For Worship Leaders

It was about six years ago that Aileen and I first moved to Oakville. We realize now that we were backwards in our decision to move, for we moved first and looked for a church second. If, in the future, it becomes necessary that we move again, we will seek a church first and a house second. When we arrived in Oakville, we went searching for a God-glorifying church. Our search took us through several congregations. There were a few that seemed promising for a couple of weeks, but one after the other we determined that they were unsuitable. Some had very poor statements of faith and some seemed to care far more about adherence to programs and fads than adherence to God’s Word. Some were just plain weird. It was a frustrating time and one I hope we never to have to repeat.

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At one point we spent several months in a church that we thought was one we could settle in. Though it was in a neighboring town and required a lengthy drive, we were growing desperate and were willing to drive almost any distance to be part of a God-glorifying church. We enjoyed the preaching at this particular church and immediately benefited from it. The worship was focused on God and was based primarily around songs that were theologically-sound. The worship leaders tended to give equal focus to traditional hymns and contemporary songs, a mix that we quite enjoyed. Eventually we found, though, that the church was distinctly unfriendly. This dawned on us one Sunday morning when, after attending for several months, it occurred to us that we did not really know anyone in the church and that nobody seemed to be making any effort in welcoming us. Around that time a new church began in our neighborhood, much closer to home. We became involved in this church and were there for the next five years.

There was one thing about that church (the one we attended for a couple of months) that continually bothered me. It seemed that, for some reason, the church placed a limit on the number of verses they would sing of any given hymn. The limit was three. Sometimes this was not a big deal. Other times it was a great frustration. One hymn that we sang quite often was “My Jesus, I love Thee.” This was clearly a hymn that was a favorite of the church. It is a favorite of mine, so I was always glad to sing it. But there was a problem. “My Jesus, I Love Thee” has four stanzas. And yet this church seemed to always adhere to that limit of three which meant that they would always remove one of the verses. The first time we sang it, they sang stanzas one, two and three. The next time they sang stanzas one, two and four. And that was the pattern they established.

Before I continue, allow me to provide you with the lyrics for this beautiful hymn:

My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine;
For Thee all the follies of sin I resign.
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

I love Thee because Thou has first loved me,
And purchased my pardon on Calvary’s tree.
I love Thee for wearing the thorns on Thy brow;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

I’ll love Thee in life, I will love Thee in death,
And praise Thee as long as Thou lendest me breath;
And say when the death dew lies cold on my brow,
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

In mansions of glory and endless delight,
I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright;
I’ll sing with the glittering crown on my brow;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, this hymn shows a clear progression from verse one to four. It begins at conversion (“for Thee all the follies of sin I resign”), looks back to redemption (“purchased my pardon on Calvary’s tree”), looks forward to persevering in the faith (“praise Thee as long as Thou lendest me breath”) and finishes with glorification (“I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright”). To eliminate any one of the verses is to eliminate much of the power and even the purpose of the hymn. It is to tear the hymn’s heart out. It was an ongoing frustration that they would not allow us to sing the complete hymn and thus rejoice in God’s complete work.

Paul Jones has noticed this phenomenon as well. In his book Singing and Making Music he writes, “On occasion I have witnessed a pastor or song leader in the context of worship say something like this: “Let’s all stand and sing ‘Come, Thou Almighty King,’ and we’ll do verses 1 and 3.” In so doing, he has failed to notice that the hymn is a hymn to the Trinity (in spite of the fact that this text is usually sun go the tune TRINITY…and that it clearly outlines praise to the triune God in its stanzas.” He goes on, “It might make some sense to sing the fourth stanza alone, since the doctrine remains intact, but hymns should normally be sung in their entirety. By omitting the second stanza, one leaves God the Son out of the picture, misses the point of the Trinitarian hymn, and unwittingly perpetuates incomplete, heretical doctrine. A bit of planning with forethought and a read-through of the hymn’s text would prevent such an error. Moreover, it might occasion an appropriate comment to alert the congregation to what it was about to sing.” Now it may be overstating things to say that a worship leader may perpetuate heresy in eliminating a stanza, but I think Jones’ point stands. Hymns were meant to be sung in their entirety. Of course, this is not always possible. Some hymn-writers tended to be a little bit long-winded and it is not always practical to sing fifteen or twenty stanzas of a song. But even when a song extends through many verses, I believe that some careful planning by the worship director could choose verses that would not leave out doctrine that is critical to the song’s purpose.

Amazing Grace is an example of song that is sung only in part. Traditionally, churches sing four verses, but unbeknownest to many, Newton actually wrote seven stanzas. Still, the heart of the hymn is provided in the four verses we most commonly sing and we do not lose a lot in eliminating the remaining three. So it can be done.

And so I suppose I am writing today to ask worship leaders to exercise care in choosing songs. Too often a critical portion of a song is eliminated for the sake of brevity. Too often scheduling takes priority over theology.