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How Hymnody Can Help Diversify Contemporary Worship

Contemporary-worship congregations are rediscovering hymns as treasuries of theological depth that express the full range of emotions and Scripture. Singing hymns together helps people connect across generations and cultures.

Herbert H. Tsang has been trying to promote hymn singing among Chinese churches in Canada for more than twenty years. Most churches have language-specific services in Chinese (Cantonese and/or Mandarin) and English. “The Chinese worship services use some hymns. But hymn repertoires are impoverished among our churches, especially among younger ages and English-speaking congregations,” says Tsang, president of Church Music Ministry of Canada (CMMC) in Vancouver, British Columbia. It took the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown to open more Chinese churches to hymns.   

While collecting songs for Voices Together (VT), a Mennonite hymnal published in 2020, Katie J. Graber was introduced to “Doola Do,” a beloved Navajo song about God’s greatness. The composer and performer was Daniel Smiley, pastor of Black Mountain Mennonite Church in Chinle, Arizona. Smiley worked with the VT text committee to create an English version. “When we sent it back for Navajo youth to sing, Smiley said there were tears of joy that this song would be shared more widely among other cultures as ‘What a Wonderful Savior,’ VT #562,” says Graber, the VT intercultural worship editor. 

At Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, a recent chapel service included the classic Advent hymn “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed.” The 1821 hymn has been published in 814 hymnals. After chapel, one seminarian said to the song leader, “That was so beautiful! Where did you learn it?”  

Jonathan A. Powers, an Asbury worship professor, explains, “Since our 2020 Vital Worship Grant project on Wesleyan-Holiness hymnody, more hymns are being introduced into contemporary worship settings in chapel and churches where students intern and serve. They see hymns as a way to enrich and diversify contemporary worship.” 

The Asbury project is one of several hymn-related grants funded by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Vital Worship Grants program. Churches throughout North America are exploring how singing hymns can help them connect across generations, cross cultural barriers, and explore rich treasures from their own heritage and other Christian traditions. 

Hymn singing connects generations 

COVID-19 lockdowns were generally stricter in Canada than the U.S. “Most churches in Canada didn’t return to in-person worship till spring 2022,” says Herbert Tsang, who teaches computing and mathematics at Trinity Western University in metro Vancouver. His parents live with him, and his mom especially missed singing in two choirs. Tsang dreamed up the 2021 SingTogether grant as a way to promote hymn singing and overcome pandemic isolation. 

“Most worship services in Chinese Canadian churches have new songs each week, mainly ones that music leaders have heard on the radio or online. This relentless new innovation doesn’t allow churches to develop a core of hymns for when people are in need or not happy,” he says. 

Tsang approached five song leaders and choir directors from Chinese Baptist, Evangelical Free, or Mennonite Brethren churches in British Columbia and Alberta. Leaders then recruited members from their church to join SingTogether. Each group had ten to twelve people each and a young adult/senior citizen ratio of 1:1 to 2:1. Many of the younger adults lead music at church, especially in English services, but they spoke Cantonese in their SingTogether groups in deference to older people.  

Tsang mailed each participant a CMMC hymn festival CD and their choice of one book about hymn stories. He also created a SingTogether website with links to hymn stories, Hymn Society presentations, and YouTube videos of hymns and lyrics. 

Groups met weekly online to share hymns and hymn stories that fit a weekly theme, such as joy or hymns by Chinese composers and hymnwriters. They sang together on Zoom. “There weren’t as many audio sync issues as entire congregations have when singing on Zoom, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, there’s a holiness in the messiness,” Tsang says. 

SingTogether provided a platform to connect age groups that don’t normally share faith stories with each other. Young adults enjoyed hearing homebound seniors’ memories, like “I sang this hymn when Billy Graham was in Hong Kong.” Music leaders traded advice on why they chose one hymn version or translation over another or how it went when they introduced the hymn at church.  

Edmonton Chinese Baptist Church [in Alberta] had already been singing mostly hymns. “The choice of hymns we sing has widened because of SingTogether. I learned more background on hymns and am willing to lead hymns not normally sung here, because I learned that brothers and sisters in the congregation also know those hymns,” says volunteer song leader and choir director Isabella Lau Wong. Her pastor worried that singing mostly hymns won’t “attract newcomers,” so she reminded him that worship is for God. Wong also uses newer contemporary praise songs. “I direct our congregation to focus on the text (lyrics) to express their love to God rather than focus on the style of music,” she says.  

As one SingTogether participant told Tsang, “Hymns are treasures from years ago, full of life stories, testimonies of faith, encouragements that cross time and place. We should preserve hymns and promote them to younger generations.”  

