Sing unto the Lord an Old Song Part One

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Sing Unto the Lord an OLD SONG

The Integral Use of Hymns in Contemporary Worship

Part One: Four Proven Strategies

(Author’s Note: I wrote this article in 1997—20 years ago! I am revising it today because we still need to review the role of traditional music in the process of seeing the church worship in generational unity. At an international leaders’ conference, I heard the leader of a denomination implore the worship leaders to “sing some songs for the old folks—they are the ones paying the bills!” My heart broke for the worship leaders and for the “old folks.” Officials were telling worship leaders to use traditional songs but no one was telling them how to use them. What’s more, they were telling them to pander to the older worshipers. I wrote this article to help contemporary leaders add the important dimension of the traditional song without losing the flow of contemporary worship.)

Integrity is more than just the name of a publisher, it is the “truth” part of “worship in Spirit and Truth.” The effective worship leader exercises integrity in two ways:

  • In worship planning, he finds the truth the Holy Spirit wants emphasized in thc service.
  • In the service itself, he presents his praise and worship to the Lord as an authentic and personally meaningful gift of worship.

In other words, the worship leader seeks the will of God for a service and then fashions a set of songs to fulfill that plan. When the songs match the will of God and are skillfully and sincerely led, that worship service and its leader have integrity.

A Clash of Integrities
Many pastors and older congregants want the worship leader to be careful to use the traditional hymns of the church in this leadership process. At the same time many contemporary worship leaders find it difficult to use traditional songs to express the contemporary move of the Spirit. It is so much easier for them to use songs of the day to match the will of God for today. Also, the songs of their own generation are by nature more meaningful to the contemporary worship leader than the songs of the past. So, the traditional songs are either left out, disposed of quickly, or altered almost beyond recognition in an attempt to contemporize them.

We are faced with a conflict of integrity.

  • The contemporary worship leader asks, “How can I maintain the integrity of the will of God for a service today using material from the past?”
  • The traditional worshiper is asking, “Where are the great songs, the tried and true songs, songs of doctrine and dignity and…integrity?”

As a card-carrying Baby Boomer, I stand squarely between these generations. I want to see my parents’ generation and my children’s generation worshiping side by side in the house of God. It is so easy to separate them, limit the repertoire to the worship music of either generation and find “success” and perhaps even a cease fire in the worship wars. But it isn’t a real peace and that is what I long to see in the church. I see peace in the Scriptures.

Psalm 79:13;145:4
Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will praise you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.
One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts.

I see in these verses an inter-generational discourse on the glory of God; old listening to young and young listening to old. I long to see this musical conversation take place in public worship: Youth and age, side by side, singing the same praises and prayers, worshiping God together.

  • Can young people be brought to respect the traditional song of the church?
  • Can older folks learn to rejoice in the new song of a new generation of worshipers?
  • Where can these divergent worshipers meet? Not at the style counter, for musical styles divide them, but at the altar of truth, for they believe and celebrate the same truths
  • If we can all develop a passion for the truth of God and for personally worshiping Him in spirit, we can find unity in public worship.

True to my announced purpose, I want to offer four strategies and ten tactics to the contemporary worship leader.

Follow the Will of God

(Author’s Note: Twenty years ago the standard practice of the Worship Leader was to use several short songs, put together in sets to express the changing moods in a worship set. Today the practice involves fewer songs that are longer and contain different moods almost like movements rather than verses and choruses. The principles of the flow of content and music addressed here have not changed in twenty years.)

The Craft of Worship Leading
Surely by now we see that worship leading is a craft. It is not a matter of selecting three fast songs and two slow songs, or a string of the latest and greatest songs, or as one older gent put it, “the Charismatic top ten”, or any other shallow shortcut. It is a matter of seeking the heart of God.

The craft of worship leading begins with a conviction that God has a plan for each service, a plan that He wants to reveal to the worship leader.

