“Nice people don’t sing about damnation” – part 2

In part one we looked at why on earth we would ever want to sing songs about tricky things like God’s wrath, judgement, and hell.
If you made it through all that, I hope you are now asking the questions “How do we do it?” and “When do we do it?”

The when question is fairly easy, so let’s start with that.

When Should We Sing About Judgement?

1: Stick to the Bible’s itinerary

This is pretty simple: if that week’s Bible passage is on God’s wrath, sing about God’s wrath. If it’s not, then don’t. We’re probably worried about getting the right ratio of cheerful songs to miserable songs – if we choose the music based on the Bible passage, then we should end up with the same ratio the Bible has. What’s good enough for the Bible should be good enough for us.

Note that this might mean singing the “difficult” songs rather more often than the congregation wants to. That’s okay – we don’t need to please them. Respond graciously, and make sure you can honestly answer “Because the Bible demanded it” to the question “Why did we sing that miserable song about judgement again?”

2: Keep an eye on your omissions

Keeping to the Bible’s itinerary is of paramount importance, but as a distant secondary consideration it’s worth putting some thought into the matter of skipping verses. We skip verses all the time. Sometimes these omissions are canonised by hymnal editors – we may not even be aware of the verses that have quietly disappeared. For instance, until I started researching this article, I had no idea that the carol Angels from the Realms of Glory ever contained these words:

Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
doomed for guilt with endless pains,
justice now revokes the sentence,
mercy calls you – break your chains;

There’s nothing inherently wrong with leaving out the odd verse in a hymn – some may need to be axed on theological grounds, it’s not against copyright to omit things, and, honestly, most congregations these days are going to struggle with more than five verses. Amazing Grace has nine that I know of, and we’d very rarely sing more than five of them. But for each verse you omit, ask yourself why you are doing it. If the answer is any variation on “Because the words are a bit miserable” then there may be a problem.

That’s the when. Now for the how.

How Should We Sing About Judgement?

With Reverence And Awe

I think it’s helpful to get one thing straight from the outset: our job is not to make the unpalatable palatable. Expect unrest. Christians will struggle with the hard truths of the Bible for as long as they live; if the congregation aren’t upset by singing them then we should probably be worried.

That said, we must be very careful to find the right tone. If the congregation struggle, we want it to be over the truth, not over the presentation. Finding the appropriate tone is important at the best of times, but the stakes are much higher when dealing with the hard truths. Consider this:

If the congregation are made to sing happy words to a stilted tune, they will just think we are A Bit British. No real harm done.
But if the congregation are made to sing painful words to a joyful tune, they will think we are monsters. Not only that, but any visitors will associate what they see up front with the leadership of the church. If the band appears to be revelling in other people’s torment, visitors will assume the church is run by hate-fuelled hypocrites. It’s unlikely they will come back for a second helping.

We mustn’t be tempted to soften the hard truths – but we must be careful not to appear hard ourselves.

Facing a Task Impossible

Okay, so we want to hit the right tone. But there is a key difficulty with this. As we mentioned in Part I, if we want to sing the unpopular truths, we will probably need to turn to the hymnals to do it. But, unlike most modern songs, which tend to stick broadly to one emotion throughout, a common feature of hymns is that the emotional range of the words far outstrips the emotional range of the tune.

For example, consider the topic of Jesus’ return. By necessity, the idea of Judgement Day carries with it two deeply contrasting emotions, since it is dealing with, quite literally, the ultimate polarisation – between eternal glory and eternal punishment. These two destinies, if clearly understood, should surely invoke the farthest possible extremes of the emotional spectrum.

And yet we will have to make the same tune work for both.

These two verses from Lo! He Comes are a perfect illustration:

Every island, sea and mountain,
Heaven and Earth shall flee away;
all who hate him must, confounded,
hear the trump proclaim the day;
Come to judgment, Come to judgment, Come to judgment,
Come to judgment, come away!

Yea, Amen! Let all adore thee
high on your eternal throne;
Saviour, take the power and glory,
claim the kingdom for your own;
O come quickly, O come quickly, O come quickly,
you shall reign, and you alone!

If you attempt to play both these verses in the same way, you will be sending out a message to the congregation that they should be as joyful about the eternal damnation of their non-Christian friends and family as they are about the coming glory. They will be rightly angry.

So here’s our greatest challenge: clearly the music needs to steer a course from one extreme to the other, but how on earth do we do that?

