How Song Leaders Can Pick Good Hymns

by Matthew W. Bassford
via His Excellent Word

Over the past month or two, I've heard from a few people who were wondering why I was writing so much about good and bad hymns. What's the take-home? What's the so-what? I have an extremely strong view of congregational autonomy, so I'm not trying to dictate to anybody else how they should worship. That's between them and God. Instead, I am to aim to persuade, to change the way that Christians think about hymns. In particular, I aim to persuade song leaders.

In my religious tradition, the people who determine what the church sings aren't the hymnists, the hymnal editors, or (these days) the PowerPoint produces and the website operators. Instead, the repertoire is the result of the aggregate efforts of tens of thousands of song leaders. If Brother Joe Bob and the others like him don't pick your hymn out at the breakfast table on Sunday morning, it doesn't matter how good the hymn is. It's not going to be sung, and it's going to be forgotten.

A song leader who is not a trained hymnist may well be daunted when he considers everything that I've written about hymns over the past couple of years. Tennyson famously observed, "A good hymn is the most difficult thing in the world to write," and from what I've seen, he's not far off the mark. A good, useful hymn is the product of one or more people who must possess in aggregate:

  • A good Biblical understanding.
  • Skill with the English language (if you're writing in English, anyway).
  • A grasp of the technical nuances of hymn-lyric writing.
  • Musical talent.
  • Fluency in writing common-practice harmony.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Some good hymns are one-off flashes of brilliance. Usually, though, good hymns are the product of good writers, and the craft is challenging even for the best writers. The only hymn-tune composer I know of who could consistently write repertoire-level tunes was William Bradbury. If your resume starts with "Jesus Loves Me" and goes on from there, you're pretty good! I'm not aware of any author who has consistently been able to write repertoire-level hymn lyrics. Frances Havergal comes the closest, but she still struck out more than 90 percent of the time.

Much could be said, then, about the technical aspects of writing a good hymn. Through the years, I've said a lot of it! The good news for song leaders, though, is that they get to bypass all of that. Rules for hymnists are legion, but there is only one rule that song leaders must follow to choose good hymns for a worship service. It is this:

Decide what you want to say first, then find a hymn that says it.

If every song leader in the brotherhood followed this rule, 95 percent of bad hymns would vanish from the repertoire. The central characteristic of a bad hymn is the absence of good content, and this rule selects for content.

I stumbled across the content-first rule several years ago, when my congregation changed up its Sunday-morning order of services and I began e-mailing song leaders sermons and orders of services on Friday. All of a sudden, the quality of hymn (which had never been bad) improved substantially. Much of the time, they began selecting hymns that accompanied my sermon, and because the sermon had content (I have some small fondness for talking about the Bible from the pulpit), the hymns had content too.

The sermon, however, is not the only possible source of content for a song leader. My father-in-law used to lead singing quite a bit, and he liked to say, "The preacher has his sermon, and I have mine." That's fine too. A song leader who is theming a service around some Biblical topic will choose hymns that have to do with the Biblical topic and therefore are good hymns.

This is not true for every theme, naturally. Generic themes like "Worship" can still pull up bad hymns (because all the hymn has to do to qualify is be directed toward God). Similarly, even though the high tide of the Stamps-Baxter era was 50 years ago, it still has a strong representation in the hymns we sing about heaven, and many of those hymns are not good (quick litmus test: if the author of a hymn about heaven did not know what the sea of glass in Revelation 4:6 is, he probably did not write a good hymn). A themed service filled with homes o'er the foam where we'll nevermore roam will not be a rich service.

By and large, though, the rule stands. Themed services will contain good hymns. They also have a way of reinforcing the hymns they include that aren't as strong. A weak hymn will benefit from being surrounded by strong hymns that say similar things. The good content will spill over a little bit.

Even if a song leader isn't willing to go that far, though, he can select good hymns simply by thinking first about what he wants to say with each hymn individually. I've seen this one proven out too. I've seen, and from time to time will arrange, singings where song leaders are asked to preface each hymn they choose with a few comments about why they chose it. Nobody wants to say, "I chose it because I was flipping through the hymnal and saw it there," so they think about their selections beforehand. Once you start thinking, you're not going to choose a bad hymn.

The problem with bad hymns, then, stems almost entirely from song leaders who aren't thinking. They don't really have anything in mind to say, but their name is there on the duty roster, so they dutifully put together a song list. They'll choose a hymn that's appropriate before the Lord's Supper (99 percent of hymns before the Lord's Supper are good) and an invitation song (even if invitation hymns are not the true giants of the genre, at least they say something and are on topic), but then they fill out the rest of their list with hymnal-flipping. At that point, "I like to sing that hymn" becomes a more important consideration than "This hymn says what I want to say," and bad hymns begin emerging. Thought is the enemy of the bad hymn; thoughtlessness is its friend.

In summary, though it's possible to get buried by all the hymn-geek technicalities that I generate, song leaders actually have a job that is both simple and easy. If you want to pick out good hymns, all you have to do is take five minutes beforehand to figure out what you want to say. I like to pray as I'm doing this. If you choose hymns that say what you want to say, you will be choosing good hymns, hymns from which every member of the congregation will benefit.