Hymns in Worship

In our second week of looking deeper at our overall treasure of hymnody, we explore hymns in worship, the hymn's most natural setting.  In worship the hymn becomes an instrument of corporate devotion.  To help understand the hymn's function in worship, its helpful to think of worship as a drama, as suggested by the Danish theologian, Soren Kirkegaard.

Our general pattern of worship emerges from a dramatic dialogue. The principal actors are the people of the congregation, aided and equipped by its leaders of worship.  Our drama is often scripted with its structure and sequence based upon God's dialogical encounter with God's people.  This drama is encapsulated in time and space limits of worship, but actually continues into our individual daily lives throughout the week.  We are active participants in the work (service) of worship.  Our principal audience is God.  God hears and accepts prayers and praise offered and responds.  Priests, the minister of music, and choirs are prompters in this drama - enablers of worship, guiding the congregation through its work of worship well in the presence of God, as they stand as participants, as well.  This two-way conversation between God and God's people with given pattern and sequence is one through which the Spirit of God has been pleased to act throughout history. 

With this understanding of worship, it is easy to see the place of hymnody in worship and the variety of ways in which they function.  Hymns help people say what they want to, or should say at specific places in the liturgy.  It is the job of worship leaders to accurately, intelligently, and sensitively select these for worship.

Hymns are never regarded as musical breaks for physical or mental relaxation, to relieve boredom, or cover awkward pauses, or to function as traveling music.  They are to express another biblical idea.  Hymn singing is offering a sacrifice of praise and prayer, one that requires the commitment of body, sprit, mind and voice.

+ Hymns depict the holiness, power and majesty of God
   Holy, Holy, HolyImmortal, InvisibleAll hail the power of Jesus' name

+ Hymns are used to give a corporate response, recognizing human weakness and sin, and
   ask for forgiveness.  They are used to express penitence and confession:
  Beneath the cross of JesusWhen I survey the wondrous crossSavior, like a shepherd   lead us

+ Hymns express God's forgiveness and renewal:
  I heard the voice of Jesus sayForgive our sins as we forgive, or the incredible hymn
  There's a wideness in God's mercy)

+ Hymns give utterance to commitment and dedication of life
   O Jesus, I have promisedTake my life and let it be

+ Hymns help proclaim the larger drama of Christian church year.  They reinforce the mighty acts of God in Christ and the church, the redemption story of humankind.  These hymns are such as our Christmas, Epiphany, Lenten, Holy Week and Easter hymns.

+ Hymns also serve as prayer, invocation and benediction in our service.  I am sure there are other ways, too.

When we sing hymns together, it is the congregation, not the choir and the organist, that has the largest and most direct part.  The hymn is the church singing corporately in praise of God, and not just the worshipper "taking part" in the service.  Every person is included in this work of singing praise.  John Wesley famously exhorted in his directions on singing:

"Sing all.  See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can.  Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you.  If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing."

The famous children's choir trainer Helen Kemp used to say, "Body, mind, spirit, voice: it takes the whole person to sing and rejoice".   I remember one particular story she told about how she always talked with her choristers about the upcoming hymns in rehearsals.  And that before each service during the prelude she would encourage her choristers to silently read the text of the hymns again they would sing in worship.  For this not only helped them prepare their hearts and minds for worship, but helped them move towards a singing with understanding also.   

May this be so for us, too.  May we sing in worship with our body, mind, spirit and voice.  Whether skilled or not!  And, may you find renewed meaning and understanding in the hymns we sing, and the ways in which they help us offer our corporate devotion, our sung praises and prayer to God in worship.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Ben Keseley, Minister of Music