The shortcoming of many contemporary worship leaders is to always link the will of God to specific songs. This isn’t wrong; it just stops short of the whole truth. While the Holy Spirit often does direct us to specific songs, I have found them to be windows to a clearer and broader vision of His will. When I feel directed to a song, if I ask what the theme of the song is, I often discover the theme of the whole worship set. I can then turn to other songs in friendly keys that carry the same theme. In this way I discover and follow God’s will for the service. It may be that worshipers from older generations do not understand this process. In my tradition, classical Pentecostalism, this was not a part of the way the older worshipers did things. They wanted to sing the songs they love in church in the same way the younger folk want to sing their songs today.

But deeper than their desire to sing the music they love, there is a desire to encounter the Living God.

  • No true worshiper wants empty form or ritual. God never plans to exclude anyone from the worship and He always plans to reveal His presence.
  • That encounter with the Living God is the pursuit of the worship leader.

The worship leader’s job is to manage the worship repertoire of the church.

  • It is his business to learn the material, both the songs previous generations and the songs of today.
  • We cannot expect older worshipers to stretch to the music of today that comes so naturally to us and is so foreign to them if we do not stretch to learn their music.
  • If the songs we know and have taught to the people form a balanced repertoire, then we can select from them, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, a presentation of music to the Lord that includes all the generations.
  • The unity of the service and of the congregation will rest on the same foundation: the truth of God.

The essence of the worship leading craft is finding the will of God and selecting the music that gets that will done on earth as it is in heaven. This is the worship that will unify the generations.

Use Hymns at Strategic Points in the Song Set

The Structure of the Worship Set.
The worship leader must understand the structure of the praise and worship song set. In broad terms, the biblical order of worship is to start with praise and move to worship.

For me each praise and worship set is like a three act play:

  • Act I is the opening medley or song that prepares the hearts of the people.
  • Act II is the middle section where the substance of the plan finds expression.
  • Act III is the final song or medley that brings the sequence to a logical conclusion.

The worship leader must select songs for the way they function in the flow of the service.

Hymns, like any other genre of worship music, can be used at strategic points in the set: introductions, transitions, and conclusions as well as in the body of the song set. Here are some characteristics of the music of each act.

The Worship Leader is the pastoral artist with the demanding task of leading the whole church in worship.

Act One: Preparation and Praise
This music serves to help us “come before His presence.”
This can be music of testimony, telling of the deeds of God toward us: At Calvary, Blessed Assurance, And Can It Be
This can be music that tells of the characteristics of God; proclamations of His praise: To God be the Glory, A Mighty Fortress, I Sing the Mighty Power of God
These are songs of exhortation, encouraging others to praise: Come Christians Join to Sing, O Worship the King, Rejoice the Lord Is King , Crown Him with Many Crowns
This set can begin with a song of invocation: Come Thou All Mighty King, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

The music of Act One will be horizontal (except for the songs of invocation); people singing to people about God, who He is and what he has done. These songs will be selected to set up the theme of Act Two.

Act Two: The Truth the Spirit Wants Emphasized
This part of the song set offers the most creative possibilities. This is the material Act One introduced and Act Three will complete. Here the theme is worked out and the truth the Spirit has chosen is presented and obeyed. The development of the theme will be done through four forms of expression: praise, worship, exhortation, and prayer. Well chosen songs will help the worshipers express and experience these truths. For the most part, songs in Act Two will be songs of worship, that is, songs addressed to the Lord. Although some songs of praise will be used, the direction of Act Two is vertical, people singing to the Lord.

Act Three: The Conclusion
When the theme has been worked out with appropriate songs (both old and new), the time will come for a conclusion. The conclusion should flow as a natural result of Act Two. There will be a song in the repertoire of the church that will serve to wrap up the message of the song set. It may even be a reprise of a song used earlier. There are three basic types of conclusions:

  • The Big Ending. This conclusion is the ultimate wrap up. It carries a sense of finality as a major portion of the worship service comes to an end. Preachers love it; they want to preach right then.
  • The Quiet Ending. This can even be performed a cappella. For me, this ending is most effective when used sparingly. It can feel as final as the Big Ending.
  • The Un-ending. This is the slice-of-life ending that says that things are not over at all. The service will continue. This ending is the most challenging because it sometimes feels weak. Really, it can be most meaningful when the worship leader feels the Lord wants a high point later in the service.

