How to Plan a Hymn Festival

Planning a special service for your church and community? Consider a hymn festival, a blending of song and readings, often from Scripture, that appeals to people of all ages.

The apostle Paul urged the people of Ephesus to sing the words and tunes of the psalms and hymns when they were together, and to go on singing and chanting to the Lord in their hearts, "always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph. 5:20 NIV).

The hymn Festival is an excellent framework for responding to Paul's advice—gathering with other Christians to sing praises to the Creator.

Why a Hymn Festival

The hymn-festival format is wonderfully flexible and elastic. It can be organized to challenge the gifts of a cathedral-sized congregation or structured to meet the needs of the twenty families who gather in an inner-city chapel. A hymn festival can involve the leadership of only two people (minister and musician) or many people (choirs, readers, vocal and instrumental soloists).

Basically, a hymn festival is a worship service in which most of the liturgy is music. Usually such festivals are constructed around a single theme to add unity and meaning to the service. Themes might include hymns on the work of Christ, hymns on the work of the Holy Spirit, hymns on one of the church seasons (e.g. Advent, Lent), or hymns of one particular hymn writer. Since it is generally better to leave people wanting more than to supersaturate them, hymn festivals should generally not exceed an hour and a quarter.

Forming the Festival

Choosing the theme should be the planning committee's top priority. After they have agreed on a unifying concept, the group should either look for a published hymn festival on this subject or begin to carefully study hymn texts, select appropriate hymn texts and Scripture, and add litanies, prayers and other parts of the liturgy that will unify the whole with a common message and purpose. The next priority should be choosing a variety of ways in which members of the congregation will interpret the hymns. Consider the following possibilities, all of which have been used with success by other congregations:

Use a concertato. The catalogues of Augsburg, G.I.A., Hope, Coronet/Presser, and Concordia all contain numerous hymn settings that involve instruments, congregations, and a variety of choir voicings.

Highlight individual stanzas by having them

—read in unison instead of sung.
—sung by a soloist.
-sung by a choir.
—interpreted by the organist or another instrumentalist.
—sung by men or women alone.
—sung a cappella.
—sung as a canon,
—interpreted by movement and/or drama.
—accompanied by descants/ instrumental obbligatos over the melody.

Use varied introductions and some interludes to set the mood of the hymn or to bridge from a prayerful, introspective stanza to one of festive acclamation (or vice versa).

Have the choir sing a hymn-anthem to give the congregation a break.

When selecting hymns for the festival be sure to use a combination of favorite hymns in conjunction with newer, less familiar hymns. If you want to avoid the "congregational rehearsal" often held at the beginning of such a festival, have soloists or choirs sing through two or three stanzas of an unfamiliar hymn before inviting the congregation tojoin in. As the adage goes, "We like what we understand, and we understand what we like."

Whether you come from a large or small congregation, be sure to involve as many people as possible. Include readers, choirs, instrumentalists and soloists. Use rhythm instruments, handbells, strings, woodwinds, and guitar. If possible invite brass players from a local high school to join in with fanfares or ask community performing groups to add festive descants. The more people you involve, the better your support and attendance are likely to be.

And remember, when considering which members of your congregation have talents to offer to the hymn festival, don't call only on musicians and good speakers. Consider the talents of business people, men and women whose knowledge of publicity (the local newspaper) and printing (programs, posters, and brochures) can be of great assistance. Use the artistic talents of members to design program covers, posters, and banners for the hymn event. Ask retired members to address notices and telephone each member of the congregation with a personal invitation; have them arrange car-pools for members who are unable to drive. And seek out recording buffs to tape the festival for those who were unable to attend or would like to relive the festival and "continue singing."

Planning Countdown

Planning a hymn festival takes time—about three months is reasonable.

It's very important that all key participants in the festival are comfortable with the flow of the program.All instrumentalists should rehearse in the room to get a feel for the acoustics and the ensemble balance. The choirs should be very familiar with all the texts so that they can assist the congregation. All readers should be familiar with their texts and should be given time to work with the amplification system. If everyone understands and is comfortable with these intricate details, the pace of the festival will be relaxed and poised and will proceed with confidence and great success.

Finally, as Dr. Paul Manz suggests, make your hymn event a "Te Deum" and not a "tedium"! Careful planning and your own personal enthusiasm have much to do with the success of the program. So don't wait for the Holy Spirit to descend and create it all on the spot. The most wonderful hymn services and festivals are the result of thoughtful, conscientious effort.

Resources for Hymn Festivals

List of currently available hymn concertatos

A listing by publisher, tune name, first line, composer, voicing, instrumentation, and cost. Price prepaid,$3.00.

Hymn Festivals, by Austin C. Lovelace.

Booklet containing history, purpose,and function,types of services, planning suggestions and resources.Price prepaid,$3.00.

Hymn Festival Packet

Upon request the Hymn Society will send copies of hymn-festival programs that churches have submitted to them.

All of the resources described above are available from
The Hymn Society of America
P.O. Box 30854
Texas Christian University
Fort Worth, TX 76129

Sue Mitchell Wallace, of Atlanta, Georgia, is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Guild of Organists. She is active as a recitalist, composer, and leader of hymn festivals in the United States and Great Britain.


Reformed Worship 10 © December 1988 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.