"We can’t choose that hymn for Sunday because the congregation doesn’t know it." Too often we allow unfamiliarity to stand in the way of choosing a hymn that might, in four or five verses, sum up the Scripture, sermon, or theme for a worship service. It is true that the more comfortable congregations feel, the more they are able to free themselves to worship and experience God in community. Does this mean we should not expose our congregations to new hymns? No.
As leaders of the church, one of our primary responsibilities is to teach the congregation, not merely one more Scripture or one more hymn, but new ways to encounter God. We should provide our congregations a steady diet of new experiences, one of which is learning new hymns.
When is the best time to teach new hymns? Informal gatherings, such as fellowship dinners, Bible study, and United Methodist Women’s and United Methodist Men’s meetings are ideal times to sing old favorites and learn new hymns.
Sunday school assemblies and coffee time on Sunday mornings also provide opportunities to learn new hymns. The best time to learn or reinforce a new hymn is at the gathering time, or when people are preparing themselves for worship. At such times, instruction can be given; the congregation can rehearse the hymn and become familiar with it.
If you are going to teach a new hymn, you may wish to do the following:
- Give a brief introduction to the hymn. Explain where it comes in the service and how it relates to what precedes or follows it. You may wish to tell the congregation why you think the hymn is worth knowing and why you enjoy it.
- Have the accompanist play one stanza through as the members of the congregation listen and follow in their hymnals.
- Either sing the first stanza as the congregation listens or have a choir sing a stanza as the congregation listens; or do both, and add an instrument to highlight the melody.
- Have the congregation sing a stanza. If it sounds shaky, try again.
- When the congregation sings the hymn in worship, use your choir to reinforce the melody line. Reserve part-singing for a time when the congregation can sing more confidently.
Are there other ways to reinforce a new hymn tune? Yes, the prelude, postlude, offertory, and special music can be used reinforce a new hymn tune.
Organ or piano arrangements for many hymn tunes can be found at music stores; however, many accompanists can do on-the-spot arranging from the hymnal. Playing an arrangement of the hymn tune you are teaching will subliminally reinforce the melody.
If a choir sings one or two stanzas of a hymn as an anthem the week before the congregation learns it, the new tune is reinforced. Hymn concertatos provide another way of learning new hymns. Here, the choir does most of the singing, while the congregation joins in the refrain or last stanza. This arrangement might be considered a "jazzed-up" version of a hymn and can be an effective way to revitalize old favorites and teach new ones.
Teaching requires careful planning. Begin with a clear objective and follow it by outlining a plan of action. Finally, have patience. Do not try to do too much too soon.
Your congregation may learn only three new hymns in the next year. If the three hymns become favorites, however, then your congregation will have had three new experiences in which they are likely to have encountered God.