So you’ve just bought a new songbook, or just found the perfect new hymn that fits the theme of an upcoming service. And you’re so excited about hearing your congregation sing a new song!
But you’ve heard horror stories about a new song “falling flat,” where people just fold their arms and refuse to try to sing it. Or the comments you’ve heard after worship show that the new song didn’t “fly” like you’d hoped it would, and now you’re not sure they’ll ever sing this one. Or try another.
How can a new song be brought into a congregation’s repertoire? Maybe we should think of the congregation’s favorite songs and hymns almost like a family — you wouldn’t introduce a new member into the family without a great deal of preparation, would you? It might be stretching the point a little bit, but bringing a new song into a congregation’s “memory bank” is a little like that.
No, I’m not going to talk about how to bring a new child into a family. Many others can write about that with a great deal more knowledge and experience than I! But here are some ways you can bring a new song into your congregation’s life and worship.
First, recognize that the songs a congregation knows play a vital part in congregational identity, mission and faith formation. Members may not even read the words or the music very much any more — they are singing, truly, from their hearts, and their familiar songs and hymns are deep expressions of faith that has developed over the years. Remember that we’re seeking to add to that body of hymns, not to replace them; a way to help make that clear is … If you include a new song in worship, surround it with familiar ones. (Put the new song in the middle of the service, not as the opening or closing hymn!)
Second, it’s good to remember that learning new music is a great deal more challenging to a congregation than new words to already-familiar music. Many of our members don’t read music fluently and haven’t had the years of training it can take in order to look at musical notation and know “how it goes.” Before you ask the congregation to sing new music, then, give them opportunities to hear it ahead of time. The organist/pianist might play the song as a prelude or offertory several weeks before you intend to include it for congregational song.
You might have an instrumentalist play along on the melody. Have the choir or a soloist sing it as a call to worship for a couple of weeks. And the day you plan to have the congregation sing it, have the choir or soloist sing the first verse and invite the congregation to join in on subsequent verses.
Third, it always helps to know something about the song. The “story behind the song” might not actually tell you what the melody will do before you hear it, but it’ll increase your interest in learning that melody. You’ll pay more attention as it’s being played or sung for you, if you know what the poet or composer was thinking about, what occasion it was written for, what scriptures it reflects upon, etc. So, either verbally in announcements, or in your order of worship, include information about the song, its poet and composer. (For the Moravian Book of Worship, supplemental Services for Holy Communion and Readings for Holy Week, those stories are contained in the Companion to the Moravian Book of Worship, published by the Moravian Music Foundation.)
Fourth, consider a series of workshops or classes studying new and old songs and hymns. This might be a Wednesday night study series, or a Sunday-school class, or fifteen minutes before morning worship, where your church musician or a guest speaker tells stories behind the songs and teaches the music.
This could be a topical series — using the weeks of October and November to look at songs and hymns for Advent and Christmas, or using the Epiphany season to study hymns for Lent and Easter. Then, when a new song is first used in worship, you might refresh their memory with a little “rehearsal” about ten to fifteen minutes before worship begins, and ask the pianist/organist to include the new song in their prelude or meditative music early in the service. (If you’re doing a study series on new music, you might want to focus on more familiar music throughout your worship services on those weeks … don’t disorient everyone by doing all new music in study and in worship all at once!)
And finally, remember that every “old favorite” song was once new to us. “Be Thou My Vision” was new to the 1969 Moravian hymnal, as was “Join We All with One Accord.”
So, in summary, here are some ways you can ease the introduction of a new song …
- If you include a new song in worship, surround it with familiar ones.
- Give plenty of opportunities to hear a new song before it’s to be sung by the congregation in worship.
- The first time you use a new song in worship, ask the choir or a soloist to sing the first verse and invite the congregation to join in on other verses.
- Tell the story behind the song.
- Present a study series on new songs and hymns. (The Moravian Music Foundation can supply information and help in designing such a study!)
- Sing some “old favorites” that were new within our lifetime, and tell their stories, too — how did you get to know this song?
And may God bless your singing, and enrich the faith and life of your congregation through song!
The Rev. Dr. Nola Reed Knouse is director of the Moravian Music Foundation
From the August 2013 Moravian Magazine