Staking The Musical Snob

Before we look at some practicalities, I’d like to stick a couple of pegs in the ground. These should be familiar, but it’s probably worth repeating them, especially if, like me, you have a background in classical music, and an inner musical snob that occasionally rears its ugly head:

1: Our congregation is the works, not the spanner

Given the task of navigating this diverse emotional landscape, it’s tempting to think that we could do a better job if only we could replace our congregation with the Vienna Philharmonic Chorus. Some seriously chromatic harmony and an eight part choir could make a much better fist of these emotional extremes. That’s Mahler’s job, not ours. Our job is just to encourage the congregation to sing the truth to one another. The instant we silence them – whether deliberately (by delegating the singing to a professional Cathedral choir, say), or accidentally (by making the music too hard for an untrained congregant to manage) – we’ve failed.
However hard the truths, the physical process of singing needs to be kept easy.

2: Remember who is doing the driving

It’s always the Bible, and it’s never the music.
We listen to classical music in order to be taken on the emotional journey prescribed for us by the composer. The music is in charge.
But when singing the truth to one another in church, it’s the truth, not the music, which is in charge.

What this means is that the music doesn’t need to be able to create the emotion. God’s truth creates the emotion; the music just needs to respond to it.
That’s good news for us, because responding is far more achievable than creating. Musically conjuring up the fear of God’s wrath might require sixteen timpani and twelve bass trombones. But responding to the truth about God’s wrath could be done with a solo ocarina.

With these two pegs in the ground (keep it singable, don’t try to manipulate), our impossible task should take on more manageable proportions:

We’re just trying to use what we’ve got
to respond to what we’re singing,
in a way that allows a musically unskilled congregation to concentrate on the truth.

So let’s think practically about how to do this. Much of the following is basic common sense. Some of it is theory which I’ve not yet dared to put into practice. Some of it I learned by getting it wrong, and some of it I’ve not got right yet. Take or leave it.

Five Top Tips For Singing The Hard Truths

1: Don’t Assume It Will Just Happen

Here’s the scenario: you are rushed for time, there’s a tricky new song which takes up most of the rehearsal, the hymn only gets a cursory examination, and five minutes before kick-off you glance at the words for the first time and realise verse two ends with the chilling phrase “unnumbered souls are dying, and pass into the night”.
“Come right down for verse two!” you shout to the band’s fleeing backs as they scatter to get coffee.

What’s going to happen?
Maybe some of them will remember and make half an attempt to drop their volume, but what seems like a big difference from where you are sitting may be nowhere near as obvious at the back of the church. Chances are high that the congregation won’t notice the change, and you are right back to making them sing hard truths to happy music.

Don’t leave it to chance. Check the words beforehand, make the differences obvious, and rehearse them in.

2:The Missing Link

In days of yore, when hymns were sung with naught but an organ for accompaniment, the transition between verses was accomplished by means of a mysterious pause. Pauses are not great for rhythm instruments, so when adapting hymns for band use, it’s preferable to use a link – a few bars in between verses that shepherd the congregation cleanly from one verse to the next, hopefully eliminating all the guesswork about when to come in.

I generally prefer to keep links as short as possible, partly because it minimises my chances of playing a stonking wrong note while no one is singing to cover it, but mainly because the whole point of the singing is, well, the singing. The congregation have the important job of singing truth to each other; they are not there to listen to us. As long as the link gives them sufficient time to fill their lungs for the next chunk of truth, I see nothing to be gained from prolonging it.

However, it’s perhaps best not to rush certain emotional journeys. If verse three is about joy and verse four is about death, it may be that a slightly longer link is warranted – both to give the congregation time to adjust, and to give the band time to change the mood. I’d strongly advise against changing the length of links mid hymn, so choose something that works for each transition.

This may be especially important if your church uses projectors rather than song sheets. If the congregation don’t have the words in their hands, and so can’t read ahead, they may be completely unprepared for what they are about to sing. A longer link may increase the odds of the right slide being shown on the screen, and it will give the band longer to warn the congregation that the mood is changing.

3: Work With The Extremes You’ve Got

Whether you are a solo pianist, a ten-piece rock band or just a humble guy with a keytar, you have a maximum and a minimum volume. You also have a maximum and a minimum density, and a maximum and minimum pitch. If you are a band of more than one player, then you have a maximum and a minimum number of musicians who can play at any one time.

With all these maxima and minima there is plenty of scope for change, and even a short link is enough time to make it. No two verses need to sound alike.

