Four Concerns in Leading Every Verse of a Hymn

I have been told that American churches are strange in that we do not lead every verse of every song we sing in the assembly. Indeed, we lament the third verse of a four-verse song, and I have been to congregations where the closing song is routinely only sung with the first verse. In fact, our hymnals are sometimes the subject of criticism because their editors choose to include only three verses of songs that may have six verses or more.

But is leading every verse of every song, every time always the best practice? I admit, my default practice is to lead every verse (and every chorus, if present) of the songs that I select, but there are exceptions to this, which we’ll get into later. But why might leading every verse not be optimal in the assembly?

It Can Wear Out a Congregation

When I was taught how to lead a congregation in its singing, one of the things my father impressed upon me (which was also impressed upon him years before) was the need to lead every verse of the invitation song. The reasoning is that you do not want to artificially cut off the expedient opportunity for a person to respond to the gospel. Just as surely as there are those who “come forward” at the first note, there are those who don’t step into the aisle until the last chorus. This is a practice that I have generally followed, with perhaps one exception.

I do not lead all the verses of “Trust and Obey.” When I’ve led it, inevitably, I will be ready to be done with the song by the beginning of the third verse. The reason is that there’s really nothing engaging about the music. It’s incredibly repetitive, which means that by the time you get to the third verse, you feel like you’ve already sung 4–6 verses. When a singer has this experience, the thought of how long a song has become trumps any thoughts about the actual content of the song. Should it be this way? Probably not, but we have to manage reality.

In general, a song leader can get a congregation to go with three, maybe four verses of a song. Beyond that, there has to be something really special about the song. Even brisk, upbeat songs can feel this way. If you are going to sing that many verses, be prepared to vary something in the execution of the song to make it less monotonous, like changing dynamics, raising the pitch half a step, etc.

It Can Distract from a Key Thought

While the best songs in our repertoire are well-focused on a single thought, sometimes the thought of one or more verses can distract us from what we’re really trying to sing about. For instance, many of the songs that talk about Jesus’ death also talk about His birth, resurrection, or reign at God’s right hand. While there are times we want to cover those things, there are also times we want to zero in on that one instant in time.

Sometimes there are verses that add “flavor,” but don’t contribute to the actual thought at hand. It was not uncommon in older, words-only hymnals to note which verses could be omitted without altering the sense of the text, or where a longer text could be divided so as to be more manageable.

It Can Induce Intellectual Whiplash

I am not against repetition in hymns, or even a repetition of thought, but thinking again to our body of hymns that deal with Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, what is the effect of us putting together a “set” of hymns where every hymn begins at the cross and ends with Jesus reigning in heaven? While there’s nothing wrong with doing that, perhaps it may be more effective to pick 2–3 great verses from one song that lead up to His death and 2–3 from another that get us to the resurrection. I was leading the singing a couple of weeks ago and led all but the last verse of “I Stand Amazed,” with the chorus once at the end, then led “Christ Arose,” again with the chorus at the end, to get the full sweep of the scene from Gethsemane to the resurrection.

It Can Undo the Message of the Sermon

This may seem like an odd point, but consider that in our effort to match a sermon or other devotional talk, we could sing a song or a verse of a song that, on a surface reading (which is about all you get many times in the assembly) either confuses the point that the preacher has made or will make, or seems to contradict such a point. It does not mean that either the sermon or the song are unscriptural, just that they are emphasizing complementary points. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. If the sermon is about the need for faithful obedience, but the songs only talk about grace and faith up to the point of intellectual acceptance, there could be an intellectual mismatch in the ears of the hearers.

Conclusion

Most of the time, it is quite appropriate to sing all the verses of a song (and in our next installment, we will look at why arbitrary omission of verses may not always be beneficial), but there are times when we need to consider whether that approach is the most beneficial one for the circumstances of our leading a particular song.

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3 thoughts on “Four Concerns in Leading Every Verse of a Hymn

  1. Carl, are “our” hymns too long? By that I mean, when compared to the oldest known Christian hymns are our more modern hymns comparatively shorter, the same or longer in length?

    Personally, I prefer to lead the chorus only once at the end of a song. That way you can sing all the verses and not get worn out by repeating the chorus over and over.

    • I think it varies widely. Today, it seems like doubled meters (8 phrases per verse) have become the norm among some of the writers in the brotherhood. However, three verses is the norm in what is written today; when we start talking about the fourth verse, there is a higher standard of scrutiny invoked to make sure that the fourth verse is really necessary. Older writers would write eight or ten or more verses.

      As I said in a comment on another post, verse skipping is not a new phenomenon. Watts in particular noted verses that could be omitted or where a set of verses could be divided into separately-sung units. Today, we just seem to do it a little more indiscriminately.

      Regarding the chorus. One of the functions the chorus has is variety. While it’s the same words every time, well-written choruses *musically* provide something different. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to do this, but think about what it would be like to lead “How Great Thou Art” with the chorus led only once. I have. Twice. The first time was the ignorance of inexperience. The second was the arrogance and insanity of experience expecting to be able to do the same thing and get a different result. Because the two halves of the verse have the exact same music, by the time you get to the end of the fourth verse, you feel like you’ve sung eight verses.

      Also, in a congregation with children, choruses are particularly useful because they provide a repeated line that children can grasp more quickly than the verses. In fact, I think there was at least one writer who always included one for that reason.

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