We are what we sing
Our theology is often shaped more by our singing than it is by preaching or teaching, writes Simon Woodman. In this period when many of us have had to start again with our church’s worship repertoire, writing your own hymn is a project that could serve to nourish and sustain your congregation.
One of the things that has been most-missed by congregations during the last year of rolling lockdown has been ability to gather together to sing. Whether we prefer the pipe organ or the guitar, hymns ancient or modern, the act of raising our voices together in worship before God just isn’t the same online. We might sing-along-at-home with some piped music during our electronically-facilitated services, but we don’t get to raise the roof together, joining our voices with angels, archangels, and with all the company of heaven. Online clergy discussion forums regularly have people asking for musical resources for use in online services, and the issues of copyright are complex and sometimes frustrating.
But nonetheless we persevere, because singing matters (even for those who, like me, can’t hold a tune). It matters because it touches us deeply, emotionally, and intellectually. A good worship song, a good hymn, will reach into our souls and nourish us, challenge us, and sustain us, in ways that very little else we do together in worship has been able to.
I remember once hearing John Bell, the great hymn-writer of the Iona Community, saying that our theology is shaped more by our singing than it is by preaching or teaching. As a preacher, I recognise the truth of this - sermons are given, and then they fly away. Songs are sung again, and again, entering deep within. John Bell also, memorably, commented that the songs of our childhood are those that sit the deepest within us, remaining in old age when others have gone, and that he would rather enter the gates of heaven singing ‘Jesus loves me this I know’, than he would ‘If I was a fuzzy wuzzy bear’!
So, as all worship leaders know, what we sing matters. A good tune is not a guarantee of good theology, and vice versa. During lockdown, many of us have had to start again with our church’s worship repertoire. Our well-rehearsed ‘favourites’ that the musicians can play off-pat have had to be revisited, re-found, recorded. At my church we formed a ‘Lockdown Choir’, where we circulate a singalong track to the choir, who then send back a recording of their voice to add into the mix. We’ve not managed the sophistication of those who have combined videos as well, but it’s worked well enough to get those in the congregation who want to join in, singing again.
One of our deacons suggested we should write a hymn for the new year, to express something of the distinctives of our congregation’s understanding of its values, vision, and mission. Contemporary hymns (such as those written by Stuart Townend, or Keith and Kristyn Getty) offer a good combination of ‘sing-ability’ and theological depth, allowing a more modern musical compositional style to sit with a carefully worded progression of thought.
I’m offering our hymn here as an example of the kind of project a church might undertake to nourish and sustain the congregation over this coming year of change. Why not have a go at writing your own?
We are your people called together,
Bringing hearts and minds to you;
We nurture faith through strength and weakness,
Seeking truth in all we do.
Great God you call us to your heart-beat:
Living love, including all;
Provoking faith across our city,
Help us follow where you call.
Great Christ our centre and our focus
Give us courage to stand true;
Confronting forces of injustice,
Risking all, we follow you.
This church stands open to your Spirit,
We will help the broken mend;
A sanctuary for those excluded,
Christ, we follow to the end.
Words: Simon P Woodman
Music: Alexandra Cran-McGreehin
A few tips for prospective hymn-writers:
It helps if you enjoy crafting words. I like writing poetry, prayers, and prose; but hymn-writing requires a discipline of language not necessary in other more free-form expressions.
Have a good idea in advance of the theological point you are wanting to explore: are you basing it on a Bible passage, or something else e.g. a Vision Statement as I have done here?
I find it easiest to fit words to a set metre. Sometimes I will write new words to an existing tune. For the hymn above, I agreed a metre with Alexandra (220.127.116.11), and wrote an initial ‘draft’ first verse to that metre. She then wrote the tune, and once I’d heard the tune I re-wrote the words and added extra verses.
Be strict with yourself on metre, scansion, and rhyming, to keep consistency. Don’t cut corners by shoe-horning in or omitting syllables. I treat it as a kind of logic puzzle: the right words do exist to say what you want to say in the form you’ve set yourself, it’s just a question of finding them. A rhyming dictionary is your friend (there are plenty of these online), as is a thesaurus, although they can be overused.
Get someone else to read your work and make suggestions. It’s very easy to be naff, unclear, or cringe-worthy without realising it. Never be afraid to be edited. For example I didn’t realise the chorus of the hymn above was actually the chorus, until the composer of the tune told me; I’d thought it was verse 2!
Surround the writing process in prayer, and offer your writing to God as an act of worship.
Image | David Beale | Unsplash
Simon Woodman is minister Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church