because there is only so much time in the week for congregational singing.
If, on the other hand, the congregation sings the same twenty songs on a four-per-week rotation they will exhaust these songs and eventually stop thinking about what it is they are singing. This, while not a neurological certainty, may be described as a sociological likelihood. Indeed, the concern that weekly repetition leads to vain repetition has been the cause of a great deal of excision (whether prudently or imprudently) from the liturgy of most evangelical churches. More importantly, with a very narrow repertoire, the word of Christ cannot dwell, in one sense, “richly” in us. With scarcity comes poverty. Congregations need to sing enough songs so that they have a robust range of biblical truth but not so many songs as to make it impossible to know intimately the songs they sing each Sunday.
The best way to calculate an appropriate repertoire size is to think about the frequency at which songs will re-appear in congregational worship. With four hymns in a Sunday service, a repertoire of two hundred hymns would give you different songs for every Lord’s Day of the year. With the same number of hymns per service, but a repertoire of only 120 hymns, the congregation will repeat most of its hymns within the year. Of course, it is prudent to have some of those hymns repeat more frequently than others. One instance of this is at the introduction of a new song.
In a congregation made up of people with varying degrees of literacy, some of whom struggle to read the newspaper and hardly any of whom read poetry, the first attempt at a hymn will not likely be, in and of itself, good obedience to Colossians 3:16 or Ephesians 5:19. Most people will have very little sense for what the text really says, and what little sense they do have of it might be lost in the struggle to figure out how the tune goes. To justify this activity at all, one must plan on making that same hymn appear with enough regularity that it will, eventually, become something that the congregation can say with conviction to itself. Those who remember their foreign language study will recall that to build vocabulary, one does not work through the dictionary, learning a word at a time and only returning to the As once finished with the Zs. Instead, one learns a handful of words, returning to them and only them, until they are mastered.
As difficult as it is, however, congregations must learn new songs. Whatever the meaning of “new” in the countless Psalms that ask for a “new song,” there are prudential reasons for the singing of them. Adding new songs to a repertoire, when those new songs are learned thoroughly, is a way to enrich and expand the congregation’s teaching and admonition. It also allows congregants to consider different biblical truths from the ones they’ve been considering in their existing repertoire.
So challenging is this process of learning a new song, however, that it often leads to the habit of using the same tune for multiple texts. The initial appeal of this practice is obvious. When a congregation sings a new text to a tune it already knows, one of the major learning difficulties is overcome at the onset. The congregation can focus on the text right away without thinking about the tune. To see the problem with this approach, one must consider why it is that they need not think about the tune.
The familiar tune is so because of its original text. We would not remember the tune REGENT SQUARE even a third as much, did we not learn it first with the text of “Angels From the Realms of Glory.” When we use REGENT SQUARE with another text, we piggy-back off of the success of the familiar hymn for the sake of the unfamiliar one. Like all piggy-back rides, we tax the shoulders of the one on whom we ride. “Angels From the Realms of Glory” becomes less fixed in our mind when its mnemonic aid, REGENT SQUARE, is applied to some other text. The confidence we have in REGENT SQUARE is also shaken as we forget the text by which it first became familiar. The words of the new text begin to crowd in on “Angels From the Realms of Glory” and first a mishmash of poetry, and finally no poetry at all, remains in our minds.
More importantly, we must remember that the only reason we can use REGENT SQUARE in the first place is because (probably at a very young age) we learned it for the first time. But if we refuse to learn new tunes to match unfamiliar texts, we could easily find ourselves in the same situation as the American Church in the seventeenth century—with four or five tunes to serve several hundred different texts. And while this would make it very easy to sing to one another (eliminating the trouble of remembering how a tune goes) it would completely undermine the mnemonic nature of congregational song. At that point, we would be as well reading the text aloud.
Hymnal editors, in their efforts to make rich but under-used texts available, often set those texts to tunes made familiar through even better texts. What is one to do when a great hymn-text, one perfectly suited to the day’s Scripture lesson, appears in the hymnal to the tune of “Good King Wenceslas”? We have already demonstrated that, however many good hymns appear in any hymnal, we cannot wisely make them all a part of a congregation’s repertoire, simply because of the limited size of that repertoire. So we’ve just found another method for cutting down our list of seven hundred. Where hymnals use the same tune more than once, it seems the best procedure is to consider all the texts set to that tune and then pick the one most useful.
