Sing Unto the Lord an OLD SONG

Integrity. Integrity is more than just the name of a publisher, it is the "truth" part of "worship in Spirit and Truth". An effective worship leader exercises integrity in two ways: In worship planning, he finds the truth the Holy Spirit wants emphasized in the 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.

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?" I want to approach these strategies for the integral use of these hymns in contemporary worship with a profound respect for each side. I am on both sides of this issue. As a worship leader, I am passionate about finding the heart of God for every service. I respect the young worship leaders who pray and prepare. I fan the flame of their desire to be led by the Holy Spirit. I know the hard work they put in and the integrity of their desire to please God and to be in step with the Holy Spirit. I see them as the Psalm 24 generation: "Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face, O God of Jacob." Selah Ps 24:6 I also respect the older worshipers. I appreciate what they have built with their sacrifice, devotion, diligence and...integrity. To me they are the Psalm 71 generation: "Since my youth, O God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come." Ps 71:17-18

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 would be 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 wouldn't be a real peace and that is what I long to see in the church. I see peace in the Scriptures.

Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will praise you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise. Ps 79:13

One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts. Ps 145:4

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 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.

Follow the Will of God

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 Pentecost, it was not a part of the way they did things. They want to sing the songs they love in church in the same way the younger folk want to sing their songs. 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 manages 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 A 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 where hearts are prepared through prayer and praise.
* 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:

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. Here are some possible themes:

* "Jesus is Lord of our lives": Take My Life and Let It Be (prayer), I Am Thine O Lord (worship)
* "Crown Jesus King": Crown Him With Many Crowns, (exhortation) Jesus Shall Reign (Praise)
* "Express love to the Lord": My Jesus, I Love Thee, (worship) Fairest Lord Jesus, (worship) My Wonderful Lord (worship)
* "The Lord is Holy": Holy, Holy, Holy, (worship) Immortal Invisible (praise)
* "The Lord is worthy of our praise and worship": Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee (worship)
* "Humble ourselves before Him": Take My Life and Let It Be, (prayer) When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (prayer)
* "Seek the move of the Holy Spirit": Revive Us Again, (prayer) Breathe on Me, O Breath of God (prayer)
* "Gratitude to the Lord": Great Is Thy Faithfulness (worship)
* "Rest in His presence": He Hideth My Soul (Praise); Be Still My Soul (exhortation)

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. 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 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.

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.

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, My Jesus, I Love Thee is a traditional hymn in F. Why not flow out of it into I Love You, Lord, the lovely contemporary song, also in F? Though separated by at least one hundred years, these songs have the same heart. The themes match; the keys match---it works! 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. Still, updating the words is not anathema. For example, the song 'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus carries a wonderful spirit of worship. But the words are set in a testimony, or praise, mode: "Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him...". We can make the words match the mood of the music as we personalize them: "Jesus, Jesus, how I trust You...". We have moved the song from praise into worship without doing it any damage.

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, earlier this 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.

Reach Out 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 reach out to all the generations with whatever song is appropriate, old, new or otherwise. I do advocate the use of hymns to reach out to traditional worshipers just as I advocate the use of contemporary songs to reach out to contemporary worshipers. I want to lead them all in worship. While my goal is to please the Lord, I want to reach out to everyone in the church. " the midst of the congregation will I praise thee." Ps 22:22 (KJV)

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.


1. Use an 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 the 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. Announce more than one page number. Stopping the worship to call out page numbers interrupts the flow of worship. When using more than one hymn, I announce the two page numbers and ask the people to hold the second as we sing the first. Then I can flow into the second without stopping, just the way I do with contemporary songs. We also project the hymn titles and numbers.

6. Vary the orchestration of each stanza. Don't let the accompaniment of the hymns be boring. Vary the instrumentation. 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. 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."

8. Use contemporized arrangements. This can be overdone. The hymn must still be singable by the congregation and recognizable as a traditional song, otherwise it fails to be congregational at all. But, 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. 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 the 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 emphsis: We've a Story to Tell to the Nations, lay ministry emphasis: Rise Up O Saints of God, evangelistic emphasis: Jesus Saves!, etc.

10. Project the words for use in the body of a song set. I generally use hymns at the beginning of a song set because I like for the congregation to use hymnals. However, when I work a hymn into the body of the song set or use it as a finale, I always project the words for the congregation. Once they have put the books down, picking them up again destroys the flow of worship.

Dr. Steve Phifer
Music Pastor
Word of Life International Church, Springfield, VA
D. Wendel Cover, Sr. Pastor