Monday, November 25, 2013

Choosing hymns? How?

After a service many people often share with me that they appreciated the music in the service.  I try to have a conversation about them about what music impacted them and why.  Is it familiar, some of their favourites, the style, the context, the content?   Many also ask who chooses the hymns for the service.   In many churches it is just one person who chooses the hymns, or maybe the clergy and musician work together on this task or sometimes it is a worship committee that steers the process.  For whoever does the choosing, how does it happen?  What tools and resources do they use?

I have the privilege of employment here at Robertson-Wesley, a fairly large downtown United Church in Edmonton.  I am so fortunate in so many ways including having good instruments, great musicians, and a supportive team to work with. 

For the services that take place here, we meet as a team to choose hymns.  The team currently consists of the two ministers and me as the musician.  Occasionally with a specially-themed service, a few other people join in on the process of planning the service and choosing hymns.
Although I have never calculated the percentages, my guess is that we have a fairly broad use of both Voices United and More Voices, and also incorporate new hymns that we have learned at other gatherings and conferences.  We also use some of the past United Church publications, such as Songs for a Gospel People and All God’s Children Sing.  How do we use all these resources and incorporate them into a unified service?

For all of us, the process begins with the readings and the themes we discern out of those readings.  Several times a year the three of us sit down and do some long-range planning.  We look at some of the upcoming seasons, special days, lectionary, and if we want to depart from the lectionary for certain reasons or seasons.  Then we each start brainstorming, either together as a team or individually. And so, the search begins and  I read the readings again for hints at anthems, instrumental music, and hymns. 

For me, the style of the music does not matter, as long as whatever that is chosen can be done well, will feel as authentic as possible, and fits with the readings or the theme of the message delivered. 

Where to start?  After I’ve considered the readings, most often I start with what pops into my brain because of its connection to the readings.  However, that can become a trap, because what often arrives in my thoughts are the tried, tested and true pieces that can get overused if we rely solely on this manner of choosing music.  However, I jot those down, as sometimes the first ideas are the best in the long run!  Then, I start looking through the scriptural and theme indexes in the back of Voices United and More Voices.  Did you know you can search in many data fields for material in those two hymnbooks on-line?  The entire Voices United hymnal is searchable at  This includes indexes for certain topics, authors, scriptural references and many other categories.  Colleague Paul Stott also made a concordance for Voices United.  You can complete similar searches for More Voices hymns at

Pretty soon, my list starts to grow.  I don’t discredit anything at the beginning.  Then I might go to a few other sources, including my favourite hymn writers’ collections, other hymnbooks and on-line resources, and Gathering magazine, a grass-roots worship resource of the United Church

Then I take a closer look through my “long-list” and try to create a “short-er list”!  This is where I start to examine the marriage of text and tune.  Do we know the tune?  If not, should we learn it?  How much new music have we learned lately?  If it seems like this is a really good text to use, I can also look at the metre index, which are the numbers at the bottom of the page (below the tune name), and then look at the back of the hymn book for those exact numbers to see if there is a direct metrical match to a more familiar tune.  At this point, I also take a look as to how long ago we used this hymn. I keep a record of each hymn we use and when it is used.  Is it new and bears repeating, or is it familiar and used often?  Is there a better choice?

When we get together as a team for worship planning, each of us has done some “homework” with regard to congregational music in the service.  This is the time when we share more with one another about the theme of the service, and what direction the sermon is taking.  Then we each start to make suggestions about what hymns to incorporate into the service and where they might fit the best.

Certain liturgical seasons lend themselves to creating a really cohesive thematic context for that season.  Advent and Lent particularly, due to their number of weeks and the vivid themes are times when we spend a lot of time trying to make strong connections between word and music.  The word Advent means “coming”.  We are watching, waiting, preparing, and longing for the coming of the Messiah.  This is why we try to avoid Christmas music during the season of Advent.  It’s true, Advent music feels less familiar, but it speaks to the themes of longing and waiting that Christmas music doesn’t express at all.

The process of choosing hymns can be challenging work and there are many ways to complete this process.  It also takes quite a bit of time, but in our experience people seem to think the connections we make in worship are worth the effort.  We often get feedback like “Everything fit together so well this morning!”  “Or, I love how the music commented on the sermon (or vice-versa).”  I often reply with a wink and a gracious smile, “Perhaps it was a Holy accident or some divine inspiration?”

Tammy-Jo Mortensen, M. Mus.

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