Admit that the average Christian, even from a hymn-singing congregation, sings hymns only in congregational worship, that congregational worship, for many, lasts only an hour, and of that hour less than a quarter is usually given to congregational song, and one can easily calculate that most congregants will be singing hymns for less than a quarter of a percent of their waking life. Put in this light, it is perhaps clear why congregational singing is no more successful than it is. People no longer sing to each other outside church, and ten minutes per week inside church cannot possibly suffice to establish and maintain a practice so counter-cultural. Indeed, much of the appeal of praise-and-worship churches may be that they typically sing significantly more (perhaps 20–25 minutes) than do traditional churches (perhaps 7–12 minutes). More singing results in more fluency. It’s not necessarily that attendees at these churches choose to worship where they do because they “like music” and thus gravitate to churches with more music. It’s that these churches, by singing so much, more effectively train their members to participate successfully. In order for congregational singing to thrive, it must be more frequent than two or three hymns per week.
How it is to become more frequent is a complicated matter. Sunday evening services and midweek prayer meetings would do the trick, but these are not as common as they once were. If congregants would sing hymns as part of their family worship, the activity of Sunday morning would be easier. Their doing so might be justified by Paul’s very diction in Colossians 3:16 where “dwell in you” is a translation of a Greek word whose root is “home.” Indeed, given the mnemonic purpose of congregational song, we might expect hymns to flit through our minds regularly during the week, making them easier to sing and more useful when we aren’t singing as a group.
Obviously, an increase in the number of hymns sung in a church’s services could have implications for the duration of those services. While the length of a Sunday service is circumscribed by more factors than we could address here, whatever the service’s length, it should have a significant proportion of it given over to congregational song. We have already observed that a congregation’s repertoire is limited on the upper end by their ability to learn hymns intimately. They learn these hymns by singing them regularly, and the more singing a congregation does, the more hymns it can reasonably use. A congregation that sings five hymns every Sunday can sustain a larger repertoire than one that sings only three. There are many reasons why church leadership might decide to sing fewer hymns each Sunday. Sometimes, in larger churches with thriving music programs, congregational singing is displaced by solos or choral anthems. While both technically fulfill Scripture’s requirement for Christians to teach and admonish one another in song, neither fulfill it completely in its requirement that we all do so to each other.
But if the congregation cannot meet more than once a week, and if no more of the service can be given over to congregational song, there are yet other options for increasing the congregation’s diet of singing. Special song-gatherings are common among some congregations and used to be more common still. Congregants bring covered dishes on Saturday afternoons, sing for an hour the hymns of their own selection, and then eat all the food. A quarterly or “fifth-Sunday” singing on a Sunday evening can also bolster the congregational interest in corporate song.
A common, but less successful approach is to have the congregation sing more songs but excise verses. The rationale is plausible—we could sing three entire hymns or five hymns omitting interior stanzas. The problem with this approach is that it ignores the way hymn stanzas relate to one another. Excising stanzas from hymns is often a sure way to end up with incomplete doctrine. Perhaps even more frequently, however, excision of stanzas deflates a hymn’s natural development. Usually ideas in good hymns build toward some sort of climactic ending. To jump from the first stanza to the last is to skip to the last page of the novel without reading the set-up—it is both anticlimactic and indulgent. Alternatively, we once attended a church that regularly omitted the last stanza of “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” The omission saved time, but it also perpetually left the congregation in the wilderness, never to “tread the verge of Jordan” or “land safe on Canaan’s side.”
Leading congregational song is unlike leadership in many senses. The captain of a sailing yacht is not likely, by calling out orders and directing his crew, to find himself suddenly the only man sailing the boat. In sailing, every crewman does a different job and consequently cannot pass his job off to the captain or even another member of the crew. But in congregational singing, everyone is doing the same job. When eight men set out to move a seemingly heavy table and find right away that only two were needed, the remaining six will sometimes walk along with the group, hands dutifully grasped to the table’s side, but they are no more moving it than they would be if they were grasping their coffee mugs instead of the table. If an organist, pianist, or music director begins to lead his congregation in such a way that the music seems to be going on well without the participation of every member of the congregation, the congregants will likely stop participating. A loud organ, piano, or instrumental ensemble, made up of what the other congregants will think of as “trained” musicians is likely to relieve congregants of their responsibility in the church’s song. This is not to say that the congregation will close its hymnals and stop singing. No one wants to be caught on a coffee break when he knows he should be working. But he will not be working in any real sense because he feels himself right away to be unnecessary to the song’s success. He can tell that he is bearing no weight. The song will continue on just fine even if he stops singing.
