Successful Song Leading

Paper presented at Columbia Union ministerial in­stitute.

By JOHN G. MITCHELL, Pastor-Evangelist, Williamsport, Pennsylvania

As a people we need to get back to the Protestant idea that public worship is the right of the congregation, and such rights ought not to be usurped by the few. Let us always remem­ber it is the right of the entire congregation to participate in public worship, whether it be the Sabbath morning or the evangelistic service; whether it be the prayer meeting or the young people's meeting, or whatever the meeting. Of course, this statement opens up a vast field of thought and talk, but we shall confine this paper to the field of hymn 'singing and the basic train­ing necessary for successful leadership in this part of worship. First let us read again some inspired statements:

"As a part of religious service, singing is as much an act of worship as is prayer."—Education, p. 168.

"Praise ye the Lord: for it is good to sing praises unto our God." Psalms 147:1.

"Music was made to serve a holy purpose, to lift the thoughts to that which is pure, noble, and elevat­ing, and to awaken in the soul devotion and gratitude to God. . . . Music forms a part of God's worship in the courts above, and we should endeavor, in our songs of praise, to approach as nearly as possible to the har­mony of the heavenly choirs."—Patriarchs and Proph­ets, P. 594.

With these statements as a basis for the study of our assigned topic, let us take a look at how the Lord had His teachers train the ancient Hebrews in the art of song leading. Quoting from Fundamentals of Christian Education:

"The art of sacred melody was diligently cultivated. No frivolous waltz was heard, nor flippant song that would extol man and divert the attention from God ; but sacred, solemn psalms of praise to the Creator, ex­alting His name and recounting His wondrous works. Thus music was made to serve a holy purpose, to lift the thoughts to that which was pure and noble and elevating, and to awaken in the soul devotion and grat­itude to God."—Pages 97, 98.

True congregational worship includes the singing of worth-while hymns of praise and thanksgiving, as well as hymns of prayer and worship. There is much music used now in con­gregational singing that is not worship or thanksgiving, neither is it praise or prayer! This is not the fault of the congregation. They sing what they are asked to sing. How seldom does a minister pick his hymns because of the message they contain or the praise or the wor­ship they express!

Usually the minister chooses a hymn because he or the congregation likes the tune, or be­cause they sing it exceptionally well. Often we disregard the quality of hymns because of our likes and dislikes. These likes and dislikes su­persede the standards they ought to obtain in congregational worship, also the quality of the verse such tunes need. .

In choosing a hymn for congregational wor­ship, we ought to ask ourselves several questions: (I) Is the verse, or poem, doctrinally sound? (2) Is the poem content of exalted na­ture? (3) Does the text lift the soul Godward? (4) Is it reasonably good religious poetry?

And when we come to the tune, let us note: (1 ) Is it such a tune as will give proper expression to the verse? (2) Is the tune truly religious? Does it foster a religious mood? (It should not be a waltz tune or a brass band rhythm!) (3) The tune should not have secular connotations; that is, it should not have its origin in opera or the popular songs of the day or in folk song or in swing music or brass band composition. It should not even sound like them. Let us keep the church music churchly, heavenly, separate and distinct from secular and worldly songs.

What a spiritual uplift we would have if our congregations were taught to sing this glorious message! This is what we ought to be doing if we expect someday to sing the melodies of heaven. Certainly we ought to be looking for the best now!

There are vastly greater possibilities in our hymn singing than we have dared to realize.

Music should be as much an act of worship as prayer. We cringe as we listen to some people use common street language in prayer. Should not our hymn singing be as lofty and as far above the ordinary as our praying? Surely there ought not be anything careless and flip­pant in our singing of prayer or praise in worship to our God!

