Learning from Each Other's Songs

My Jesus, I Love Thee

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Ten years ago I would never have considered using “My Jesus I Love Thee,” or any other hymn, for that matter, in a worship service. I was music director at a church plant, and we had decided to use only contemporary music in our services. But as our children got older, we came to realize that when they visited Grandma and Grandpa’s church, they didn’t know any of the psalms and hymns being sung—songs that make up our heritage. We had lost our musical common ground. Meanwhile, at Grandma and Grandpa’s church the congregation had started to occasionally use contemporary praise songs projected on an overhead. Grandma and Grandpa complained that since printed notes were not provided, no one was singing parts anymore!

They had a point. In our church plant, made up largely of community people with little or no church background, the singing was poor. The worship band was great, but congregational singing was lacking. This seemed wrong. Probably one-third of our services consisted of music, and while the congregation seemed to enjoy listening, many were not actively participating. Music—the language of praise—was a foreign language to our congregation, and we had failed to teach them how to speak this language.

Back to our children. We realized that we wanted them to know the hymns that were so meaningful to us, and we wanted them to know how to read music well enough to sing parts. Since they weren’t learning this at school or at church, we gathered them around the piano and pounded out the parts to our favorites. I wouldn’t say that they were eager learners—we’re talking four teenage boys—but there were satisfied grins on their faces the next time they visited Grandma and Grandpa’s church and one of the songs sung was “Holy, Holy, Holy,” which they had worked on and pretty much memorized.

This success got us wondering if maybe the hymns could be used to teach others as well. Why choose hymns for this task? There are a few reasons. First of all, written music with four-part harmonies is readily available; we were able to find all of our favorites in one book. Many contemporary songs, on the other hand, are written for soprano, alto, and a high tenor. This excludes the lower voices from singing anything other than the melody. Second, hymns usually have a straightforward rhythm that’s not as complicated as that of most contemporary songs. While contemporary songs are a great tool for ear training, we wanted to teach more than that. Hymns provided a good starting ground. Third, hymns give us common ground with a larger body of believers and provide a generational link. Fourth, we choose hymns that are old enough to be part of the public domain—in other words, they have no copyright restrictions. That way we can provide music and recordings without the hassle of obtaining permission for use (www.cyberhymnal.org is a good resource). And finally, it’s fairly easy to attain a level of success with hymns, and once you are successful at something, it becomes fun!

Here’s how we do it. The worship team introduces a new hymn at the first service of each month. We offer written music for the hymn. We also provide a CD with tracks that highlight each part individually, a track with just accompaniment, and a track with accompaniment and 4-part harmony [CDs are available from The Bible League Bookstore (1-800-871-5445); ask for the companion CD to The Secret to a Great Music Ministry by Steven Elzinga]. At our first evening service of the month, we go over the hymn with the group divided into sections, just as you would do with a choir. Whenever possible, we offer simple guitar chords and music for band instruments. We then encourage our congregation to practice in their homes (or vehicles) so that when we come together on Sunday, we are able to speak the “language of praise” with a little more fluency [for a fuller explanation of how this could work for your family or your church, check out The Secret to a Great Music Ministry by Steve Elzinga (available from Faith Alive Christian Resources; 1-800-333-8300)]. We sing the hymn every Sunday during the month. On the last Sunday of the month we invite those who have practiced their instrument to bring it to the service and help out with the accompaniment.

A typical arrangement might look like this:

  • Stanza 1: unison singing, guitar (picked), bass, and subtle drum accompaniment
  • Stanza 2: four-part harmony, keyboard and guitar accompaniment
  • Stanza 3: four-part harmony, a cappella
  • Stanza 4: Slow tempo a little for a majestic, climactic feel. Four-part harmony with all instruments accompanying.

The instruments could repeat the hymn before or after the service, or during the offering.

He’s Alive!

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“He’s Alive!” is a wonderful, simple chorus that’s fun to sing. It was written by Tom Fettke, a composer associated with Lillenas Publishing Company. His past experiences as a school teacher and as a church choir director and minister of music have made him well equipped to write music that is singable by various age groups and very appropriate for worship. “He’s Alive!” would be appropriate for use on Easter Sunday as an expression of joy that celebrates the risen Savior.

