Much of the discussion about “Oceans” last week centered on the issue of congregational suitability. Content questions aside (and content isn’t the biggest problem with “Oceans”), I and many others look at “Oceans” and see a hymn that is too difficult for the congregation.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that a congregation can’t eventually kind-of learn “Oceans”. If you want to grind away at it for several weeks of new-song class, you can get it off the ground, at least for people who can read music. Non-singers will probably take considerably longer than that to get the hang of it, if indeed they ever do. Lots of hymns and praise songs are in this category.
However, just because you can slowly and painfully force a group to learn a song doesn’t mean that it’s congregational. In fact, it means that it isn’t. One of the hallmarks of congregational music is that it is easy to learn, so that ordinary Christians can quickly and painlessly begin to worship with it. An unsuitable hymn will take weeks to learn; a suitable hymn will take minutes.
I mean this literally. During my time at Joliet, I introduced more than 100 hymns to the congregation there, via a small group that met outside of the assembly. Typically, about 20 people would show up for a hymn-learning session. Maybe half of those could read music. They were good singers, but none of them were music professionals or anything like that.
After a year or two, we fell into a rhythm. We’d sing the melody together until the song leaders present felt like they had it down. Then, we’d sing parts until everybody felt like they had their parts down. Wash, rinse, repeat. Using this method, we would learn 6-7 hymns in an hour-long session. Some of these hymns were centuries old. Others, like “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”, had been written in the past few years.
From this, I derive the 10-Minute Rule. If your church sight-reading group can learn a hymn in 10 minutes or less, it’s congregationally appropriate. If it takes you weeks of grinding, you’re trying to learn something that wasn’t written with the congregation in mind. What’s more, you’re learning one song when you could have expanded the repertoire by half a dozen with wiser song selection.
The grind method is problematic not just for its effect on the poor, suffering sight readers, but for its effect on the invisible majority. People who can’t read music will always have a tougher time learning to worship with a new hymn than people who can. The harder the music is, the more these difficulties will be magnified. It may well be that rote learners will never reach the point where they can sing an “Oceans” confidently because they are always being surprised by the rhythm. This sounds terrible, and it distracts worshipers from worship.
When it comes to worship, content is king, but even great content can be defeated by bad mechanics. There are hundreds of songs, both new and old, that have strong content and are easy to sing. If we can learn a new hymn in 10 minutes, why spend hours on one that isn’t 10 times as good?