At the end of this year’s new-hymn class at Jackson Heights, we went through and recorded a dozen of the songs we’d learned through the quarter. I’ve spent the past couple of days listening to the CD in the car, not only from a worshiper’s perspective, but from a hymnist’s perspective.
Over the past decade, I’ve slowly learned that there are some things you can’t tell about a hymn or spiritual song until you sing it. For one, there are some arrangements that look fine on the page but prove to be a booger to sing. Most importantly, though, you can’t tell whether a hymn will generate buy-in from brethren until you hear them sing it. There is a difference in sound between singers going through the motions and singers pouring out their hearts in worship.
Buy-in is the single most important attribute of a spiritual song. It determines whether it will be used congregationally or not. If a hymn does not have buy-in, it’s like faith without works. It doesn’t matter how skillfully written or intellectually profound the hymn is. If people don’t want to sing it, it’s dead.
As I was listening to the CD, then, I was listening for the telltale evidence of buy-in. I heard it, among several other places, in the Clint Rhodes song “Break My Heart”. “Break My Heart” is written in a style I don’t use. If I had been invited to edit it, I would have had some technical critiques to offer.
However, if a sacred song draws Christians into worship, it’s doing its job, and “Break My Heart” manifestly does that. I think it works, and I think it works for two reasons:
Accessible Content. “Break My Heart” is a song about the Christian’s struggle with sin. Particularly, it’s about the times when we don’t want to do good, but we want to want to. It’s a plea to God to overcome the stubborn resistance within us so that we can devote ourselves to Him.
Every Christian with an ounce of self-awareness will identify with this struggle. All of us will wrestle with sin for as long as we live, and that conflict exists because our flesh wants to sin. We need God’s help, we know we need God’s help, and so we want to sing a song that is about asking God for help.
Use of Counter-Melody. Recently, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the difference between songs written for a praise band and songs written for the congregation. There are a lot of things that praise bands can do that congregations can’t. Most notably, they can have a more extreme vocal range and use more complicated rhythms. G5 in the melody will murder congregations on Sunday mornings. So too will those dotted-eighth/sixteenth rhythms that mimic the vocal stylings of a lead singer.
However, there are things that congregations do well that praise bands really don’t. First on my list is the employment of counter-melody. Typically, the lead singer of a praise band is The Lead. They don’t want to step back and let somebody else in the band take over for a little bit.
However, congregations enjoy passing the melody back and forth or singing two melodies simultaneously with different rhythms. Many of the most prominent songs that come from a-cappella traditions reflect this. Think “Our God, He Is Alive”, for instance. The same is true of “Break My Heart”. The song really comes alive once you get to the chorus and the alto/tenor counter-melody. They make it musically satisfying.
Fundamentally, I’m a pragmatist. What ought to be is all well and good, but you have to pay attention to what works. “Break My Heart” works, at least in a group that can pull off a tenor counter-melody. Both song leaders and writers ought to pay attention.
From time to time, somebody will critique my hymn critiques by saying that I spend too much time on the intellectual side of hymns and not enough on the emotional side. Certainly, when it comes to emotion in worship, there are things worth discussing, and I’ve discussed them extensively.
However, it is true that I don’t spend a lot of time arguing that we need to sing more emotional hymns in worship. Differently emotional hymns, yes, but not really that the emotional level of our repertoire is too low.
This is true for two reasons. First, I think that to the extent that we have emotional deficiencies in worship, those problems are much more likely to lie with the worshiper than the repertoire. God’s people have been struggling with going through the motions since Malachi 1, of not before, and the tradition of apathy in worship is alive and well.
However, the solution to the apathy problem doesn’t lie in the adoption of hymns that manufacture emotion. You can be a spectator at a rock concert and ride the emotional wave, but a-cappella congregational worship works differently. Only enthusiastic participants are likely to experience an emotional reaction. If brethren aren’t eager to participate enthusiastically, no hymn will move them. If, on the other hand, they arrive determined to rejoice, no hymn will prevent them. The cure for apathy must be found in the heart of the worshiper.
Second, overly intellectual hymns aren’t a problem in practice. I cannot think of a single hymn that has entered the repertoire in my lifetime that I would describe as emotionally deficient. Conversely, I have seen (and written!) dozens of hymns that sank without a trace because something about them didn’t work emotionally. In fact, this is the most common reason why my hymns (and the hymns of others in my circle) fail. A hymn that’s all content with no feeling is as dead as faith without works.
This is a problem that solves itself. No song leader selects uninspiring hymns because they have lots of sound Biblical teaching and are good for the congregation, like broccoli (a possible exception: singing “O Happy Day” when somebody’s about to get baptized). Instead, we sing the songs that move us. Not every hymn in the repertoire works for everybody, but all of them work for somebody. Brethren will sing the most vacuous lyrics imaginable if the music is emotionally powerful.
As a result, I don’t critique hymns for lack of emotion, any more than nutritionists critique diets for lack of potato chips and chocolate cake. Christians who have never thought about hymn content in their lives will still intuitively seek out hymns that they enjoy singing. Even people who don’t care about Bible authority and a-cappella worship will still look for an emotional experience in worship. This is the aspect of worship that human beings most naturally get right.
Other aspects, though, are more challenging. Unlike potato chips and chocolate cake, emotion in worship is good for us, but it doesn’t provide a balanced diet by itself. We’re called to sing not only with the spirit, but with the spirit and with the understanding.
However, because thinking about what we’re singing is effortful, brethren often don’t want to invest the effort. Emotional worship that is not also thoughtful is a problem, and it’s a problem that’s hard to avoid when we worship with content-light hymns. As a result, most of my commentary is focused on content. It’s not so much that I’m neglecting the role of emotion in hymns. It’s that I’m taking the presence of emotion for granted.
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?