Hymn books: what we’ve lost and gained.

blue hymn booksI’ve really enjoyed following some blog discussions about hymnals in recent weeks (which you can find at the end of this post). In the space of around 30 years most church congregations have moved away from using them at all. Those piles of well-thumbed and well-sung collections of hymns have disappeared from church foyers and from the experience of many church-goers. In fact, if you are under the age of twenty you may have no memories at all of singing from a hymn book.

Last night I pulled out my little, moth-eaten, blue hymnal at the dinner table.  My ‘elderly’ teenagers and twenty-year-old were bemused by the little tome. And while not entirely oblivious to the contents, they did find my rendition of the drawn out and repetitive phrase from “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” quite amusing: ‘And Crow… ow.. ow.. own Him! Crown Him! Crown Him! Crown Him and Crown Him Lord of All’. (Who said hymns were easy to sing, and not repetitive?)

Whenever there is a great cultural shift in the way something is done there will naturally be losses, and gains. (The internet itself is one giant case in point. While it allows me the opportunity to write and share with people on the other side of the world it can also distract me from giving good attention to the people under my roof!)

And of course we shouldn’t forget two things: the church has done without hymn books before – when people repeated or memorised the lyrics; and, the collection of hymns we have used in church in the last few hundred years are not actually the ones referred to in the Bible, in Ephesians 5:18-19. Those hymns and spiritual songs have been lost forever.

For me, the move away from hymn books has meant the loss of something tangible, a bound book of songs for the church, which have been agreed on and published for their value in helping us praise God, in spirit and truth. People could own or borrow a hymn book and look up songs and reflect on the lyrics. As a child who loved words, I spent many a Sunday service pouring over the hymn book (especially if the sermon was very long or over my head). I devoured both the poetry and theology they contained. They challenged me to learn new words and concepts about God. I was also fascinated by the names of the hymn writers and the years they lived, and wrote, as well as the number of hymns written by each person. This little blue book was something of a little Blue Box, bigger on the inside, and a portal to the rich history of the church for the past few centuries. (If you understand this Doctor Who reference, you may like to visit my old Blue Box Parables blog, on finding Christ in popular culture.)

While I have been brought up on hymns, (and learned to sing harmony because of them, and probably learned to read music from the hymn book on the piano at home) I am not mourning their loss. I have been part of the movement of change, and spent the last few decades looking for spiritual songs and hymns which will edify and teach us well. Alongside this new body of songs, most churches retain the ‘good old hymns’ in their repertoire, hymns that are biblical and continue to encourage people today. Modern adaptations of hymns also help keep the ones worth singing alive (while those full of obscurities and archaic phrases are happily shelved for good).

The authors of the following posts have explored these losses and gains in much more detail and you can read them at your leisure. But to close, I will quote myself for a change, and refer you back to a post written in the defense of new songs in 2012.

In a nutshell, I argued that new songs say that God is doing something here and now, not just a few hundred years ago: “. . . it also comes down to the concept of “renewing our minds”. By hearing the gospel explained in new and fresh ways, our understanding of God and the gospel of His grace is strengthened and deepened. That has got to be a good thing.” 

You will find that Tim Challies also picks up this point in the third post below (which is his own response to his first post about things we lost when hymn books were set aside). The second and fourth links below are other people’s responses to Challies’ original post.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please comment below. Blessings!

https://www.challies.com/articles/what-we-lost-when-we-lost-hymnals

https://gregoryktyree.wordpress.com/2017/04/06/what-we-gained-when-we-gave-up-our-hymnals/

https://www.challies.com/articles/what-we-gained-when-we-lost-the-hymnal

https://chrislinzey.com/2017/04/09/hymnals-we-dont-need-no-stinkin-hymnals/

https://sevennotesofgrace.com/2012/07/31/new-songs-say-god-is-doing-something-now/

Songs for 1 Corinthians: ‘Cross-shaped Love’

outline of white heart, with cross in centre, on black and white backgroundWhen putting a roster of church songs together, I often search for lists of songs which would suit a sermon series on a particular book of the Bible. Mostly, I don’t find what I’m looking for and instead create my own list. I realise these lists, stored away in my dropbox files, would actually be helpful to many other people. Naturally your repertoire may be different from ours. We use many Sovereign Grace, Getty and Townend, Emumusic, Redman, Tomlin and Baloche, along with a selection of hymns and Hillsong. If this sounds similar to your own range of song sources, then hopefully you will find something useful here. This first list of songs is relevant to 1 CORINTHIANS. Enjoy!

All I have is Christ (Sovereign Grace)

Be thou my vision (hymn)

Before the throne of God above (hymn)

Come Hear the Angels sing (EMU)

Cornerstone (Hillsong)

How deep the Fathers love for us (Townend)

How great is your love, oh Lord (No eye has seen)

I will boast  (Paul Baloche)

I will glory in My Redeemer (Sovereign Grace)

Jesus Son of God (Tomlin)

Jesus Thankyou (Sovereign Grace)

Man of Sorrows (Hillsong)

May the Mind of Christ (Mark Peterson EMU)

My Hope (Paul Baloche)

Overflowed (Trevor Hodge)

Oh the deep deep love of Jesus (Sovereign Grace)

Show us Christ (Sovereign Grace)

Stronger (Hillsong)

The Church’s one foundation (hymn)

The Power of the Cross (O to see the Dawn) (Townend and Getty)

Undivided  (EMU)

The conundrum of keys, capos and congregational singing

capoarticle_1_1

Most of the songs we now use to gather Christ’s body together in praise and worship are not written for that specific purpose – for singing together. Rather, they are written to be performed and recorded (for God’s glory), while satisfying the vocal range of an experienced soloist, who most often has a fairly high male (tenor) voice. The melodies are therefore shaped and situated in a vocal range that few of us can manage. Sure, we can sing along with the best of them on our iPods, but unconsciously we do a lot of octave jumping, or harmonising, so that we can sing along. This doesn’t work too well when the congregation is singing together.

