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Jonathan A. Powers on Teaching Hymns Appropriate to Context

If your congregation experiences hymn singing as dull and lifeless, then try Jonathan A. Powers’ advice on finding, introducing, and teaching hymns that will resonate with your worshiping community.

Jonathan A. Powers teaches worship at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Assisted by hymnologist Julie Tennent, he was general editor for the 2022 Our Great Redeemer’s Praise, a pan-Wesleyan hymnal. During the pandemic, he led a 2020 Vital Worship Grant project on Wesleyan-Holiness hymnody. In this edited conversation, Powers explains how to choose, introduce, and teach hymns appropriate to a worshiping community’s context. 

How would you describe your 2020 Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship? 

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, I’ve learned not to assume that my students can distinguish Wesleyanism from other Christian traditions, read written musical notations, or even define a hymn.  

Our grant project led thirteen seminarians, three leaders, and two assistants through a six-month study of The Asbury Hymnal’s history, theology, and practice. That hymnal was published in 2018, along with renovation of Asbury’s Estes Chapel, for use in weekly worship at the seminary. 

What did participants learn during your grant year?  

Students learned about the value of using hymns in contemporary worship and other styles. Even though a hymn’s content may be biblically and theologically sound, worshipers may experience the hymn differently depending on the worship context. That is why grant participants studied new tunes set to old texts, new texts set to old tunes, how hymn texts form Christians, and how to contextualize hymns to local congregations, and how to choose hymns. Guest speaker Sandra McCracken led a workshop on writing modern hymns.

Can you give an example of a mismatch between a hymn and a worshiping community’s context? 

I grew up in East Kentucky and learned to play hymns in a bluegrass style. While I was serving as a missionary in Uganda, I remember trying to do “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” in bluegrass style, just like in my home church. Instead of singing, everyone just looked at me. So I regrouped and said, “Let’s try this a cappella.” The worshipers swung into the hymn with their own harmonies and different rhythms.  

I also remember attending an Episcopal church for a while in Lexington, Kentucky. It had a very high-church style with traditional English hymns. The choir was very good at singing in Latin. A new rector tried to bring in spirituals and contemporary hymns. But the choir and congregation didn’t know how to syncopate, so it all felt awkward, kind of like my bluegrass attempt in Uganda. 

Can you say more about hymn styles? 

The Uganda and Lexington experiences helped me realize that the musical setting needs to allow the words to come alive to worshipers. At Asbury, we have the blessing of learning from different nationalities. United Methodist hymnals usually have at least a few songs written in Spanish, but when you do the song on the organ, you don’t hear that Latino flair. We can ask Spanish speakers to teach us more about the cultural expression of Latino music. 

It’s important not to force a Western music context on an entire audience. And even within Western hymnody, there are many styles—African American, American, British, camp meeting, European, global, gospel, Wesleyan, and more. Many older hymns are meant to be sung in harmony, but you can no longer assume that a congregation can read written notation, although some can learn harmony by ear. Musicians might be able to read chord charts but not scores. 

Do you have any rules of thumb for choosing context-appropriate hymns? 

I recommend focusing on what I call “the four S’s”: Season, Scripture, Structure, and Setting. All work together like fingers on a hand, and you can find all four by looking at hymnal indexes or on the Hymnary website. As a church music director, I use this rubric myself to sit, pray, and read as I choose hymns. 

  • Season: Look for hymns that fit the liturgical season or the topics or themes of the sermon series you are in. 
  • Scripture: Find hymns that fit the Scripture for the day, whether that comes from the lectionary or the preacher’s sermon text.
  • Structure: Where in the structure of the service will a particular hymn fit? Do you need it as an opening hymn to gather in worshipers? To sing before or respond to Scripture or the sermon? During the Eucharist or going out/sending/blessing? 
  • Setting: Besides what I’ve already mentioned about musical settings, consider the setting your congregation is in. For example, if yours is an older congregation that’s been through COVID-19, flu, pneumonia, and death, then look for hymns that acknowledge pain and sorrow yet offer hope and assurance. 

What are your tips for introducing and teaching a hymn in worship? 

Knowing how to choose, introduce, and teach hymns will be especially useful for the seminarians (usually about half our graduates) who will end up as pastors in churches with no music director. Maybe there will be no pianist or organist. About half of Wesleyan churches follow a contemporary style. A pastor may need to direct music from the piano, on a guitar, or behind a mic. During our grant, we brought in a choir director who taught how to conduct hymns in common musical time signatures, like 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4.  

Perhaps you can gather a small ensemble to sing the hymn first. If the church has an instrumentalist, then ask them to play through the song first. If the instrumentalist is a guitarist, then ask that person to sing the melody while strumming chords. Or you as pastor can sing through the first verse and ask the congregation to join in when they can. 

How else can a leader draw a congregation deeper into the hymn-singing experience? 

You add value to the experience when you briefly share about the hymn’s context, history, composer, or lyricist. “Next we will sing ‘Here Is Love, Vast as the Ocean.’ Welsh poet William Rees wrote the text, American gospel composer Robert Lowry composed the most popular setting for Rees’ text, and the hymn became an anthem of the Welsh revival.” “We’re about to sing together this great Advent hymn ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.’ It is rooted in the medieval ‘O Antiphons on who Christ is and what he does or will do. In singing this hymn we call on Christ to come now.” 

Pastors can add books of hymn stories and Christian cultural histories to their own collection or the church library so lay members can research a hymn. Good choices include 101 Hymn Stories and 101 More Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck; A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing, by Walter Brueggeman; Diverse Worship: African American, Caribbean and Hispanic Perspectives, by Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid; the three-volume Then Sings My Soul, by Robert J. Morgan; and Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology, by Mark Noll. You might also seek biographical information on Charles Wesley, biographies of Fanny Crosby, William and Catherine Booth, and their daughter Catherine Booth-Clibborn.