Many workers select hymns for their services without regard to what they are using the hymns for. I was once in a camp meeting service where the leader wanted the entire encamp­ment to go out in literature distribution. I was leading the music that day, and when I asked this leader if he had selected the hymns for the service, he answered, "No, but what about that hymn that says, 'Ready to do His will'?" So I found it for him, and we began to sing. When the congregation began to sing the chorus,

"Ready to go, ready to stay," he shook his head, for after all the hymn did not say what he wanted it to say. He wanted the folk to sing, "Ready to go," but when the hymn also said, "Ready to stay," that was something else.

Many ministers do not even think of the hymns they are to use until they gather in the pastor's study to have prayer and arrange the order of service. This is not worshipful order, and the service suffers as a result.

It has been said that the pope and the leaders of Rome feared Luther's hymns more than his preaching. Luther's hymns throbbed with definite, heartfelt praise and worship. They were dignified. They were sublime ! We need more such hymn writers in the Advent Movement today!

We must have teachers in our colleges who understand the musical training our ministers need, and know how to impart it to them. In order for music to have its rightful place in this movement, the young men who are study­ing for the ministry need a certain musical training to be able to appreciate the value of music in their ministry and to know how to use it. A few men are endowed with a musical soul, and they use music to great advantage in their ministry. Others ignore it. Still others use it as best they know. Some wish they had all the time for preaching, and shut off all the music they can.

God grant that the day will soon come when our ministers will know and use music properly in worship, and have their congregations sing with spirit and understanding. How inspiring it is to hear a congregation sing the good old hymns that are sublime, that lift the soul into the very presence of God, there receiving divine unction through singing! Such singing is truly inspired, and such a congregation truly unites with the angels in praising God in worship. This is the goal to be attained in the singing of hymns in the church and in the evangelistic meetings. To be trained for such song leading, they will need to know the following principles.

1. The content of the poem, or verse, of the hymn. Is this hymn voicing the worship or the praise that the congregation wishes to raise to God? Would angels join us in singing this hymn?

2. Is the tune of the hymn the kind that will raise our voices to God in worship, or is it the jittery, waltzy tune, appealing to the physical senses and awakening the physical response ? Is it such a tune as goes with "Brighten the Cor­ner \Vhere You Are" or "Over the Line"? Now, the words of these are not too bad, but the tunes are of the waltz rhythm type, and are not the sublime, devout type such as "I Gave My Life for Thee" or "God the Omnipotent," or "Before Jehovah's Awful Throne" or "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross."

3. We need men who have been trained to know what to sing, and how to sing it, and why they sing it. We need men who will train their congregations to sing as they should sing. We need men who will train our organists and pianists to play in a manner that will be wor­shipful, for many a pianist or organist has ruined the entire singing portion of the service by syncopating the hymn as he plays it.

Our song leaders ought to know hymnology from a ministerial, denominational point of view. For instance, a song leader in an evange­listic effort should know the favorite hymns of the various denominations, so that when he finds Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and persons of other faith in his audience, he can and will sing their hymns. Also, when he visits in the various homes, he will be able to sit down and sing and play their hymns. Obviously, a Lutheran can be approached through Lutheran hymns much easier than through other avenues, and this is true of all the others.

I am glad our colleges are now beginning to offer college courses in singing evangelism. So many of our young men have heretofore taken the required music offered in the ministerial: course just because it was necessary for gradu­ation. It is well to learn Hebrew and Greek,. and history and theology, and all the other things that help to make a well-rounded educa­tion, but none of these will take the place of music, and the ability to sing and play the hymns of the Advent message. Worship has two directions—that of man to God and of God to man. The Scripture reading, the sermon, and the benediction are God speaking to man. The hymn is man's praise and worship to God. It takes its place along with prayer and testimony services.

I believe these to be the minimum require­ments for successful song leading: (I) History of church music and hymns. (2) Sight reading. (3) Music appreciation. (4) The place of music in the Advent Movement. (5) Voice training. (6) Conducting.

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By JOHN G. MITCHELL, Pastor-Evangelist, Williamsport, Pennsylvania

November 1947

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