Experiment with what is possible. Get an idea of what your various extremes sound like, and so build up a mental map of the territory available to you. How quietly can you play, and still be able to lead the congregation? What does it sound like if you cut out all the rhythm instruments, or have a verse with just the bass? Be adventurous. Don’t forget that you are not attempting to manipulate emotions, but you are attempting to respond to some of the greatest emotional gearshifts imaginable, and that gives you plenty of licence to try things out.

Note that this may mean asking players to sit out certain verses. Depending on the personalities you are working with, it may be helpful to point out what you are trying to do, so that they don’t just assume you hate their playing.

4: Rethink Your Harmonies For Different Verses

Slightly more controversial, as sometimes people complain that changing the harmony throws their singing. So if you are going to do this, remember our first peg – keep it singable. Take pains to ensure that the new harmony works not just with the individual notes of the tune, but with the direction the tune is headed in. Try it out with a trusted friend – can they sing the tune confidently accompanied just by the chords? I recently jettisoned a set of chords that I had laboured over because they failed this test. And remember that what seems easy for you may not be so easy for an untrained singer.

That said, you can of course help them – if you go for chords that sit less comfortably, have all your melody instruments belt out the tune as loudly as they can.
And save the whacky chords for later in the song – the congregation should be much surer of the tune by verse fifteen.

Here are some tips for rethinking the harmonies. Obviously, these won’t work for every situation, but they might serve as inspiration, or provide a reasonable starting point.

A: Pick a Versatile Tune
A lot of hymns are written in fairly standard metres, so there is usually more than one option for the tune. Some tunes lend themselves to re-harmonisation better than others. As a very rough guide, stepwise tunes are easier to re-harmonise than tunes that leap around a lot. Regents Square, for example, is a complete pain in the neck, since the first and third lines are almost entirely built on the tonic arpeggio. Play anything other than the tonic chord there and you are immediately working against the tune. The only way around that is to change chord more frequently, so that each chord has to fit with fewer notes – but if you have a guitar playing, that will make for a messy sound and a stressed guitarist.

B: The Good Old Relative Minor
Just swap your tonic chords for the relative minor. Instant mood change. And this will be no great shock to the guitarist. He/she may only know four chords, but the relative minor will definitely be one of them.

C: Pedal Notes
Stick the bass player on the tonic and see how long he can stay there. Good for triumphant last verses. Or, for building tension on the piano, I sometimes like to pick a note somewhere in the octave or two above middle C, and hammer it out rhythmically and insistently, crescendoing through the verse. The dominant is often good for this.

D: Grown-up Music
This might be a bit too “classical” for some settings, but there may be occasions when you can broaden your musical language and get in something a bit less diatonic. You will probably need to cut the guitar for a verse to do this, so choose a meditative verse where a quiet lead is appropriate. If you are struggling for ideas, talk to an organist – re-harmonisation used to go with the territory. The good organists even do it deliberately.

E: Dare We Say Key Change?
If the idea of singing songs about judgement didn’t cause a blip on your controversy meter, then perhaps this will. Key changes. Why not? In some circles they are pretty much on a par with the selling of indulgences, but, given what I’ve said above about the shocking emotional transitions we are attempting to respond to, I’m starting to wonder whether a key change might not actually be a useful tool. Consider a classic like John Newton’s Day of Judgement, Day of Wonders – five chilling verses depicting the dreadful plight of the sinner, followed by two joyful verses depicting the triumph of the Christian. This is a fairly standard pattern for Judgement Day hymns: bad news, bad news, bad news, bad news, GOOD NEWS! Why not respond to the movement from hell to heaven with our own little tonal movement?

Keep in mind that most hymn tunes have a range of strictly one octave. That means, in a six verse hymn, you could climb a semitone after each verse and still have a smaller range than a lot of the modern tunes…

If you are seriously contemplating it (just the one, that is), I’d suggest rehearsing it thoroughly, making the band write it in their copies in huge red pen, and trying to prepare it musically so it’s not a shock to the congregation. Think Beethoven, rather than Whitney Houston. Remember: response, not manipulation. And, for purely pragmatic reasons, you might want to do it after a verse in which you have the guitarist drop out. It’ll give them time to move their capo.

To illustrate some of these points, I’ve included a PDF of some experiments on my béte noire, Regents square, which you may or may not find helpful.

