Once again, I’ve gone and made a little introduction sheet, this time for music ministry. It was made specifically with Grace Anglican Church in Fitchburg in mind, so it deals with the old Episcopal hymnal (1940) instead of the current one (1982). Other than that, I think my method described here for picking music for worship is pretty applicable to any Anglican setting. And with the BCP-specific references taken in a different light, any other denomination could make use of it too. Perhaps I’ll rewrite it in a more Protestant-friendly way someday, but for now I’m focusing on my vocation within the Anglican Communion, and how to best serve the Church with the capacities God has given me.
Summary guidelines for picking music for worship services
Readings & Psalm
Collect of the day
Note: I’m referring to all music in here as “songs.” This is simply a simplified generalization; it pertains equally to classic hymns, contemporary songs, and ancient chants.
Step #1 – check the BCP for the collect, readings, and Psalm
Collect of the day: They’re found on pages 211-246. Oftentimes, there is a scripture reading that they correspond to, usually the gospel. The collect may contain a memorable phrase that’s worth repeating with a song.
Readings: The lectionary begins on page 889 (make sure it’s explicitly the “Revised Common Lectionary”). The readings do not always come together to make a unifying theme. More often, two of them are connected somehow, and the other is completely unrelated. As you probably are aware, the lectionary typically moves through NT and gospel books consecutively, and the OT readings often correspond to one of the others. On special days such as Pentecost, though, all three readings probably point to the major celebration. Many songs quote or paraphrase scripture, so picking songs that match can be very effective.
Psalm: In Morning and Evening Prayer, the Psalm is a standalone part of the service, like the readings. In Eucharist services, the Psalm is a response to the OT reading, and as such they generally have some sort of topical connection. So while on one hand it isn’t as important to try to find songs that match the OT or Psalm, but on the other hand there are a lot of songs that are Psalm-inspired, so when you do come across one, it may be a good idea.
Step #2 – anticipate the sermon topic
Scripture: Most often, people tend to preach from the gospel or NT reading. Sometimes they’ll use more than one reading, sometimes not. Regardless of how qualified you may feel to write a sermon, it’s surprisingly easy to anticipate what a sermon might be about. Read the passages, think them through, consider what sort of teaching opportunities are there, how you would explain it to a new Christian, and pray for the Spirit’s guidance. It’s not foolproof, but it’s a good method to employ.
Preacher: Of course, you can always ask the preacher what the text & message will be. Not only can this help you pick songs more easily, but it makes for helpful accountability to the preacher’s preparation and clarity!
Step #3 – investigate hymnal resources (using the 1940 hymnal)
Occasional Hymns: Page vii has the table of contents for the hymnal. This can help you find good options for hymns that match the season, holiday, or a sacramental celebration such as the Eucharist.
General Hymns & Topical Index: Hymns 266-600 are “general hymns,” and are organized by subject index as described on page 799. These general subjects can help you find hymns that fit scripture themes or sermon topics. Additionally, the index on pages 799-803 has a more detailed list of topics, which is even more helpful than the general subject index.
Liturgical Index: On page 804 there’s a table of suggested hymns for every Sunday of the year. This would be a handy tool except for the fact that it’s based upon an old lectionary which we don’t use anymore. Some of the Sundays are still the same, though, so it’s worth checking this out if you’re still low on ideas.
Beyond the 1940 hymnal: I don’t know of any similar resources to the above for contemporary worship music, I just search through my large folder of music until I come across songs that I think will work. However, if you look at the lyrics and consider what they say about God and our relationship to him, you can get a good sense of what topical labels you could apply to it.
Step #4 – organize your findings
Number of songs: Most churches develop a pattern of how much music is in their worship services, and where they’re located; this is both helpful for planning (knowing what you need to find), and unhelpful if you feel constricted by those options. Here are a number of options when songs could be sung:
Processional – specifically while the ministers enter
Opening – generally before, during, or after the ministers enter; before the Opening Acclamation
Gloria – the “Glory to God” traditionally follows the Collect for Purity; in some seasons or places, a different song may replace it.
Before the readings – After the Collect of the Day and before the readings
Psalm – the Psalm typically is a response to the OT reading, and thus lands between the OT and NT.
Sequence or Gospel Acclamation or Alleluia – between the New Testament and Gospel readings
Sermon Hymn – after the Gospel reading; before the sermon
Anthem or Offertory – after the sermon; during the collection
Sanctus – the “holy holy holy” during the Communion prayers
Fraction Anthem – often the agnus Dei (lamb of God) during the Communion prayers
Communion – sung while the congregation receives Communion
Post-Communion – after the Post-Communion prayer, before the blessing & dismissal
Closing or Recessional – after the blessing & dismissal
When to sing what: Some songs fit more obviously into a worship service than others. Songs about the Eucharist are best sung during Communion, or perhaps just before or after. Songs that pertain to the sermon topic are best sung after the sermon, especially at the Offertory or the Closing. Sometimes it’s okay to foreshadow the sermon in song, but people are less likely to make that connection consciously. Songs that pertain to the liturgical season could go anywhere, but generally are more effective early in the service to help “set the mood.” This is also true for holidays.
Musical style: Too often, people put contemporary songs in one part of the service and hymns in another. This probably reflects the attitude that hymns are more “serious” than modern songs, and thus the modern songs are kept at the beginning. Now, it is true that many modern songs are more affective (emotional), and that many hymns are more theological (intellectual), but these are very sweeping generalizations, and should not force an unnecessary rule of thumb.
That said, however, the style of music does have a profound impact on people, and should be thought through. A bouncy upbeat piece of music, regardless of the lyrics, is not going to help people process a sermon they just heard about sin and repentance. But it would help them process a sermon on the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. This is especially important when more than one song is sung in a row. Some contrast between consecutive songs is good (too much similarity gets boring), but if that bouncy upbeat song comes right after a slow quiet hymn about the sufferings of Jesus, the emotional shift might be jarring.
The liturgical season can also play into this: Lent is a good time to cut back on the bouncy upbeat songs, while Easter is a good time to bring them back. In general, I find that a lot of modern songs are upbeat, and more difficult to find ones that fit well in Lent or Advent. But there are always some somewhere.
Singability: This is often overlooked. Hymn-lovers may tend to assume wrongly that all those young whippersnappers can read music and therefore sing along. Modern music fans may tend to assume wrongly that “even the old folks” should be able to keep up with their fast lyrics and long-held cadences. This is both a strength and a weakness to having musically-skilled ministers; they need to be competent enough to lead, but not aloof enough to think they drag everyone with them all the time.
All this being said, there is value to ‘stretching’ a congregation; encouraging growth in singing abilities helps remind people that God desires growth in other areas of life too. If a song proves somewhat difficult, find a way to introduce it gently, and be sure to repeat it a couple times in subsequent worship services to help them solidify it. Repetition is the best way to learn things.