Announcing a hymn does not require a university degree or a knowledge of music and poetry. However, it does call for a thoughtful transition from whatever precedes the singing, to prepare the audience for receiving the message intertwined with the music.
Too often we sing our hymns mindlessly out of habit or tradition, ignorant of the author's original purpose. When that happens, are we really doing much more than barking at print? How important that whoever announces the hymn does so in reference to its meaning.
Picture yourself in church, sitting quietly after the sermon. The elder rises and says: "Our closing hymn is Number 541." How inspired are you by that announcement? Granted, it is necessary to inform the congregation where to find the hymn, but wouldn't it be better to say something like this: "Our closing hymn, Number 541, summarizes the message we've just heard. Notice the threefold prayer in the three stanzas 'Lord, speak to me,' 'Lord, lead me,' 'Lord, strengthen me.' Hymn Number 541."
Preview the hymn
Is it too much to ask the elder to read through the hymn before announcing it? To my sorrow, I have heard more than once: "Let us sing the consecration hymn, Number 330, 'Take My Life and Let It Be.' " Now, what kind of consecration is that, when we ask the Lord to take our life and then let it alone! That is precisely what "let it be" means. A simple solution is to add the next word in the hymn, which does not appear in the title: "Take my life, and let it be consecrated."
When you do that, the audience sits up and takes note. For the first time some will have an idea of what they are asking the Lord to do with their lives when they sing that hymn.
Here is another example of how improperly announcing a hymn can convey a completely unintended message: "Let us sing hymn Number 317, 'I love to steal.' " It might be better to read the rest of the first sentence: "I love to steal awhile away from every cumbering care."
Find the heart of the hymn
The definition of a hymn requires that it be based upon Scripture; otherwise, it is simply a sacred song. It was my privilege to supply the scriptural references to every hymn in The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal. This daunting task left me with admiration for those writers who transformed and collated various texts into a harmonious whole. Some hymns even gave the nucleus of a sermon.
One notable example is Charles Wesley's composition in celebration of his own conversion. An elder might typically announce it by saying, "Now let us sing Number 198, 'And Can It Be.' " The audience dutifully mouths the words, ignorant of their rich spiritual background. Wesley was aligning his own experience with the New Testament incident in which Peter found himself miraculously delivered from prison into freedom:
"Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth and followed Thee."
How many times have you sung those words without connecting them to Peter's angelic deliverance from prison or to Wesley' s personal testimony? A thoughtful preview of the hymn would identify its link with the book of Acts. Further research would uncover the connection to Wesley's conversion. All this would enable the announcer to bring new life to the congregational singing of that grand old hymn.
Knowing Charles Wesley's appreciation for Scripture, we might expect other texts to be incorporated in that same hymn. Indeed they are! Find them for yourself, or look them up in the scriptural index. At least five references come from Paul's writings.
Take another example of the deep scriptural origins of a hymn. Henry Williams Baker edited the beloved classic of the Anglican Church, Hymns Ancient and Modern. One he wrote himself was "The King of Love My Shepherd Is." A cursory reading immediately reminds us of Psalm 23. It is more than a paraphrase of the shepherd's psalm, though. Thoughtful examination of the third stanza points us to the parable of Luke 15. Baker combines the psalmist's version of the shepherd who leads with Christ's description of the good shepherd who seeks the straying sheep. Pointing this out to a congregation will certainly enhance the singing of Baker's hymn.
Structure and sequence
Structure is another aspect of a hymn that requires reading with understanding. Consider Number 488 in The SDA Hymnal, "At First I Prayed for Light." The first two words immediately imply a sequence in the structure, and lo, the fol lowing stanza begins with the words "And next." The pattern is obviously a prayer for light, then strength, then faith, then that love that summarizes all succeeding prayers. In this hymn, as with many others, the structure lies on the surface, yet many in the congregation would not notice it. Unless the announcer helped them understand, they would miss a large measure of the blessing.
Andrew Reed, a Congregational minister, wrote some hymns displaying obvious structure. One of them about the Holy Spirit (No. 267 in The SDA Hymnal; No. 213 in The Church Hymnal employs the similes of light, fire, the dove, dew, and wind. Another (No. 268, The SDA Hymnal) uses light, power, and joy as metaphors for the Spirit. Recognizing the structural pattern involved enables the singer to appreciate the various functions of the Holy Spirit.
In announcing the hymn, you can do more than identify meaning, scriptural origin, and structure. Some hymns lend themselves to antiphonal singing, that is, going back and forth in responsive, alternating parts. For example, each verse of "Peace, Perfect Peace" has an implied question and an answer. Have the women sing, "Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin?"; and then the men respond, "The blood of Jesus whispers peace within." Again on the next verse the women sing, "Peace, perfect peace, by thronging duties pressed?"; then the men, "To do the will of Jesus: this is rest." Do you see the possibilities for bringing out the meaning of certain hymns by singing them antiphonally? Contrasts Another aspect to watch for in hymns is the contrasts emphasized. Consider "Make Me a Captive, Lord." In quick succession we see the following:
render up sword/conqueror;
my own will/Thine;
stand unbent/lean on bosom.
These contrasts follow each other so rapidly that singing them does not offer the opportunity to appreciate them. Each deserves time for thought to discern the depths intended by the hymn's blind author, George Matheson.
Another remarkable series of contrasts occurs in Charles Wesley's hymn "Thou hidden Source of calm repose":
Don't preach another sermon
Some who seek to avoid a superficial announcement of a hymn find themselves preaching their own sermon. There is no need to fall into that other extreme. Announce the hymn briefly and announce it well.
The Bible directs us to "sing praises with understanding" (Ps. 47:7). Thoughtfully introducing a hymn helps make this possible.