Hymns to build worship around

Worship Resources:
Making the most of hymns

Hymns are flexible friends. They have the potential to free us from a steady diet of “hymn sandwich” worship into which they themselves are often trapped. That’s not to say that hymns, carefully chosen, don’t echo and expand upon biblical readings. Frequently they do. (See the StF+ lectionary suggestions by selecting a coloured date  on the calendar, available on any StF+ page.) Nor is it to say that hymns are not used in ways other than simply for singing. Frequently they are. (See our suggestions for hymns-as-prayer. Also see an example of how the words of hymns can be woven together to create a complete Communion liturgy.)

But what if hymns became the starting point or focus for an entire service of worship? Many hymns have the content, weight and depth to enable this to happen. Here are a few suggestions of how.

1. Hymns as starting points
2. Interspersing verses of a single hymn with other worship materials
3. Verse by verse
4. Re-telling the story
5. Preaching on hymns

1. Hymns as starting points

Hymns may be used as a starting point for worship around a particular theme. The hymn may be sung complete or in part at the beginning of worship and then returned to later – perhaps for a single verse to be spoken or sung. For example:

Think of a world without any flowers (StF 92): for a service built around the natural world and our relationship to it. (Extend the implications of this hymn by drawing on other texts e.g. God in his love for us lent us this planet, StF 727.)
Great God, your love has called us here (StF 499): for a service of Holy Communion (sing vv.3&4 before the sharing of Communion and v.5 at the close of worship)
Let us build a house where love can dwell (StF 409): What does this hymn’s opening invitation mean in practice? Use it to begin a reflection on the nature of our Christian presence within local communities.

2. Interspersing verses of a single hymn with other worship materials

Try choosing just one hymn for singing in a worship service.

Some hymns lend themselves to being sung in sections or verses across the duration of a service, with time taken in between to offer suitable prayers, readings and meditations. For example, two long texts in Singing the Faith that may be used in this way are “My song is love unknown” and “Come, O thou Traveller unknown” (with its 12 available verses!). Individual verses or pairs of verses may be sung as a prelude to other forms of reflection.

My song is love unknown (StF 277). This text is especially suitable for reflection during Holy Week, but the “starter question” in verse 1 offers a focus for worship at any time of the year: “Oh who am I, that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die?” By reflecting on the intention and outcomes of the events described in each verse (the entry into Jerusalem, v.3; the torture of Jesus, v.4 etc.), we may begin to understand our own value and worth as individuals loved by God.

Come, O thou Traveller unknown (StF 461). This hymn, suitable for a service on the theme of journeying towards Christ (perhaps during Lent) or as the backbone of a Healing Service, is based primarily on the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel in Genesis 32: 24 – 32. The verses are perhaps best understood in the light of the conversation that takes place in that reading, and hymn and biblical verses can be interspersed with one another together with reflections on the spiritual and emotional struggle depicted in both texts.

3. Verse by verse

Some hymns may be explored helpfully verse by verse: perfect for a small group discussion, but also as the basis for reflective worship.

Have faith in God, my heart (StF 466). The first three verses of this hymn offer the possibility of creating a service that explores the way in which we express our faith – with heart (body?), mind and soul.

The four verses of O the bitter shame and sorrow (StF 432) echo the process of maturing in faith described by St Bernard of Clairvaux in On Loving God. He spoke of “Four degrees of love” – the four stages of Christian love. Theodore Monod’s text may be sung or read verse by verse, interspersed with St Bernard’s reflections. Read more about this hymn.

Other hymns that lend themselves to verse by verse reflection are those that sing of the three persons of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit e.g. Father , in whom we live, StF 5) and songs with simple, repeated texts e.g. Be still and know that I am God (StF 18).

4. Re-telling the story

Some hymns help us refresh our memories and understanding of the most familiar of biblical narratives. Following the narrative can inspire a complete order of service. For example:

O precious sight, my Saviour stands (StF 279). A meditation on the crucifixion.
When you prayed beneath the trees, it was for me (StF 339). Holy Thursday to Good Friday.
I danced in the morning when the world was begun (StF 247). Jesus reveals God in human form (v.1) – Jesus calls us to be with him in revealing God’s nature to others (v.2) – Jesus challenges orthodox assumptions (v.3) – Jesus pays the ultimate price for showing us God’s love (v.4) – Jesus remains alive in us (v.5).

Also see The ministry of Jesus - a gap in Singing the Faith? , which introduces our three-part exploration of the way in which Jesus' adult life and ministry is expressed in Singing the Faith.

5. Preaching on hymns

The possibilities are endless. Charles Wesley’s hymns offer some of the richest expressions of Christian theology in poetic form (e.g. Let earth and heaven combine, StF 208; Hark! the herald-angels sing , StF 202). The poetic legacy of the psalms also runs deep through our hymn writing traditions, with modern paraphrases providing imaginative opportunities for us to explore their meaning afresh e.g. Bernadette Farrell’s re-writing of Psalm 139: O God, you search me and you know me (StF 728).

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