Andrew Fletcher famously said, “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.”
I’ve heard this and similar arguments many times, and I just read another example in a helpful book, Gordon Wenham’s The Psalter Reclaimed:
The words hymn writers and liturgists put on our lips in worship affect us profoundly: they teach us what to think and feel, the more effectively as they are put to music so we can hum them to ourselves whenever we are inclined. (105)
I want to believe Wenham is right. But experience teaches that—for me personally, at least—Wenham and Fletcher couldn’t be more wrong. There is never a moment during a worship service in which my mind is less likely to be engaged than when we are singing (well, okay, maybe the Ladies Missionary Prayer Group announcement). There is never a portion of the service in which it is more difficult for me to really focus on what I’m saying than when I’m saying that something with rhythm and pitch.
I hate to admit this. It isn’t right. But I know it’s true because of the many times over the years when, while singing a familiar song, even one I’ve memorized, a phrase’s actual meaning strikes me for the very first time. It just happened again recently with a Christmas carol and, true to form, I can’t remember which one it was…
The exception for me is probably when I sing as part of a small group like a men’s quartet, something I’ve done countless times over 20 years. During practice it’s very hard to think about the message of the song. Nearly impossible, even if I’ve just encouraged the other singers to do it. But when we’re actually singing to the congregation, I often get a sense that I’m saying something important and I’m somehow enabled to stop and pay attention to what it is.
I think my inattention is especially profound when I’m singing a congregational hymn I’ve sung 921 times before, beginning in 1982. I can’t and don’t blame old hymns. I do love so many of them (“And Can It Be!” is my favorite), all the more when their message squeaks through to my brain. But perhaps this is an argument for the importance of using at least some contemporary hymnody: maybe we (or just I?) need the shock of the unfamiliar to make us “sing with the understanding also” (1 Cor 14:15).