5: Warn The Congregation

This last point is probably the most useful piece of feedback I’ve been given from upset congregants. If you ignore everything else I’ve said, but do this, you will probably be okay. And it’s good news for our humility too, because it’s nothing at all to do with the music.

It’s very simple: if you are going to be singing about something difficult, ask whoever is leading the service to warn the congregation.

They don’t need to say anything tremendously erudite or detailed – just a few words to allow people to brace themselves, and, more importantly, to show them that the leader is aware of the difficulties. If the leader doesn’t flag it up as an issue, we may well give the impression that we’re not the least bit troubled by singing such things. As I said near the start of this post, the last thing we want is to appear indifferent or cavalier, particularly if there are new people there.

One of the best examples of this I’ve heard – long before I began my tenure – was for the aforementioned hymn Day of Judgement. The leader drew the congregation’s attention to these lines:

Horrors, past imagination.
will surprise your trembling heart,
when you hear your condemnation,
“Hence, accurséd wretch, depart!”

He acknowledged how upsetting it was, and then pointed out that the same hymn writer used the word “wretch” to describe himself: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
It only took a few seconds, but it pointed the congregation back to grace, it gave them permission to feel uncomfortable, and it removed the notion that the hymn-writer was somehow revelling in judgement, or placing himself on a higher moral plane.

Some Hymns To Consider

Now that the why, when and how are dealt with, it might be worth mentioning a few hymns to try. I started, way back in Part I, by quoting John Newton’s “Sinner, Art Thou Still Secure?”
I’m not at all convinced the world is ready for that one to come back into circulation, but there are several other hymns I’ve come across which are currently in use by our Evangelical brothers, which I list here in case they are new to you:

Day of Judgement! Day of Wonders! (John Newton)
Seven verses of very vivid imagery, though there is some scope for picking and choosing.
You may want to avoid this verse:

Satan, who now tries to please you,
lest you timely warning take,
when that word is past, will seize you,
plunge you in the burning lake:
think, poor sinner, think, poor sinner,
your eternal all’s at stake.

Aside from being terrifying, I’m not convinced that it’s true – if my understanding of Revelation is correct, Satan doesn’t get to plunge anyone in the burning lake – he gets thrown in along with everyone else whose name is not in the book of life. If we’re going to sing painful truths, let’s make sure they are true painful truths!

Facing a Task Unfinished (Frank Houghton)
The “unnumbered souls are dying” song referred to earlier. A poetic, clear, impassioned call to obey the Great Commission and make Jesus known. The second verse is a fairly gut-wrenching, yet beautiful, depiction of the spiritual starvation going on around us.

Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending (John Cennick / Charles Wesley / Martin Madan)
The hymn that started me thinking about this whole issue, after the “Come to judgement” verse prompted a few discussions.
This particular verse could definitely do with some explanation from the front – I think most of the unrest about singing it was caused by the fact that people didn’t really know why they were singing “Come to judgement”. A brief explanation that those words represent the trumpet’s call, not our call, might help.

Great God, What Do I See And Hear! (William Bengo Collyer / Thomas Cotterill / Anon)
Another great hymn about the end of the world, and slightly more balanced than Day of Judgement, with the good news coming before the bad news. Worth considering as an alternative to the much-in-vogue Fellingham song There is a Day – it contains most of the same truths, but it doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff. Oh, and the words scan. Oh yeah.

I’m sure there are many more out there – Hymnary.org is a great resource. If you find any classics, let me know.

Last Word To The Songwriters Again
As I’ve said, much of the difficulty in singing these hymns comes from the huge emotional range they present. This, in turn, comes from a desire for balance – we wouldn’t want the five miserable verses of Day of Judgement without the two cheerful ones at the end… or would we?
I was recently struck by the classic Mark Peterson song Glory and Power to the One Who Loves Us – much loved at our church, and a tried and trusted cheery song of praise. The chorus speaks of how every eye will see Jesus coming on the clouds of Heaven. Good stuff.
But the verse this is based on – Matthew 24:30 – says this:

“Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (ESVUK)

“Mourn” is a pretty big word in this verse. I’m not suggesting we ditch Peterson’s song from the repertoire because it’s too cheerful. But let’s consider this matter of balance: if it’s okay to have a whole song that focuses on the joy, is it not okay to have a whole song that focuses on the mourning? It would solve the whole problem of needing to fit contrasting emotions to the same tune… Any volunteers?


David Bignell

St. Helens, Bishopsgate

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