Choosing the right key is quite tricky. The default or original key on SongSelect rarely works well. It can end up with a really high melody section in the chorus that no one can sing (bar the tenors) or else the whole thing is too low when you jump down an octave. This low singing equates to really quiet singing, and when we can’t hear each other we are discouraged from singing at all.

You also have to consider the musicians: is this great key the guitarists are happy to play in one which will induce a mild psychosis in the keyboard player, as they scamper around playing on only the black notes?

Here are just four rules of thumb that I find work well when selecting singable and playable keys for church singing (on SongSelect (CCLI) or a similar website).

1. Keep the vocal range between A (below middle C) and D (8 notes above middle C). Remember that D signals Distress for many people, so ensure the transposed melody only has a few passing notes of the high D (and the low A as well, for that matter). If the song ends up with a low G as the anacrusis note in the melody of the verse then teach it as a B instead (it should fit the chord, and won’t really be noticed).

2. Try to maintain the original shape and development of the song, starting with low verse notes and moving to higher chorus notes. If you sabotage the ‘chorus lift’ by a poorly chosen key, or by forcing people to jump down an octave, it can all fall seriously flat.

3. Don’t choose keys that have too many sharps or flats. Stick to maximum of four sharps (E major) and max 3 flats (Eb major). There are a few major keys that work well for both guitar and keys: C, D, E, G and A major. Keyboard players generally don’t mind keys with flats (one flat F major, two flats Bb major), but these will probably make your guitarists unhappy. This leads to my next point.

4. Understand Capos and get your guitarists to understand and use them. The keyboard and the guitarists can play in different keys quite effectively. A guitar capo effectively shortens the guitar strings and produces a higher sound. This enables the guitarists to play in comfortable keys (mostly ones with sharps) while the pianist can play in a key with flats that may mean a better vocal range for the congregation.

For example, if I want to use Matt Redman’s Ten Thousand Reasons in a flat key (Eb major, with three flats), then the guitarists can play in D (with their music in key of D) and capo on the first fret. (Each fret raises the guitar’s pitch by a semitone. So, the guitarists playing in D major want it to sound Eb major. Placing the capo on fret one moves the sound up by a semitone. Success! It sounds in Eb major but they don’t have to play in a key with flats.)

Another example would be Trevor Hodge’s No Other Name (Listen below!) in Bb, which has two flats. The guitarists can play in G major, but sound Bb by placing the capo on fret 3. There are 3 semitone steps to get from G to Bb (go check a keyboard) which is why the guitar must use capo three.

Remember that the guitarist needs to be playing in a key slightly lower than the keyboard player, so that the capo will bring their sound up to pitch, and they will only need to use capo 1, 2 or 3.

Next time: let’s look at a case study and decide what to do with Tomlin’s ‘Jesus, Son of God’ which has a huge vocal range! I’m still working on this one myself.

New songs say ‘God is doing something now’!

music_is_nature__silhouette_by_sammy3773-1Sometimes change can make us very uncomfortable. It can make us feel totally out of control, it can rob us of things to which we feel entitled. Let’s explore this for a moment in terms of church music.
We Christians develop a real attachment to the songs of our faith. They become associated with the ups and downs we have been through, or the exciting time of our youth, or the time we first came to faith. When we sing them the songs instantly conjure the emotions of those times. This is why some people just can’t sing songs from the funerals of dearly departed friends and family, without being overwhelmed by sadness.

So should we learn new hymns and spiritual songs, especially when such change can cause great angst?  I had a conversation with a lovely friend over the weekend who was frustrated with a lack of interest for changing and updating the songs they sing in their church. Many of her congregation are still attached to the ‘Scripture in Song’ repertoire which became popular in the 70s and 80s. The musical style of these choruses hark back to this era . . . and make some people really cringe!

I have found a great rationale for new songs from Rick Warren, author of the “Purpose Driven Church” (1995). If you study church history you’ll discover that every genuine revival has always been accompanied by new music. New songs say ‘God is doing something here and now, not just a hundred years ago’. Every generation needs new songs to express its faith“.

Another great insight comes from a Presbyterian minister Rowland Lowther (2002). He says that his favourite Christian song is “When I survey the Wondrous Cross”, to the old hymn tune, . . . but for the sake of the Gospel I would be willing to change the musical style so that those wonderful lyrics could impact on the next generation. . . What matters to me more is not that I be moved, but those in the next generation has those wonderful old lyrics to a music format that can lift their spirits to worship the same living God that the writer of this hymn worshipped hundreds of years ago”.

Great point. I think it also comes down to the concept of “renewing our minds”. By hearing the gospel explained by new people, in new and fresh ways, our understanding of God and the gospel of His grace is strengthened and deepened. That has got to be a good thing.

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