Point: Worship Through Music

Start practicing not hating the new hymn book now.

The time is now to adjust your expectations, which have gotten a little unmoored from reality. Here’s the hard facts: With maybe 500 hymns that have to address the needs of every age from pre-nursery to postmortem and every meeting from Albanian baptismal services to Zimbabwean zone conferences, a lot of good songs are going to be left out. And for the same reason, some of your favorite current hymns are going to disappear, while others you can’t stand are going to stay. Resist the urge to see some agenda or the baleful influence of your least favorite general authority in the failure to include your favorite song, composer, style or genre.

As for the new hymns, you probably won’t like many of them. (Personally, I’d like to see several more Reformation chorales, but I’m not getting my hopes up; at least “Beautiful Savior” might make the cut.) Music speaks to us for a lot of reasons, but music that’s already tied to key formative experiences tends to speak the loudest. If you were a teenager or older when the current hymnbook was introduced, most of your favorite hymns were probably already included in the old hymnal of your childhood. (The most I can say about the 1985 additions is that some of them are okay, I guess.) The new hymns are meant to serve a lot of people who aren’t you and whose backgrounds are a lot different from yours. Practice telling yourself that the new hymns are there for someone or other, just like conference addresses that don’t do much for you can be deeply meaningful for someone else.

There are going to be some clunky lines, questionable music choices, and awkward translations. Remember that composing music that works for a congregation of average musical ability is difficult, committees are populated with human beings and the inevitable misses don’t invalidate the whole project.

We have a certain musical cultural in the church, at least as I’ve observed it in a couple dozen wards in the United States and another half dozen in central Europe, and that culture is focused on congregational singing, often in parts, with organ accompaniment, with occasional ventures into ward or stake choirs, and that’s pretty much it. Other churches have gospel choirs or hand bells or rock bands, and that’s okay, too. Let’s proceed with the assumption that there’s no wrong way to praise God in music, even as we recognize that there are some ways that work best for most of us. If you were looking forward to rock bands in sacrament meeting, you should probably temper those expectations. When you look up and down the pews, do you see a lot of people who would be uplifted by rock bands, or a lot of people who would be disturbed and alienated? Think of those people, too.

And try to have some sympathy with the ward organist struggling through some unfamiliar music. The organ is an unforgiving instrument. You can hit half the notes wrong on the piano and get away with it. On the organ, everyone hears every missed note. Tempo is great, but faster is also harder. If you’re an organist, by all means try to do your best. That’s all I could do, long ago when I was the accompanist for sacrament meetings, a role that outstripped my actual musical talent by a good measure.

Finally, remember that we worship through music. Music is a means to an end. The point of introducing new songs to the hymnbook is solely to help church members in their worship, so any new hymns will either be assimilated into our musical style, or they will uselessly take up a precious page on the hymnbook that could have been used for something that would be sung more often. Please don’t get hung up on cultural appropriation, authenticity, or any other excuse to make people feel bad about singing in church. The goal is not to add one more thing that we can criticize and belittle, but to join our voices in worship.

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Chad has some thoughts on this topic. Stay tuned for his counterpoint!

14 comments for “Point: Worship Through Music

  1. As a music fan, I am not looking forward to the new book. My ward cant/wont sing the ones we have now! Throw a new unfamiliar song at them and it will be a bad organ solo! (bad because we dont have a confident player but they are doing their best)

    I am old enough to remember that we used to have “song practice” in-between services/meetings to help the members learn new songs in the book. Will we have to do that again? One of my previous bishops had a “do not sing” list for the music people. Songs I guess he either didn’t like or ones he knew the ward didn’t know, not sure which.

    My guess is that the new songs will not be used for years unless the right music people teach the ward the songs, which could happen or they are ones we know already. Seems like most wards have a “music” person, the one who does way too hard of ward choir pieces that sound terrible instead of hymns the members know. Maybe those wards will have better integration of the new stuff.

    Anyone know whose idea this was? Is this Nelson just changing stuff? (like 80% of the changes IMO) Or was this in the works before he was pres?

    Bad sounding, slow played songs do not help me with my worship. Does the opposite. Some are played so slow I have to put the book away and just listen. But I worship at home with Music and the Spoken Word so its all good.

    I am one of those who do get uplifted by modern “Christian Music” however not the head banging versions. I suggest Craig by Walker Hayes and Mercy Me. Fun song, great message.

    Music is a big part of the next life so I am excited to be around it for eternity! (unless I am hell-bound)

  2. It’s been pretty consistent to redo the hymnbook every few decades. For refernce, major editions printed by the Church were released in 1836, 1840, 1841, 1889, 1927, 1948, 1985, 2026. I’ve also heard that copyright negotiations were part of the picture this time around.

  3. This is good advice. Those of us who are passionate about music should keep in mind that we’re a small minority of the people who will use the hymnbook. Also, that church music (in all its forms) does not have to be “good” to accomplish its real purposes.

    I really doubt song practice time will be coming back given the two-hour block, so be thinking of alternatives. One idea that’s come to my mind is to turn the intermediate hymn into a learning time: have the choir learn a new hymn, let them sing the first verse (if it has four or more verses, maybe they sing first verse in unison and the second in parts), and then the congregation joins in. No additional time is taken out of the meeting. Just don’t think you can do that once and the congregation now “knows” the new hymn. I’d suggest singing a new hymn once a month for 4-6 months so people remember it. You could work on two hymns at a time that way if your unit’s tolerance for learning new music is high, but I wouldn’t suggest more than that. Most meetings the hymns should be familiar.