With this Three Act form in mind, and knowing the will of God for the particular service, the wise worship leader can draw from the repertoire of the church to craft a worship experience that includes everyone and accomplishes the Lord’s purposes. The worship leader can make the new songs and the old songs flow together seamlessly because they are connected thematically and because they have been planned in a way that makes sense musically.

Old Songs and New Songs

At this point let’s take a look at these two types of praise and worship songs. I use the term hymn in a cultural sense, not a biblical one. The biblical word refers to songs addressed to God. My reference is to the traditional songs of Evangelical Christianity.

Typical Traditional Hymn Structure
A typical evangelical hymn is a highly structured song in four-part polyphony, that is, it features four independent lines: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.

  • It will usually have multiple verses to the first part of the song and a refrain that repeats after each stanza.
  • These are songs written at the keyboard.
  • The texts are poetic in language with demanding rhyme schemes that sometimes result in visual rhymes, inverted sentences, and obscure terminology.
  • The words are more important than any other single element.
  • They are often set to several different tunes and even quoted without any music at all. It helps to think of them as works of literature set to music.

Contemporary Song Structure
Contemporary songs feature strong melodies with harmonies and rhythms drawn from many styles of music.

  • The structure of the songs varies greatly with verses, choruses, bridges, codas, and other innovations that make them difficult to learn for worshipers who are used to only stanzas and refrains.
  • These songs may be composed at the keyboard or with guitar and may require a rhythm section for adequate accompaniment.
  • The music of the contemporary song is considered an equal partner with the words. The intent of the music is to express the feeling of the meaning of the words.
  • These are musical works not literary works. The words and music are vitally linked together so texts seldom appear with other tunes. When quoted without music, some contemporary lyrics are thought to be weak. But really, they are not poems and were never meant to stand alone. When the music is taken away, these lyrics are missing an irreplaceable element. To make the lyrics stand alone is like insisting that photographs of people’s faces be printed without eyes. The pictures would not satisfy because the character of people is seen in their eyes. Neither do contemporary songs satisfy when robbed of their music; that is where their character shines.

Complimentary Messages
One other contrast deserves special consideration. These two types of songs carry complimentary messages.The

  • traditional songs express timeless truths. God has preserved them through changing times because they speak things that need to be said in every age.
  • Contemporary songs express the contemporary move of the Holy Spirit. God has moved upon psalmists of today to direct the church and bring important truths to our attention.
  • Our churches need both. The worshipers we lead should not have to choose between the two. One of the most important functions of music in society is the transfer of values and traditions from one generation to the next. The effective worship leader who uses both contemporary and traditional music does exactly that.

Changing Music/Changeless Themes
As different as these two broad categories of song are, they have some important things in common. While the Lord does lead us to emphasize certain truths at specific times, the broad themes of worship do not change from generation to generation. When worship leaders know how to flow from one song to another along thematic lines, worship songs can join hands across centuries of time and chasms of style. For instance, Twenty years ago I could sing My Jesus, I Love Thee is a traditional hymn in F and flow out of it into I Love You, Lord, the lovely contemporary song in those days, also in F. Though separated by at least one hundred years, these songs have the same heart. The themes match; the keys match—it worked! There are countless possible linkages of the old with the new.

Do the Hymns Well

Musical Integrity
One of the reasons sincere worshipers have tuned hymns out is the musical language they employ.

  • In contemporary songs, with their melodic orientation, the harmonies can be intriguing, complex, and quite beautiful but these songs are generally sung by the congregations in unison while worship teams sing the often demanding harmonies.
  • Traditional songs emphasize harmony so much that changing the harmony is a common method of contemporizing them. These songs are designed for an age when congregations were filled with sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, not just worshipers.
  • Contemporary songs and traditional hymns and choruses are different types of songs from different generations. It should not be surprising that those nurtured in one generation would prefer the songs peculiar to it.

Another reason worshipers turned away from traditional songs is because of the way they usually heard them performed.