New hymnal crosses cultures  

Mennonite congregations in the US and Canada speak more than twenty-six languages, and even more languages are spoken among Mennonite congregations on every continent. Katie J. Graber directed a 2018 Vital Worship Grant that helped members from the Voices Together (VT) hymnal team visit North American congregations that worship in ten non-English languages. Graber is an ethnomusicologist and Ohio State University music instructor who studies race and ethnicity in many contexts, including Mennonite music.  

“Traveling to those churches helped us hear and learn to sing with Mennonite siblings in languages other than English. They shared treasured songs with us such as ‘Kombo na Yesu / The Name of Jesus’ (VT #648), by Stockwell Massamba. She is a refugee from the Congo, which has more baptized Mennonites than Canada does. We met her at Wholicare Community Missionary Church, a Mennonite congregation in Pasadena, California,” Graber says. 

In their travels, Graber’s team also heard songs that were popular for generations among a specific language group, such as the Cheyenne-language “Ehane he'ama,” which means “Father God, you are holy.” Cheyenne Mennonites traditionally understood themselves as receiving a song from the Creator rather than writing or composing it. “Ehane he’ama” was received by Harvey Whiteshield, a teacher, interpreter, and preacher who advocated for using Cheyenne hymns and Indigenous melodies in Mennonite church worship.  

Whiteshield died in 1941. Congregations passed along the song orally, in person and on cassettes, till Dave Graber transcribed it into Western notation for a hymnal he edited, Tsese-Ma’heone-Nemeotȯtse: Cheyenne Spiritual Songs (Mennonite Church USA,1982). “Ehane he’ama / Father God, You Are Holy” appears in English and Cheyenne as VT #59. The hymnal includes about fifty languages in its songs and resources. 

“Our 2020 Vital Worship Grant was written to connect intercultural, immigrant, and minority congregations (beyond those we visited in our 2018 grant) as we celebrated our hymnal launch,” Graber says. “Because of the pandemic, all our launch events had to be virtual, but we made an effort to invite diverse contributors to create four VT launch videos. We also created two videos on anti-racist worship.”  

She hopes people will sing from VT in church worship and regional, national, and international Mennonite and Anabaptist gatherings in North America and beyond. “We wanted VT to represent the diversity of Mennonite denominations and the worldwide family of God. If white Euro-North American people make a habit of learning new songs from around the world, they can sing with the worldwide church in metaphorical and practical ways,” she says. 

Nathan Grieser’s song “Together” (VT #389) expresses this worldwide family theme as it asks God to help family, neighbors, and rivals surrender their preferences and sing together. As verse three notes, “Diff’rence is a place where God is found.” 

Seminarians discover rich treasures in Wesleyan hymn heritage 

Asbury Theological Seminary is rooted in the Wesleyan-Holiness movement fueled by the hymnody of John and Charles Wesley. Asbury’s two largest student groups come from pan-Wesleyan and nondenominational churches. Yet Jonathan A. Powers has learned not to assume that his students can distinguish Wesleyanism from other Christian traditions, read written musical notations, or even define a hymn.  

During a 2020 Vital Worship Grant, Powers led thirteen seminarians, three leaders, and two assistants through a six-month study of The Asbury Hymnal’s history, theology, and practice. “One participant asked what I meant by a hymn. I replied that just being old doesn’t make a song a hymn. A hymn has a structure with a regular meter, rhyme, and verses—or verses with a refrain. Chants have set meters but aren’t hymns. Matt Redman’s ‘10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)’ follows a traditional structure, though it starts with the refrain, not the verse. Matt Maher’s ‘Lord, I Need You’ has a bridge and different repeats so is not a hymn,” Powers says.  

A grant participant commented, “I grew up in a church that sang hymns, but they seemed dull and lifeless.” Another wondered why, if hymns are so important, he’d never heard one. His peers shared stories about hymns from India, South Korean, Black churches, and hymns used in Australian evangelical revivals.  

Students learned about old texts set to new tunes , new texts set to old tunes, how hymn texts form Christians, and how to contextualize hymns to local congregations. Guest speaker Sandra McCracken led a workshop on writing modern hymns.  

The grant culminated in a community hymn sing for which grant participants researched, explained, and led hymns. “People enjoyed it so much that now we have a community hymn sing each semester,” Powers says. “Students wrote hymns for an Asbury contest, and we sing those new hymns in chapel, such as ‘Come, Messiah’ [starts at 20:02], an Advent hymn by Rachel Smith and David Ray. Chapel music teams hardly ever plan a chapel now without at least one hymn. Students are still contacting me about how well it’s going to include hymns in contemporary worship churches. One contemporary church proposed a lessons and carols event with Scripture readings and song and asked me for hymn suggestions.” 

“Through our grant, we introduced our seminary community to hymnody as this rich treasury in song form. Just as we value new songs, we value that treasury today because we want to include all eras in music used in church worship,” Powers concludes.