Sharing Hymn Stories Invites Worshipers into Experience
Knowing more about the hymns they are singing helps worshipers feel more connected to God and each other in the universal body of Christ that spans all times and places.
Canada’s strict COVID-19 protocols meant that many churches did not meet in person for two years. “I know of older people who had not stepped outside their apartment door in more than a year due to chronic illness,” said Herbert H. Tsang, a computer and engineering professor who is also president of Church Music Ministry of Canada (CMMC) in Vancouver, British Columbia.
He used a 2021 Vital Worship Grant from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to help younger worship leaders and senior citizens research and sing hymns together to overcome pandemic isolation.
Researching the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” helped grant participant Yvonne Law encourage members at South Vancouver Pacific Grace Mennonite Brethren Church, a bilingual Cantonese-English congregation. The hymn was written in the German language nearly 400 years ago during bloodshed, famine, and plague.
“I shared the story that this hymn was written by Martin Rinkart, a pastor during the Thirty Years’ War in Europe,” said Law, a volunteer worship leader and choir conductor at her church. “So many people perished in this conflict that he was the last surviving pastor in his city. He wrote this hymn when he was able to secure a ceasefire for the city he lived in. The ‘Now Thank We All Our God’ story was important to teach us to give thanks not only when life is going well, but also in times of trouble and distress. God is greater than our difficulties and is with us constantly. In the past few years, there has been so much uncertainty and conflict in the world, just like when this hymn was written. Yet God is faithful and unchanging, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”
Like Tsang and Law, project directors and participants of other hymn-related Vital Worship Grants have found that sharing hymn stories makes a difference. It deepens worshipers’ awareness of God’s character and strengthens their identity as members of Christ’s body across centuries, languages, and cultures.
Your congregation can nourish relationships with God and with others by finding hymns and hymn stories and sharing them in worship.
Finding hymns from many cultures
According to Katie J. Graber, hymns have text-heavy strophic verses or stanzas that line up syllabically, follow a poetic meter, and are often written in four-part harmony. Because hymn texts follow a specific meter, it’s often possible to sing a hymn text to a different tune of the same meter. Graber is an ethnomusicologist who teaches music at Ohio State University, was intercultural worship editor for the 2020 Mennonite hymnal Voices Together (VT), and has been awarded three Vital Worship Grants.
“Many people assume that hymnody itself is a white/European phenomenon,” Graber notes. “That’s where it started, but many cultures have embraced hymnody. There are African and other cultures that sang in harmony before European missionaries arrived. People everywhere are singing older hymns and writing new music for worship in many genres, including hymns such as ‘Noche Anunciada’ from Argentina and ‘Ososo / Come Now, O Prince of Peace’ from Korea.” VT includes about fifty languages in its songs and resources.
Gospel hymns often include an identical chorus or refrain after each verse, and Graber recommends looking for them in the “endlessly creative history” on display in the African American Heritage Hymnal and One Life, One Faith, One Baptism. VT text editor Adam Tice suggests looking for new music from choral composer Carlos Colon and Mark A. Miller, who teaches sacred music at Yale University and Drew Theological School and is minister of music at Christ Church in Summit, New Jersey. Miller’s work includes “Child of God,” “God Is Still Speaking,” and “I Believe.”
Herbert H. Tsang built the SingTogether website during his grant so participants could find Chinese-language hymn videos from the Hong Kong Hymn Society. Many of these hymns come from the ecumenical Chinese-English hymnals Hymns of Universal Praise and Hymns of Life.
At SingTogether meetings, Tsang said, “People would say, ‘I know this hymn, but I can’t find it.’ So I’d toss in a nugget like, ‘One way to find hymns is to look at a hymnal index.’”
For newer songs and hymns written or composed by Chinese musicians, Tsang suggests the groups Heavenly Melody and Stream of Praise or hymn tunes by Swee-Hong Lim. Lim edited Faith, Hope, and Love: Songs for the Church Hymn Collection. It includes many of his tunes as well as hymns for which he wrote the text and tune, such as “What Is the Purpose of Your Life Today?” and “How Long Will You Hide Your Face?”
Jonathan A. Powers edited the 2022 hymnal Our Great Redeemer’s Praise so people can find hymns and responsive readings spanning “the full scope of John and Charles Wesley’s theological heritage.” Powers, a worship professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, led a 2020 Vital Worship Grant project on Wesleyan-Holiness hymnody.
“During the grant,” he said, “we explored how hymns aren’t just important in Wesleyan tradition. There are also hymns from British, camp meetings, gospel, and global contexts as well as students’ reported contexts, like ‘This hymn was written a few towns over from me’ or ‘We always sang this during revivals in New York City.’”