What may compound this problem is our own cultural familiarity with sing-along songs. The popular concert, where deafening speakers blast the performer’s music towards dutiful fans, is not a place devoid of group singing. Many of the fans are likely to be singing along with the performer. What makes this kind of singing different from ours is obvious. The fan is not only not a contributor to the music being made, he is completely irrelevant to it. He is not singing to someone else, nor is the music in any way dependent on him. It will carry on happily whether or not he sings. Indeed, this explains his willingness to do so. If the music were really dependent on him—were he invited on stage to sing in the performer’s own microphone—we might find him somewhat more reluctant to open his mouth. But just such dependence is central to congregational song where each one of us must sing to everyone else. A single voice lacking changes the entire communicative endeavor.
With this in mind, the best pianists, organists, music directors and small ensembles will be nearly invisible. For all practical purposes, they simply get out of the way of the congregation. Some congregations may even be able to do without any of these forms of musical leadership. Most of them will need some help maintaining tempo and pitch, as well as remembering the contour of the hymn-tune. Beyond that, congregants need help not so much to sing as to avoid not singing. Success, when achieved, will be measured by the reaction of the congregant sitting in the front row when his brother in Christ in the back row has to take a couple of lines off in order to clear his throat. If the first fellow notices the absence of the second fellow’s voice, the ideal situation has been created. If the piano or organ dominates the sound stanza after stanza, so that no one would notice if half of the room stopped singing, the dynamic is exactly wrong. It is wrong, of course, because we are to be listening to one another while at the same time we exhort one another in song. Similarly, any attention a congregant gives to a worship leader on a stage is that much less attention he can give to interpersonal communication, whether among congregants or with God. We understand why praise-and-worship music needs direction from visually prominent, microphoned singers, but this is utterly unnecessary for traditional hymn singing.
The problem outlined here is not always one created by from-the-front leadership. It can as easily be created by a couple of strong voices in the congregation. The problem is evidenced when, after the service, a timid old lady turns to one of these strong voices and says, “I love sitting in front of you and hearing you sing.” The kindness is genuine, but the problem is clear. The best thing, at this point, that the person with the strong voice can say is, “thank you, but I would have liked to hear you sing, too. I’ll try to keep it down a bit so that I can hear your voice next time.” Of course, this will likely mortify the old lady, but it will hopefully remind her of her duty not just to listen to others as they sing, but to sing to others as well. At the same time, it will remind the big voice of his duty, not only to sing to others but to listen to them as they sing.
From the front, there are only three kinds of leadership truly useful to traditional congregational singing: hymn selection, hymn accompaniment, and just a little encouragement from the pastor. First, pastors with the help of other responsible leaders can wisely determine the song repertoire. Second, accompanists can find the best tempo for each song according to the circumstances: fast enough so that rhythms come to life and that congregants can sustain the line between breaths, but slow enough so that congregants can articulate syllables and have time to mean what they sing. Except for hymn introductions and the occasionally majestic last stanza, accompanists should remain resolutely in the background. The best accompanists also study hymn texts ahead of time, so as to articulate the music according to the punctuation of the text. Third, pastors can encourage more zealous singing simply by pointing out especially meaningful passages in a hymn, showing how ideas in a hymn relate to the sermon or church calendar, or even encouraging congregants to sing more in their own homes. A church culture where hymns are often referenced and talked about is one where congregational song will be more successful.
 Austin C. Lovelace, “A Musician’s View: Good Acoustics for Music and Word” in Acoustics for Liturgy: A Collection of Articles of The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada, vol. 2 of Meeting House Essays (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1991), 28.
 Who has not been hampered in singing by a well-meaning but clumsy Power-Point operator who cycles through the text of a song inaccurately? The hopeless silence that falls over an entire congregation while the text adjusts (it first flits forward, then we hear an “oh dear, too far now,” then it turns backward, and we hear an “oh my, now we’ve gone too far in the other direction”) and then the scramble as the congregation—every man, woman, and child—tries to recover are completely avoidable. Certainly, when singing from hymnals, a reader can confusedly sing from the wrong stanza while scanning from the first line to the second, but this is a problem that affects only one member of the congregation at a time, not a problem that momentarily kills the whole congregation’s song.