Once of the hardest tasks for me as a parish priest was choosing all the hymns at the beginning of each month. Not only did I have to think about the readings used for each service, and bear in mind the liturgical season, but was determined not to muddle the congregation by using more than one hymn book!
However, the more difficult task involved thinking quite hard about each hymn and its purpose. I often wonder how many of our congregation think about, not only the words of each hymn or worship song, but also about what we are doing when we sing. I remember readings some good books on worship in my early twenties which taught me to see hymn/song singing in worship as a movement towards God. Therefore what we do when we sing should become a seamless journey into worship and then out again into the world. So often that is not the case, and songs can become a disjointed amble through someones favourites.
The more traditional hymn books (Hymns Ancient and Modern (?)), do help us a little here - hymns arranged for morning and evening, as well as by season, so we do not sing advent hymns at Easter, or evening hymns at 10am. Yet, I have discovered that many hymns in traditional hymn books are declarations about God - drawing together a Christian community in declaring faith 'We have a gospel...', 'Fight the good fight..', 'At the name of Jesus..'. rather than addressing God directly. Whilst there is a need to affirm one another in faith, worship does seem incomplete without our song being addressed to the one we worship. So we move to the other extreme to worship songs...as John Wimber called ' love songs to Jesus.' A whole change in hymnody came about with charismatic renewal in the 70s and 80s with songs about love and adoration - have a look at Songs of Fellowship and you will discover a good many. Yet, a diet of repetitive chorus' so often fails to challenge personal faith, or vocalise a sense of commitment.
So what would my ideal be? - 1st Hymn (processional) a good entry song eg. 'All Creatures of our God and King', 2nd hymn - a song which reflects the readings (either personal or declaratory), 3rd hymn - a personal hymn of commitment for the offertory (also reflecting the readings), prayerful songs during the administration and a 5th hymn - a good going out song eg. 'All my hope...' or 'Crown him with many crowns..'
Hymns and songs can make such a difference to drawing people into worship and helping individuals to articulate their faith...and care does need to be taken in choosing them. As I now am going to spend some of the day preparing some worship for Bishop's Council for its meeting next weekend, I am all too aware that what I chose could make all the difference between helping people move closer to God, or leaving them totally disconnected.