Where to find hymn stories
Tsang, Powers, Graber, and others recommend looking for hymn stories in books and websites and while singing with Christians from other cultures.
Kenneth W. Osbeck wrote many books about hymn stories, such as 101 Hymn Stories and Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions. If you are using a denominational hymnal, check whether it has an accompanying companion or handbook, such as Emily Brink’s Psalter Hymnal Handbook, companion to the 1987 Psalter Hymnal.
The freely searchable website Hymnary.org often includes hymn stories and author and composer profiles in its hymn listings. The membership-based Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology offers free daily content. The United Methodist Church has been adding to its ongoing History of Hymns content for decades, including stories related to Korean and Spanish hymns.
For audible content on hymn stories, check out the podcasts Voices United (from The Center for Congregational Song) and archived Open Your Hymnal episodes.
Vital Worship Grants helped Katie Graber and colleagues learn to sing with non-English and multiethnic Mennonite congregations (2018), highlight diverse voices while launching the VT hymnal (2020), and gather histories and stories to create a VT handbook (2023).
“Hearing stories from Keshia Littlebear-Cetrone [see pp. 48–49] and others at White River Cheyenne Mennonite Church [in Busby, Montana,] deepened our understanding of how worship has interacted with histories of families, tribes, Christian mission, and settler colonialism. We witnessed the way that a particular community has lived into Western Christian music and other worship practices as well as working to preserve Cheyenne language and songs,” Graber said.
Experiencing how cultures use and move to music can also be part of the story, as Graber discovered at Nations Worship Center and Philadelphia Praise Center, both Mennonite congregations in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“The enthusiasm and physical participation (clapping, dancing, laughing) reminded us that even emotional involvement in worship is culturally bound. It is important both to stretch people and to have comfortable experiences of communicating. If worship planners are not drawn into the stories of songs and styles of worship, they may reinforce existing barriers by simply choosing the familiar,” she said.
Hymn stories of personal connection and history
In Western Canada, SingTogether participants told Tsang that sharing hymn stories deepened their appreciation for hymns. “They said that that the memory of sharing hymns and hymn stories brought hope that the pandemic would end,” Tsang said. “Many grant participants also talked about using hymnals for personal devotions.”
One of Tsang’s favorite hymn stories is about a Chinese Christmas hymn called 明星燦爛歌 / “Midnight Stars Make Bright the Skies,” published in 1930. He said: “The hymn tune was a winning composition in a hymn contest, and it was composed by Chi-Fang Liang. In 1945 she married Dr. Peter Ma from Victoria, British Columbia, and she passed away in Vancouver, BC, on October 10, 1988. SingTogether participants enjoyed learning of that local connection.
“Also, the hymn text by Ching-chiu Yang was translated to English by Mildred Wiant, and the tune was harmonized by Bliss Wiant (1895–1975). The Wiants were a missionary couple from Ohio who went to China in 1923 with the goal of someday introducing hymns to Chinese Christians that would not sound foreign to them. Both Wiants taught music at Yenching University, and Bliss was the main driving force to put out Hymns of Universal Praise [published in 1936; the most recent edition is from 2006],” Tsang recounts. Listen to “Midnight Stars Make Bright the Morning Skies” in English and Cantonese.
Hymns of Universal Praise was a model of ecumenical Indigenous hymnology, according to Hong Kong hymnologist Andrew Naap-kei Leung. He wrote that many Chinese hymns were later translated into Burmese, Danish, Dutch, English, Indonesian, Swedish, Thai, and Vietnamese. There are now ecumenical hymnals in Korean and Spanish and in countries such as Australia and New Zealand, and there are lists of English-language hymns common to Catholics and Protestants.
One participant in the Asbury Vital Worship Grant “didn’t grow up with or even know any hymns, said project leader Jonathan A. Powers. “Now his absolute favorite hymn is ‘The Love of God.’” The seminarian discovered that Frederick M. Lehman first heard the words “Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made . . .” in a camp meeting sermon. Those words began the third-stanza climax to two verses and a chorus that Lehman wrote, along with a simple melody that his daughter Claudia F. Mays harmonized.
Lehman knew from the camp meeting sermon that the third verse’s text was found scratched on an asylum cell after an inmate died. Yet he always wondered where the inmate heard “to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry.” Years later, he found a rabbi who explained that those words are rooted in an acrostic poem written by a rabbi in eleventh-century Germany for the Feast of Weeks, which Christians now celebrate as Pentecost.
