Introducing Hymns to a Contemporary Congregation

I occasionally get questions about introducing hymns to congregations that do not sing them. Should a pastor introduce old hymns? And if so, how should we go about the process?

First, make sure to explain and teach to your people the importance of theological expression through music. Help them see the depth of a hymn like, “For All the Saints,” or another one listed below.

Second, help them see that as Christians, we have to lean against the “arrogance of the modern.” We are people who are connected with brothers and sisters from the history of our faith, and we should not ignore that. Learning hymns is a way to participate in the church universal and the communion of the saints.

Third, develop a practical method for introducing the hymns. I suggest you introduce a new hymn each month. I used this for introducing the Psalms, but it works just as well for a hymn. At significant points in the church year (Advent, Christmas, Easter) introduce a powerful hymn. If you start in March around the time of what some observe as Lent, you can introduce a hymn like “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” which is a hymn that emphasizes the passion of Jesus Christ. Then for Easter introduce a hymn like “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

Fourth, develop a long-term plan. By this I mean you should know the main hymns you want to introduce over the course of the next few years. That means if you want to plan out two years, pick 24 hymns. Put the appropriate hymn in the month relative to the major event of the church year. Here’s my suggestion:

  • January: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (New Year)
  • February: “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name” (Adoration)
  • March: “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” (Passion)
  • April: “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” (Easter)
  • May: “Crown Him with Many Crowns” (Pentecost)
  • June: “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Trinity)
  • July: “And Can It Be” (Salvation)
  • August: “Jesus Shall Reign” (Mission)
  • September: “I Love Thy Kingdom Lord” (Church)
  • October: “A Mighty Fortress” (Reformation)
  • November: “For all the Saints” (All Saints)
  • December: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (Advent)

Many of these tunes are easy to learn. I would strongly suggest this online resource by Terry Johnson: “The Case for Traditional Songs.” One of the benefits of this online pdf is that Johnson goes through the history of the church, discussing significant hymns and hymn writers. He suggests sixty Psalms and sixty hymns to learn. He also has a chart of a 10 year calender to learn these hymns and Psalms (which is in his book on family worship). Check out his “Annual Calendar of Classic Hymns and Metrical Psalms – 2008.”

Additional Resources:

  • Church Triumphant, vol 1vol 2 (cd set of classic hymns)
  • Terry Johnson, The Family Worship Book (I love this book. Not only does it provide great resources for worshiping as a family, it also provides resources for worshiping as a church. I mentioned this one above. You need to own this book if you are a pastor. You might also want to consider this one by him.)
  • Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (You might be surprised to find this listed as a resource, but Grudem provides a hymn for each doctrinal topic. This is a very wise way to introduce hymns to your people as you preach on a certain doctrine.)
  • Mouw & Noll, Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology (Great resource on the history of hymnody in the American Protestant church.)
  • Stephen

    Yeah! My church (pentacostal church) is doing the same…
    Contemporary songs are lacked in the truths,
    but hymns are really rich in truths, melody, rhythm, and
    many theological topics we can choose.

    Hymn’s church inheritance.

    • Jason Ewing

      Contemporary worship is unfamiliar to those who are brought up with traditional hymns. Traditional worhsip is unfamiliar to those who prefer contemporary. I attempt to apply a basic format for worship services by encouraging our leadership include something familiar and something unfamiliar for all who attend. What is familiar helps us settle our hearts for worship. What is unfamiliar helps us explore new horizons.

      But that is not all. I don’t subscribe to simply introducing new songs because it is time to teach the audience something unfamiliar. I do not acknowledge “contemporary worship” or “traditional worship”. Instead, with God at the center of all things, I encourage “relevant worship”. We attempt to develop a worship service that accommadates what God is saying, doing and revealing through all aspects of the worship service. Many times, it is based on what the message and the scripture indicate. Sometimes relavent worship will use hymns and sometimes it will use contemporary songs. I reject “blended worship” as it appears to seek to please two different groups in the assembly. But relevant worship also incorporates something familiar and unfamiliar–and yes, hymns are and can be unfamiliar to a contemporary audience.

  • Patrick Chan

    Also, it might help to introduce old hymns via contemporary tunes (e.g. Red Mountain Music, Sovereign Grace Music).

