Sing unto the Lord an Old Song: Part Two

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Worship: Artistry

Sing Unto the Lord an OLD SONG

The Integral Use of Hymns in Contemporary Worship

Part Two: Ten Proven Tactics

(Author’s Note: It is time to move from the strategic to the tactical in this discussion. Based on these four proven strategies:
1. Follow the Will of God
2. Use Hymns at Strategic Points in the Song Set
3. Do the Hymns Well
4. Engage All Worshipers with the Hymns

All of these strategies are based in the two Great Commandments: Love God; Love People. The following tactics are also based on these commands. They are artistic methods of organization, preparation, and presentation of the song sets of contemporary worship.)


The following ten tactics flow both from my experience as a worship leader and the careful observation other worship leaders. These suggestions are both traditional and innovative. These are artistic methods that facilitate the craft of worship and the craftsmanship of the Worship Leader.

1. Use a Key Index. Newer hymnals will have one but for older hymnals, you may have to make one. It is worth the time spent. Hymns, like contemporary songs, need to flow from key to key in ways that make musical as well as thematic sense.

2. Use hymns as openers. Whether as a Call-to-Worship or as an Invocation, the beginning of a service is a good place to use a hymn. Since this song stands alone, there are no flow problems. I suggest that the key be well chosen so that the next song flows from the key of the opener even if someone prays in between.

3. Use hymns as closers. Hymns can be great wrap-up songs. Ending with something familiar is always strong. Thematic links can be made with contemporary songs if you flow out of a new song into an old song that says the same thing.

4. Use the same hymn as both the opener and closer. Have you discovered the power of the reprise? The significant repeat of a song can be most effective when the worship set has a theme. Many of my orchestrations of hymns are designed to be used as openers or closers. With Holy, Holy, Holy and All Hail t he Power of Jesus’ Name, for instance, at the opening I use the introduction and keep the tempo brisk. As a closing, I skip the introduction, do the first stanza slow and rubato, and add tempo and full orchestra on the second stanza. It flows; it builds; it wraps things up with a great sense of recapitulation.

5. Utilize the principle of Worship Convergence. In recent years the concept of worship convergence has come into sharp focus. Convergence refers to the intentional merger of a contemporary song with a traditional song. Great examples of this come from leading songwriters: “Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone” and “How Great Is Our God/How Great Thou Art,” etc. This is decidedly different from the old concept of “Blended” where old and new exist side-by-side but do not mix. Convergence worship innovations extend beyond songs to ancient practices like the confession of creeds and scripture readings in contemporary worship.

6. Vary the accompaniment of each stanza.
Don’t let the accompaniment of the hymns be boring. Vary the instrumentation. Using a worship orchestra, I do this by section:

  • 1st stanza-all;
  • 2nd stanza-woodwinds and strings;
  • 3rd stanza-brass and percussion;
  • 4th stanza-organ; 5th stanza-all, etc.
  • Other variations include: rhythm section, piano only, orchestra without rhythm section and a cappella.
  • Select the instrumentation by the context of the words. An intimate stanza would call for a smaller sound. A mighty message calls for a bigger sound.

7. Vary the tempo of certain stanzas. Hymns have survived the year and even the century of their origin. One of the reasons is the great flexibility they offer to the creative worshiper. Just because a hymn has 3-6 verses, it doesn’t mean you have to do all of them or to do them all the same way.

  • For many hymns a broader, majestic last stanza is effective.
  • If one of four stanzas has a contrasting message, match that message with an altered tempo. For instance, with Come Thou Almighty King, the third stanza is a prayer to the Holy Spirit, “Come Holy Comforter…” This is effective when done slower than the other stanzas. The slower tempo brings out the meaning of the prayer and the return to a faster pace for the last stanza, “To the Great One in Three…” is most effective.
  • Also, feel free not to do all the stanzas. Use the ones that carry the theme or are otherwise appropriate for your congregation. Don’t just always sing “Stanzas one, two, and four.”
  • When using a hymn with lots of great verses, I like to sing more than one verse without the refrain in between: Verse 1; Chorus; Verse 2; Verse 3; Chorus, etc.

8. Use contemporized arrangements. This can be overdone. The hymn must still be sing-able by the congregation and recognizable as a traditional song, otherwise it fails to be congregational at all. However, the accompaniment can and should be updated. It can be as simple as adding a snare drum cadence or using rhythm section with organ, modulating to a higher key for the last stanza, or it can be a full orchestration. Here are effective guidelines:

  • Everything should be done so that the music brings out the meaning of the words, not to show off our musicianship.
  • Key changes should not pitch the song out of congregational range. This is one of the hidden dangers of using choral arrangements as congregational song. One of the favorite tricks of good arrangers is the placing of the song in very low key for the choral beauty of the setting. It makes terrible accompaniment of congregational worship because it forces people to invert the melody at odd places to accommodate their range. The sound of the men in the congregation shifting to a lower octave in the middle of a phrase is sign the song is in a bad key.

9. Use a hymn as a monthly or seasonal theme. Hymns carry themes from week to week very well. If the chosen hymn has both stanzas and a refrain, use a different stanza each week. I have used Angels from the Realms of Glory as a theme for the whole Christmas season. The refrain, “Come and worship, come and worship…” was used at a different time in the song set each week while a different stanza was used as a call to worship each week. Other theme ideas: a missions emphasis: We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations, lay ministry emphasis: Rise Up O Saints of God, evangelistic emphasis: Jesus Saves! etc.

10. Carefully Project the words.
The extended texts of hymns require careful projection. Be sure to coordinate with the tech crew on which stanzas will be used. There are also many versions of hymns from source to source. Check and double check to see that the words you want are on the screen. The mismatch between the words the team sings and the words projected on the screens is an avoidable distraction.

Conclusion of Ten Tactics

When the contemporary worship leader opens his/her heart to the integral use of traditional music as punctuation for a song set that is otherwise contemporary, he/she embraces an artistic and spiritual challenge, one that can be exceedingly rewarding. The Love of God compels us to engage the whole family of God in worship. To do this is not easy but it can be done. It should be done. The Love of People compels us to engage the whole family of God in worship. We need each other. Youth need to hear the historical songs of worship and older worshipers need to rejoice in the new songs of a new generation of worshipers.

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

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

Sing unto the Lord an Old Song: Part Two

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