“With laughter, our gathered group agreed we would break with our tradition of always singing every verse…”
“The evening worked, and I’ve had requests for a reprise. Give it a try. You might be surprised.”
Adding Structure to the Unstructured
When asked to lead a hymn sing, I sensed the evening would need some structure. I wasn’t ready for the all-out spontaneity of “let’s sing our favorites.” I considered organizing our songfest by the calendar year, starting with Advent, but instead I created a set of categories such as “Songs of Testimony” and “Gifts of God.”
This 10-point topical outline came from my book Spiritual Moments with the Great Hymns (Zondervan; out of print but available used). The book includes stories of hymn origins. These notes on hymn origins (which can also be found in other books or online) helped me to introduce some, not all, of the songs on my list with a historical or personal anecdote.
Introducing the Hymn Sing
I started by giving a very brief overview of biblical music, mentioning Jubal, “the father of those who play the harp” (Genesis 4:21), the song of Moses/Miriam (Exodus 15), and the psalms as songs of passionate joy and lament. As an example of psalms used in music, I played a YouTube version of “On the willows there” from Godspell (Psalm 137) – one of the world’s most affective songs.
In the parish hall, sitting around a piano, we -most of us over age 50 – opened our hymnbooks. We used the Episcopal standard, The Hymnal 1982 supplemented by Wonder and Praise and a few handouts. Of course, depending on your tradition and resources, hymnals will vary.
With laughter, our gathered group agreed we would break with our parish tradition of always singing every verse. My notes indicated one or two self-contained verses to suggest. I’d earlier given a song list to the pianist, with a heads-up that other favorites would be requested from the floor.
Using categories is an excellent way to organize a hymn sing. You can use as many or as a few as you desire.
Category 1: Gifts of God
We started with this category, for which I suggested the following:
“We Plow the Fields and Scatter” (another old favorite also represented in Godspell)
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
“This Is My Father’s World”
Category 2: Tidings of Christmas Joy
Here I only asked for an audience favorite.
Category 3: Psalms in Songs
As a transitional choice we sang “Joy to the World,” which wasn’t meant to be seasonal but as a paraphrase of Psalm 98. Other possibilities:
“O God Our Help” (Psalm 90)
“O Worship the King” (Psalm 104)
“Let Us, with a Gladsome Mind” (Psalm 136).
Category 4: Lines Learned as Children
I went with two disparate songs both written for children by Sabine Baring-Gould: “Now the Day Is Over,” a blessing for his evening church-school students, and “Onward Christian Soldiers,” written as a Pentecost festival march for children walking to the next parish village. Participants asked to sing “Jesus Loves Me.”
Category 5: Lessons from the Gospels
“In the Garden” held sway here, as it is directly connected to the John 20 resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary.
Category 6: Words That Challenge
“He Who Would Valiant Be” from Pilgrim’s Progress
“Come, Labor On”
“Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” vv. 1&5
In audience discussion, several mentioned an old favorite “Trust and Obey.”
Category 7: Hymns as Prayers
Our Sunday service includes “The Doxology” sung to the “old one hundredth” tune. To introduce variety, we switched to St. Clement. To change the pace, here I also played a short YouTube version of the chorus of Ken Medema’s “Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying,” asking participants to name their prayer requests.
Category 8: Songs of Testimony
“O for a Thousand Tongues”
“Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
A participant asked for “Amazing Grace,” which wasn’t on my list, as it can be overused.
Category 9: Celebration of Community
This category might include hymns such as:
“Shall We Gather at the River”
“Singing Songs of Expectation”
Category 10: Pictures of God
“Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”
“Eternal Father, Strong to Save”
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”
We ended the evening with two selections sung to the well known tune Land of Rest: “I Come with Joy to Meet My Lord” and the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy…) as a finale. The evening worked, and I’ve had requests for a reprise. Give it a try. You might be surprised.
Evelyn Bence is the author of Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality, reviewed here on Building Faith. She lives, writes, worships, and cooks in Arlington, Virginia.
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