  • Kerry Prochaska

    Mars Hill Church here in the Seattle area has always included updated older hymns w/ the newly written stuff. I noticed a few years ago that there seemed to be an increase of updated older hymns performed/sung; could be my imagination. I will say though that there seems to be more enthusiastic singing when an older hymn is performed. I have been a believer since I turned 40 15 years ago and didn’t have much of a church tradition before that. I play rock and blues on guitar and like all kinds of music including harder edged alternative stuff. But when I worship the Lord I admit I like the “keep it simple” form of worship music; somebody playing older hymns on piano w/ good and bad singers belting out the lyrics. Sorry I’m counter (church) cultural. :)

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    • Ryan

      With all due respect, and keeping closely in mind our generations tendency to be unfoundedly compromising in our pragmatism, or post-modernism. But if you type random hymn titles into, you will notice that most every song has 3,4, or 5 different tunes you could sing. Which then do I pick to be ‘authentic’ and true to the text? You’ll also notice that each tune which you can choose to sing might span anywhere from 50 to 100 years apart. Would you be able to argue that the very tunes you are happy singing particular hymns to now, aren’t different than the original tunes intended? Perhaps the author wouldn’t like the tune you sing to his song now-a-day… Or, maybe he wouldn’t mind. And why are there so many tunes written and used over the years to these hymns? Can you find and notice that the tunes often change in style over the years?
      I agree that many Christian endeavors, today, pragmatically done in the name of culture and entertainment, are prone to be extremely poor in quality—sappy even. But why can’t our generation also attempt to rewrite the melody to an older hymn? It almost seems that you are completely opposed to any notion that a hymn tune could be improved. I don’t criticizing a poorly rewritten melody, and exclaiming they should just stick with the “original.” There are even some songs that I don’t believe a better melody could ever be written, for instance Amazing Grace. But if someone can write a better melody to See the Conqueror Mounts in Triumph, I would love to hear it. The text grabs me every time, but the music seems to actually distract from concentrating on its depths. So, let me know what you think.

      Sincerely, Ryan

      • Ryan

        Sorry, correcting a typo: I don’t mind criticizing a poorly rewritten melody.

      • Laura

        Hi Ryan, did you realize you’re responding to a track-back? You’re probably not going to get a reply.

        I agree that it’s silly to insist on “original” melodies when most hymns were just written to a certain meter and then set to different melodies depending on the congregation, the popular musical style, etc.

  • Matthew W

    It *somewhat* surprises me that “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is one that you consider needs to be taught. Then again, I was raised Baptist and am a music major at Baylor–a Baptist university… so not only have I heard it since I was little, but I also know most of the first verse and most of the chorus in Latin.

  • Chuck

    This article gives me hope that the church may not lose her musical heritage after all. I have always believed that a total replacement of hymns with “praise songs” was at best short-sighted and at worst very unhealthy for the church. We should encourage the writing of new, quality hymnody while at the same time drawing on our rich past.

  • pduggie

    Until a church has all 150 psalms down, why bother with introducing many hymns. Preponderant psalmody!

  • David Weischedel

    Good post. I probably would have chosen a different few hymns that the ones listed, but I like the idea behind teaching the hymns to the congregation. In my context, most members of the church are in the 20-35 crowd and aren’t familiar with many of the older hymns of the faith. However, we try to have a healthy mix between old and new songs and a passionate and reverent feel to the music.

  • Rich

    someone already mentioned Red Mountain Music and Sovereign Grace. I would second that…and would add the RUF online hymnal as another excellent resource for the church.

  • David Weischedel

    Agreed! I love both of those resources.

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  • PLB

    Recently, we have been visiting a Gospel centered preaching church that has traditional hymns, choir, etc. I think one thing that struck me is that our children have experienced an additional richness. That richness is learning to read and follow singing from a hymnal and not just projected typed words on a screen.

  • pentamom

    I find it slightly frightening that “A Mighty Fortress” is on the list as something that needs to be introduced carefully. I have no problem with the idea that some churches opt to use more recent music, but have we really managed to trash our heritage so thoroughly that the hymns that were back of the hand knowledge in every corner of the Protestant churches 30 years ago are now so unfamiliar that they not merely are being “brought back,” but “introduced” to people?

  • Boethius

    We must be careful to include songs which come from our hearts. The Scriptures exhort us to “sing a new song.” As a former Roman Catholic we would often sing old hymns in Latin. One time, the monk bragged about the fact that the Church had been singing Sanctus Spiritus since the fourth century. I could not help but thing that since God is eternal, He was more sick of the song than I was. If you are not going to sing it “in Spirit and truth” then why bother.

    It is the intent of our hearts which is important. Music is only the vehicle on which our worship and praise rides. Let’s make it meaningful and sincere.

  • Nancy DeHaan

    Interesting . . . we are a pretty traditional church and we are doing something similar with some of the newer hymns/songs, especially those written by Getty/Townend. One Sunday per month, the Sunday School hour is dedicated to the introduction of and learning of new songs. The idea is that before the song is used in worship, the congregation should know it fairly well – so they can sing it “unto the Lord.”

    We have also taken “inventory” of the hymns used most frequently in worship – from the hymnal – and maybe overused at the expense of others. During Sunday evening worship – the “unsung” songs are sung . . . and will be incorporated on a more regular basis into the morning worship services, too.

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  • Donovan

    If you need free easy arrangements to sing classic hymns then I’d also recommend:

    It’s designed particularly to help a church embrace old hymns who don’t know where to start or who find them difficult to know how to play and sing them, especially with modern instruments (eg. guitar, drums, keyboard).

    The website includes free sheet music and a demo recording of what it could sound like.

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