It’s time for a confession. My least favorite hymn is “How Great Thou Art,” #77 in The United Methodist Hymnal. It all started when I was a local church pastor, and every time we had a funeral, the family requested “How Great Thou Art (#77).” I don’t have any complaint with the words of the hymn, although they’re a bit archaic. They’re a wonderful witness to the majesty and power of God. It’s the music that often drags me down. Accompanists tend to play the hymn so slowly that I just want to close my eyes and take a nap. I timed it once: it takes 5 minutes to sing hymn #77 when it pokes along.
When I was a local church pastor, it became a joke of sorts: whenever Laurie does a funeral, we sing her least favorite hymn. After being appointed a district superintendent, I considered in awesome wonder the fact that perhaps I wouldn’t have to sing “How Great Thou Art (#77)” as often as before.
When through the woods and forest glades I wandered across the Grand Rapids District, I gained an appreciation for all for all kinds of music: praise music, Taize music, jazz music, folk music, blended music, traditional music, gospel music and Christian rock music. A few Sundays ago I worshipped with the Salem and Bradley Indian Missions. Whenever I am at Salem Indian Mission, Phoebe asks me to play the hymns on the electric organ while she plays the piano. Phoebe is one of the revered elders of the church, and we had a grand time as together we played “Victory in Jesus,” “Blessed Assurance,” “To God be the Glory,” and “He Touched Me.”
My musical horizons broadened as I traveled the district and witnessed God’s power throughout the universe displayed. “Merciful God,” I would pray, “I now know that Thou art even greater than ‘How Great Thou Art (#77).’” Until this fall’s church conferences.
For some inexplicable reason, almost half of our churches so far have chosen “How Great Thou Art (#77)” to be one of the two songs we sing during our devotional time. I am not kidding.
- There are 734 hymns in The United Methodist Hymnal.
- There are 284 hymns in The Faith We Sing.
- There are hundreds, even thousands of other Christian songs that we use in worship.
Why, then, do we keep coming back to one hymn, #77? I’ve heard “How Great Thou Art” played on the piano, organ, electric keyboard and by a praise band. I’ve heard it played fast, medium, slow, slower and slowest. The first time we sang it, I laughed. The second time, I thought, “Oh no, not again.” The third time I said, “Hmmm.” One night I was asked to accompany the hymns on the church’s organ, and, sure enough, one was #77. It clipped along at a pace that rivaled the brook and the gentle breeze. Another night, the pastor asked the congregation to turn to “How Great Thou Art (#77), then announced that I was going to sing stanza 2 a capella! I could scarce take it in but did my best.
Last week we had back to back mid-week church conferences: a cluster conference with South, Olivet and St. Paul UMC’s and a single church conference at Byron Center UMC. When “How Great Thou Art (#77)” was announced the first night, I could only chuckle. God must have some reason for me to set a world record in singing my least favorite song (#77) in 30 different churches in 30 different styles. The folks at the cluster conference sang with great gusto, especially after Pastor Mack Strange urged us to belt out the last refrain, “Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee.” It sent shivers up and down my spine.
When Byron Center chose hymn #77 the very next night, played by a wonderful piano accompanist, I could only shake my head and admit defeat. I said to God, “I think I am doomed to sing #77 until I learn to like it. And if I can’t ever love ‘How Great Thou Art (#77)’, maybe I can at least see it as ‘My burden gladly bearing.’”
Part of me is ashamed at my bad attitude about hymn #77. “How Great Thou Art” is obviously dear to a great many people. Therefore, I am trying to learn from my experience with hymn #77.
- I am learning to accept that fact that every person has their own taste in music, and that’s okay. When I hear classical music, organ music and hymns with lyrics that challenge me to rest quietly in God’s love, care for our earth, work for peace and justice, “joy fills my heart.” What I don’t care for is the “rolling thunder” of loud Christian rock or trying to sing with lyrics projected on a screen without music to read.
- I am learning that vital churches don’t just have one style of music. Healthy churches can have traditional, contemporary or blended music. What distinguishes healthy churches is that the quality of music is excellent, and the music connects people with God “in humble adoration”, touching and transforming lives.
- I am learning that you can’t “make” people like a certain style of music. It is natural for people to have strong preferences about what style of music speaks to them. Therefore, it is important to either offer several worship services with different choices in music or, if you only have one service, adopt a style of music that connects well with the culture of the area served by the church.
I’ve seen worship wars erupt in our district churches when:
- Those leading worship are not sensitive to the musical needs of all segments of their congregation.
- Church members expect that everyone will like their style of music and will not tolerate anything new or different in “their service.”
- Church members resist having multiple worship services for fear of losing that “family feeling.”
- Church members are afraid of losing “their church” by appealing to the musical tastes of a younger generation.
I am about ¾ of the way through church conferences. If your church conference is coming, don’t feel bad about singing, “How Great Thou Art (#77).” I’ll cope. You may even hear “shouts of acclamation from me.”
I just have one request. Can you sing something other than #77 at my memorial service?