June 6, 2017

The Power of Hymns

When we arrived in our current pastoral call, one of the pleasant surprises my wife and I discovered was a Manse where we could host large groups of people, with a living room that could accommodate our two grand pianos without breaking a sweat. We suspected this might lead to some joyful experiences, and last Thursday night we had our suspicions confirmed!

We offered to host the Spring party for our choir. The First Pres choir is uncommonly dedicated—followers of Jesus who find great joy, personal fulfillment, and rewarding ministry in making music well. Twice a year we get together to share fellowship unhindered by a rehearsal schedule or a liturgical deadline.

As we’ve learned to expect in this over-committed metropolitan area, not everyone could make it on any given night. But on this night, with a majority of choir members and their spouses, we had a house full. Our dining room table was filled with appetizers and desserts brought by our guests. A delightfully warm Spring evening enticed people into conversations both inside the house and on the deck. The food and the fellowship alone would have made it a good event—but then the magic began.

Musical Ebenezers

Our Director of Worship and Music sat down at one of the pianos and began to play. Gradually, people drifted into the living room. Conversations became quieter. The music began to take central focus. One by one, people began to call out hymns. I soon joined in at the other piano, and for the next hour we sang: older and newer, gospel and traditional, some unison, some parts, most without a note of music—we sang. Unity of mind, heart, and spirit; community, an inextricable connection between music and faith—all were very real.

But the sharing didn’t stop with the singing. One man who, at the moment, seems to be ahead in his battle with a relentless form of cancer, remarked how wonderful it was to be able to sing with strength again after much physical struggle. A woman was brought to tears when we happened to sing a hymn that had been sung at the service for her miscarried baby a few years before. Koinonia was strengthened when stories transformed hymns into musical ebenezers.

A secular or a skeptic might say, “well, it’s nice you had such a pleasant evening together.” People of faith know better. Musicians of faith know very well what I’m describing. There is a reason God’s people have sung the poetry of our faith ever since faith began—the beautiful reality of shared truth, conviction, and hope. There is a tangible bond when people of faith speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and songs of the Spirit—a reality that we truly are surrounded by the promised great cloud of witnesses (who are probably singing with us); that the music we make even within the limitation of our little human experience is somehow hardwired into the “music of the spheres.”

Such is the power of hymns—the spiritual meat of the sung Christian Tradition. Such is the potential for true Christian fellowship when the hymns inspire us to be authentic with one another, and vulnerable to one another in our shared journey of faith. There’s a lesson here. The authenticity that is returning to the worship and witness of many living congregations who are rediscovering the power of hymns can’t come fast enough. Watching younger followers of Jesus eagerly engage with biblical and theological realities that shaped and strengthened their ancestors is both thrilling and heartwarming.

Bringing it Home

In full disclosure, members of the choir aren’t the only people at First Pres who love to sing. We have a congregation who, by and large, can and will sing just about anything you put in front of them—acapella in parts is thrilling around here, as are voices with many different combinations of instruments. We speak the language of music well. But that’s mostly as part of corporate worship. The opportunity to set some additional time apart, to gather in a home, to “member” and “re-member” the faith we have received, and to sing, unscheduled, as the Holy Spirit inspires, is an extraordinary experience in 21st century North America—a precious blessing to those who sing and to those who hear.  

I now am hearing that plans are afoot to gather a few more times over the Summer—in homes—to sing hymns. O Lord, may it be so.

Rev. Dr. Paul Detterman is an author, composer, and conference speaker who is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of River Forest, Illinois, and a blogger at He is a former associate for worship on the national staff of the Presbyterian Church (USA).