  • The accompaniment was organ or piano and organ.
  • Tempos were slow and all the verses were sung in exactly the same way. It is difficult to get further away from the music of their lives.
  • Also, the language used in the texts of the hymns was often archaic and totally removed from everyday speech. These are formidable barriers for any music to overcome.

The effective use of hymns at strategic points in the service happens when these barriers are overcome.

Whatever you do with the hymns please do not just toss them off. Put the same amount of musical effort into them as you do contemporary songs. If you do them just to “throw the old folks a bone” now and then, you might as well not bother. That isn’t integrity. Here are suggestions:

  • Present the hymn as a solo on the stanzas, perhaps with altered harmony, and as four part harmony on the refrains.
  • Use rhythm section, synthesizers, solo instruments, brass or even full orchestra, varying the accompaniment each time to interpret the words.
  • Put some life into the hymns. They should not be performed as funeral songs unless it is for a funeral service.
  • Modernize the words when possible. But be careful! These songs are evangelical. That means hymns are vitally concerned with words and not so much with feelings. But if you change things too much, the feelings of angry “worshipers” will surface in a hurry.

Actually, this type of translation has to happen every time a song is moved from one culture to another. We must face the fact the youth culture is far removed from that of the previous generations. We cannot expect people of the twenty first century to be carried away by language (and music for that matter) from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries without some translation. For instance, one year, we staged a lay ministry campaign. I decided to use the hymn Rise Up, O Men of God as a theme for several weeks. I did a classical-contemporary, symphonic orchestration of the hymn. I changed the words and the title to Rise Up O Saints of God. As a pastor, I wanted to exhort our people to ministry involvement with the outstanding words to this hymn, especially “have done with lesser things, Give heart and soul and mind and strength to serve the King of kings.” When I put time and effort into the presentation of this great hymn, I saw it leap from its century into ours.

Engage All Worshipers with the Hymns

Inclusive Music
Some pastors and denominational leaders seem to leave the worship leader in the position of being a man-pleaser.

  • “You must use a hymn every week for the older folks.”
  • “Mix it up more. Have something for everybody.”
  • “Sing the contemporary songs and don’t worry about the old folks.
  • We’ve got to reach a younger generation or this church will die.”

Others in the contemporary movement put the pressure on from the other side.

  • “Have you done the latest song from_______?”
  •  “Man, you’re stuck in the 80’s aren’t you?”
  • “If you’re not doing this music, you’re just not current!”

All of these statements are rooted in pleasing men, either old folks who hold the power or young folks who hold the future. I do not advocate the use of hymns or contemporary songs for such political purposes. That is not integrity.

There is another person we need to please, the most important person of all, the Lord Himself.

The worship service is for Him, not us. We all need to learn how to minister to Him with our personal sacrifices of praise. If the congregation has been taught that the purpose of the service is to minister to God, the worship leader can then engage all the generations with whatever song is appropriate, old, new or otherwise. I do advocate the use of hymns to engage traditional worshipers just as I advocate the use of contemporary songs to engage contemporary worshipers. I want to lead them all in worship. While my goal is to please the Lord, I want to engage everyone in the church in the ministry of worship. “…in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee.” Ps 22:22 (KJV)

Conclusion of the Four Strategies

My job as a worship leader is to find the will of God and to craft and lead music that will engage my whole congregation in worship that fulfills God’s plan. The will of God’s includes everyone. So, if I use both the contemporary songs and the traditional songs with integrity, and, if I keep them flowing in and out of each other in ways that make musical and spiritual sense, and, if I see these songs help my church come together as one in its worship—then I am doing my job. When Paul told the Colossians about “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” he also included the phrase “with all wisdom”. Never have those whose ministry it is to choose worship music for the whole congregation needed wisdom more than we do today.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved
Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

For Practical Methods for the use of hymns in contemporary worship see  “Sing unto the Lord an Old Song: Part Two.

Sing unto the Lord an Old Song Part One


  1. Steve, this is excellent! I plan to share with some others. John and I continue to pray for you and Freda and your exciting ministry to the family of God!

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