    If you have a music calling (or just an interest in music in the Church) but haven’t read chapter 19 in the Handbook recently, you really should. It is different. In particular:

    “Sacred music that is written or sung in culturally diverse musical styles may help unify congregations. Music coordinators and priesthood leaders may include a variety of appropriate musical styles that appeal to members of various backgrounds.”

    We’ve got a lot more flexibility than we generally use. But note that the goal is to unify congregations, not divide them!

  4. Good advice–thanks. I confess to thinking that it doesn’t much matter because we’re down to 3 or 4 hymns a week, which isn’t enough to sustain any musical tradition.

  5. Home-centeredness is such an interesting challenge. The responsibilities for gospel study, serious campouts, and now maintaining a tradition of hymn singing have become household responsibilities. We must round up our shoulders to bear them.

  6. Kristine, that’s a super thought-provoking comment. I’d be interested in a post or comment here about what we could do as families or community to counter that fact and sustain a musical tradition. I’ve read some about the Bruderhof community and recall reading that by the age of 18, they know thousands of songs. I really wish we had some stronger musical traditions, because even as an adult I barely know the hymns. And perhaps I know them less because I sing them so infrequently (which I’ve only just really thought about explicitly).

    Jonathan, great post and appreciate, as others have said, the positivity here. I don’t expect to love all the songs but I hope I can learn to love a lot of them!

  7. I think that music is an important part of my devotion.

    I don’t understand why we can’t use a substantial part of our two hour block for music during the upcoming year (or two.) We could agree that on a given Sunday, once a month, that our second hour will be devoted to the new hymnal.

    We could do two hymns a month/session. 25 minutes per hymn. There could be one or two talks, or presentations on the hymn. What do the words mean to us? Why was this hymn chosen? This could take eight minutes. (two four-minute presentations.) If we don’t like the idea of a “talk” we could have a presentation, lesson-like, on the hymn. Then for the next 10 minutes we could rehearse the hymn. Do parts. Observe the harmonies. See how the hymn works.

    Then do it again for another hymn. Over a year’s time we would cover 24 hymns this way.

    I am certain that these meetings would be spiritually uplifting and would build testimonies while people discuss how a particular hymn works for them.

    This could replace either one of the Sunday School weeks. It would “bump” some lessons. Or it could replace one of the PH/RS meetings. Or it could be a series of 5th Sunday lessons.

    It doesn’t have to be permanent. Just for a year or two while we get to know the new hymnal.

  8. Kristine, I’m curious what changes you’re seeing. For most men, the demise of Priesthood Opening Exercises cost 1 hymn/week, though singing a hymn in Elder’s Quorum meeting is explicitly an option. For women, the two-hour block cost 0.5/hymn per week, unless your Relief Society decided to drop the opening hymn there too. Are you seeing less hymn singing in other meetings and activities? If so that’s a local decision, and could be reversed locally. Make sure your local leaders know you miss singing more hymns.

    The loss of 20-25% of our hymn singing is not trivial, and should be recognized as a cost of the two-hour block. But it was only 4-5 hymns/week before. Song practice time was a brief experiment, so I think you really have to go back to before the three-hour block to get much more than that.

    Bryan S, music in the Church really depends on parents putting their children through music lessons. Obviously that’s where your organists, pianists, choir directors, and performers of musical numbers come from. But even the kid who took piano lessons for a year and fought every practice session knows what those funny squiggles in the hymnbook mean. They can learn new hymns, maybe even sing parts if they want to. I’m not sure parents today realize that music lessons make a difference even if their child doesn’t become a “musician.” At any rate, that’s how a music tradition gets sustained, one piano (voice, violin, etc.) lesson at a time.

  9. These days, the rank and file rarely lead anything, let alone SCRIPTURE, which is what the multiple new hymnal committees are doing. Everything is distilled to us from atop the 26th story of the church office building. But, in this rare case, we have something akin to “common consent” happening. Since we bellyache on the bloggernacle about how frustrating it is to always be on the receiving end of- well everything in the church, we should seize THIS, the new hymnal, as a chance to advocate for a more conversational, more participatory, less hierarchical church that is even MORE inspired, and greater than the status quo because it includes our collective testimonies and selves as conduits of “R”evelation – rather than a small number of didactic individuals.

    Also, isn’t is something of a wonder that in the 1985 hymnal, there really aren’t notational, typographical, or rhythmic errors? If my relative has anything to do with the final proofs- there won’t be any to speak of in this edition either. That’s pretty spiffy. That can’t be said of all the other manuals in the church, including the presidents of the church sunday school manuals.

  10. Really trying to remember to not hate the new hymn book. This morning I was catching up on “Music and the Spoken Word” programs. My Gaelic heart leaped for joy when the Choir started singing “Be Thou My Vision” . I am so hoping that that hymn might be added. However, imagine my dismay when I realized the words had been tampered with. I thought maybe I was wrong, so I listened again. The words “High King of Heaven” had been changed to “Great God of Heaven” and I selfishly thought to myself “Please!Please! Don’t do this. “ There may have been other changes, but that was the most jarring to my ears. Nevertheless, I’m trying very hard not to hate, but am trying to be grateful if the hymn is there in any form.

  11. If it’s any consolation, I keep noticing how wording changes made in 1985 still haven’t really sunk in. If I had to sing “How Firm a Foundation” without a hymnbook, I could do it, but it would be the pre-1985 text, even though I’ve probably sung the hymn five or ten times as often with the modern text.

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