A hymnal is such a convenient little (or big) book. It has songs with specifically chosen verses arranged in order of topic, and each song is written in a key - the key is preselected, ready to be sung in unison, 2, 3, or 4 part harmony. It's already arranged to fit the voices of the congregants as best it can. Of course, this does not mean that all hymns in all hymnals are good songs. I just want to point out that the hymnal itself is a nice thing for community oriented singing - it gives folks a safe starting place.
Lots of newer sacred music echoes the spirit of the traditional hymn - strophic arrangements with verses and choruses. These songs are amazingly popular and seem to last a long time. Here are a few examples:
- How Deep The Father's Love For Us (it's been around FOREVER and people still love singing it)
- How Great Is Our God (pair that with How Great Thou Art and you just can't go wrong)
- In Christ Alone (written in 2001 and still going strong)
- 10,000 Reasons/Bless The Lord (I love the Rend Collective version of this as it's a bit easier for most congregation members to sing with in terms of vocal range)
- Soon (it's a modern take on the text of "Soon and Very Soon" with a much more mellow musical character)
Here is a fun list of "Modern Hymns" to give you some other ideas (a few of them seen below, but visit the page for more).
I believe that these sorts of songs have a lot of staying power, and that they share in common a sort of unifying melodic structure, nice rhythms that are clear and simple for congregation members to line up with - things that your average parishioner will be able to sing through without feeling like they're not "good enough" at music to participate fully.
And there is the rub, really - I believe that there is a growing trend in church music to largely discourage participation and encourage performance.
I know it happens in traditional settings, too, but I see it more often in contemporary settings. It's an easier hole to fall into when everything is led by a soloist and a band. I write all of this with several years of band participation and a lot of solo singing in my background - and I enjoy playing in a band and singing some solo music now and again. But I have found that it's necessary to keep that part of myself toned down a bit when programming contemporary worship music because my real job is not to sound like a rock star. My real job in that situation is to create an uncluttered pathway to participation for the congregation.
It can be done, you know.
It really can be done. And a successful song for a congregation doesn't have to be "hymn like" to make the cut. It just needs to be fitting for corporate singing - leave the crazy melismatic runs out of the congregational worship and save them for the offertory or something.
Just last week we really needed to sing "Cornerstone" for a service. It was so very appropriate to the message and the verses are singable, full of time tested words and truth. But I had an issue with the octave leap we've all heard on the radio. You see, if I were to put the song in a comfortable vocal range so that I (the worship leader) could sing the octave leap and still sound good, it would make most of the congregation feel totally uncomfortable. They would have been stuck in the very bottom or very top of their vocal range. And I have lots of memories of being forced out of a song during worship because the range is just unreasonable. So we changed the arrangement. I just didn't leap up the octave! Imagine that. We used rhythm and other things to build some excitement and kept things in a spot where we knew for sure most of our congregation would be able to sing without squealing or growling.
How many times have you been listening to a Tomlin song you like? I enjoy some Chris Tomlin music from time to time! But he has a nice, high vocal range. And when we use his music in worship services, it's really important to remember that many of our congregants don't feel comfortable harmonizing freely (finding another part when they can't sing the melody) and the folks with extreme vocal ranges (1st sopranos and 2nd bases, etc.) are going to be in the minority.
So all of this begs a worthy question: How important is it for us to base the ARRANGEMENT we do on the recordings we hear on the radio, etc.?
Because in the world of contemporary music, as in the world of bluegrass and other such genres, we're working from recordings and live performances. We might read a lead sheet or a chord chart, but somebody created that chart by listening to something that wasn't made for sheet music. When hymn tunes were the contemporary anthems of the day music for churches was being written first - it was the old practice of four part harmony writing. This is a big difference for learning, and learning/teaching is A BIG part of effective church music.
So I ask again: How important is it for us to base the ARRANGEMENT we do on the recordings we hear on the radio, etc.?
I would suggest asking a number of other questions in order to answer that question.
- Was it written to be used in worship or is it a sort of contemporary solo anthem?
- Is it extremely wordy and difficult for people?
- Is the vocal range achievable for your average church-goer?
- Is the original key comfortable for your average church-goer? No? Not so much? . . . .
- . . . . Ok, then - can the key be changed and will that help most people to sing it comfortably?
And then the question that ALL CHURCH MUSICIANS EVERYWHERE should be asking themselves - contemporary, traditional, it doesn't matter who we are . . . we all need to ask this: Am I programming this song for a good reason and is my ego in the back seat?
I told you before - I enjoy a good solo opportunity. I like to sing! Singing a solo that fits my voice just feels good. It gives me joy and personal fulfillment. There are times and places for that, but corporate singing in worship is never one of them.
It is necessary to choose keys for songs that will function for the one leading worship, yes. This is true. In a paradigm that rests on the singing voice of one leader or a small group of leaders, we have to do this. But before we go choosing things and therefor choosing what key to perform them in, etc., we need to ask all of those questions above. We need to understand the big "why." And then we need to step back from the situation and remind ourselves: This is worship, not a rock concert. Yes - it might be rock music. But it's worship. Not a concert. And if I'm in charge, then I'm an empty, humble vessel for the Holy Spirit . . . not a rock star.
Music has cultural weight. You know?
The sound of classical music creates a specific picture in your mind, doesn't it?
When we find ourselves in positions of musical worship leadership we have to be careful not to fall into that orbit - not lying to ourselves about what we are there for.
I say this because I have felt the gravity of those labels before: rock star. soloist. professional vocalist.
Jesus hears my voice the same way he hears the voices of everybody around me. If I am fortunate enough to be setting the table for Jesus' other guests during worship, then I need to build a set based on hospitality, not exclusivity.
Food for thought (for myself and others).