This chorus fits in with our church’s goals of encouraging and training our congregation to sing because the melody can be sung as a round (canon), an early step in developing the skill of part singing. (Remember “Row, row, row your boat” back in elementary school?) We would teach the song to the children during their “worship center” time—first as a unison melody and then as a two-part and three-part round—and to the rest of the congregation during the evening service. Everyone would be encouraged to practice the song in their homes during the week.

This chorus also fits in with our church’s goals of encouraging and training the members of our congregation to play instruments. You’ll notice that an accompaniment is included for Orff instruments. Orff instruments were designed to offer children a successful and fun opportunity to make music. These instruments are easy to use at an early age and are ideal as an introduction to playing an instrument as an accompaniment to a vocal part. After the children are comfortable with singing the melody, we would teach them the various instrumental parts. Our hope is that success with an instrument at an early age will promote continued interest and proficiency in future years.

“He’s Alive!” would be a wonderful call to worship at the beginning of the Easter service. The children could sing through the chorus in unison, accompanied by the Orff instruments. Depending on the number and experience of your children, the congregation could then be invited to join them as they break into three groups and sing the chorus as a round. If your church has a small or inexperienced group of children, you may wish to ask worship leaders or choir members to assist in leading the groups. Any appropriate Easter hymn or song could follow.

Lord Most High

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“Lord Most High” is a favorite of our congregation. I often use it at the beginning of a set of worship songs to invite the congregation to rejoice in the greatness of a God who deserves our praise. The words refer to all creation, peoples, and occasions, and reflect the creation-praise imagery of several psalms, such as Psalm 22:27; 47:2; 97:9. Gary Sadler and Don Harris co-wrote the song; both are staff writers for Hosanna! Integrity Music. Sadler is known for co-writing “Ancient of Days” and for writing “The Power of Your Love.” Harris has also co-written “Let the Heavens Rejoice.”

This song isn’t one that you clap along to. With its 6/8 rhythm, the inclination will be to sway back and forth to the two strong beats per measure. It builds from a simple melody in the first section to a more complicated and uplifting melody line and rhythm in the second section. The first section provides a good teaching opportunity with the “call and response” section. I would introduce the song by having a worship leader sing the call line, which would then be echoed by the congregation. As the congregation gets more familiar with the song, the call could be sung by the men, and the response could be sung by the women. The more complicated second section introduces a 2 against 3 rhythm that interrupts the lilting flow and adds punch to the vocal line. The instrumentalists will have to be aware of the rhythmic difference in the vocals while keeping a steady two beats per measure. The majority of praise and worship music is written using a 3/4 or 4/4 time signature; 6/8 timing is less common and therefore deserves some time and attention, especially from the drums and bass, to get the proper feel.

The song should end on a powerful and triumphant note.

“Lord Most High” could be followed by any song with a similar theme, such as “How Majestic Is Your Name” by Michael W. Smith, the chorus of “Awesome God” by Rich Mullins, or “Let the Heavens Rejoice” by Don Harris and Marty Nystrom.



What Would You Want Sung at Your Funeral?

Last summer at Calvin Seminary, on the first day of a course on the recent history of Christian worship, students were asked to introduce themselves and mention a hymn they would choose to be sung at their funeral. To my surprise, the most frequently chosen hymn was “My Jesus, I Love Thee.”

The Psalter Hymnal Handbook (pp. 731-732) provides the following information about this hymn:

The author, William Featherstone, was a Canadian from Montreal who wrote the text when he was sixteen; it became popular after the New England evangelical preacher Adoniram J. Gordon composed this tune specifically for this text. Both Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary are named after him.

This hymn is recommended as a hymn of commitment and devotion to Christ for baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and many other occasion of worship.



Additional Resource

The Christian Leaders Home Discipleship Hymnbook is a compilation of hymns in the public domain that includes CDs for learning parts and accompaniment, compiled and edited by Doug Horne, director of music at a church plant that ministers to new Christian families, many of whom home-school their children. For more information go to www.Christian-leaders.org.

Marie and Steve Elzinga are church planters with Christian Reformed Home Missions in VAncouver, British Columbia. Marie Elzinga (mcelzinga@yahoo.com) is music coordinator at Pathway Ministries, Byron Center, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 74 © December 2004, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.