How to share hymn stories in worship
During Asbury’s grant year, Powers discovered another hymn story with a camp meeting connection. “Thomas O. Chisholm wrote the original version of ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness’ after hearing Asbury Seminary founder Henry Clay Morrison preach at a camp meeting. Chisholm wrote this despite health setbacks that ended his ability to serve as a minister.
“Asbury is celebrating its 2023 centennial for eighteen months to cover the 2022–23 academic and 2023 calendar years, so we commissioned Nigerian American Grammy-nominated Shawn E. Okpebholo to write a new arrangement of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” Powers said. Asbury’s president shared the story in ninety seconds at the 2022 convocation. Next, Okpebholo, a Wheaton College music professor and internationally known composer, led the choir in the new arrangement.
Tsang says it’s important to match hymn-story sharing to congregational context. “I tell music directors, ‘Your job is to put words in people’s mouths through music that is theologically sound and musically interesting. Nobody wants a long music lecture in worship.’ Some churches use a bulletin insert to share two or three paragraphs about a song.”
Graber advises churches to “anchor songs and worship resources in human relationships by sharing stories of individuals and communities and creating new stories through worshiping together. Hearing stories and context behind worship materials helps people expand their ideas about who they are worshiping with.”
“Another key to giving context about songs during worship,” Graber adds, “is to connect the story or information to the act of worship you are performing or to the theme of worship that day. Flow in worship is maintained when leaders know what they are doing and why, and reference to specific words and music can be drawn into these acts,” she says, offering these examples from different cultures and eras:
- “As we gather to worship today, we remember that we worship with a worldwide family of God. With this next song, ‘Uyai mose (Come All You People),’ we worship in the Shona language with our siblings in Zimbabwe.”
- “Today’s theme is the depth of God’s love—a spiritual truth that humans have always struggled with. The next song, ‘O Love, How Deep, How Broad,’ was written by Thomas à Kempis in the fifteenth century. It can help connect us to the unimaginable longevity of God’s love as well.”
- “Today’s offering is going to our sister church in South Korea, so we will sing the Korean song ‘Naege itneun hyangyu (To My Precious Lord).’ This song is also loved in Korea and is often used as an offering song.”
- “As we send a group on a learning and service tour of Guatemala, we will sing this traditional blessing from Guatemala, ‘La paz de la tierra (The Peace of the Earth Be with You).’”
“For some communities or certain situations,” Graber said, “even two sentences might feel disruptive. In that case, consider projecting or printing the song context and connecting it to the act of worship or theme. You might also project the songwriter’s name and photo. Some communities may appreciate phrases of thanks and praise for a song, such as, ‘We give thanks to God for the words and music of “Waymaker” from our sister Sinach, who lives and worships in Nigeria.’
“Also consider offering stories, thanks, and prayers for contemporary writers, publishers, and recording companies in any location. And worship leaders should remember to tell stories or give context for songs and hymns that are from a worship leader’s own tradition. If we only ever contextualize songs from other cultures, we are subtly ‘othering’ them, setting them apart and marking them as different from our ‘normal’ practices.”
To find hymns and hymn stories, look first to Hymnary.org, Hymnology Archive, the United Methodist Church History of Hymns, and books of hymn stories by Robert Brown and Mark Norton, Robert J. Morgan, and Kenneth W. Osbeck.
Membership-based hymn societies in the U.S. and Canada, Great Britain and Ireland, Hong Kong (in Chinese), and New Zealand often offer some free access to hymns and hymn stories. Other online sources list English-language hymnals by denomination and hymnals with companions or handbooks.
OCP, a U.S. publisher of Catholic sacred music, has bilingual hymnals and liturgical resources in several languages. Check out its free webinar on how to use your hymnal as a resource.
Find dozens of hymns, songs, and refrains from many countries archived on the World Council of Churches (WCC) website, including many songs by Church of Sweden pastor and composer Per Harling, including his 2022 hymn “Pray for Peace.” Check out two WCC Advent resource guides, Imagine: Peace (bilingual English/Spanish songs) and Telling Peace.
Listen to traditional African hymns on the Belgian website of Universal Production Music. Read Anneli Loepp Thiessen’s forthcoming article “Establishing Best Practices for Intercultural Contemporary Worship Music: A Case Study of ‘Way Maker’ by Sinach,” (The Hymn, 2023) or scroll down to read the abstract.
Use this helpful Voices Together hymnal flowchart to determine copyright licensing needs.
Watch this Hymn Society “100 Years of Song” interview series featuring Hymn Society leaders such as Swee-Hong Lim. These leaders speak about their own stories and interest in congregational singing.