Preaching and hymns


Preaching and hymns

From the earliest years of the Christian movement, the followers of Jesus have included in their worship the celebration of the Eucharist, prayers of praise and intercession as well as the singing of hymns and some form of preaching (e.g., 1 Corinthians 14: 1-19; Ephesians 5: 18-20; Colossians 3: 16-17). These activities, or better ‘practices,’ have thus been central to Christian liturgies in almost all traditions since groups of disciples began to form what we now call churches. The word ‘practices’ here refers to ‘patterns of cooperative human activity in and through which life together takes shape over time in response to and in the light of God as known in Jesus Christ,’ (Bass, 2001, p. 3).  In fact, most churches influenced by western Protestant traditions continue to demonstrate their commitment to these two practices in their employment patterns; hiring a preacher and a church musician remain the staffing priority and the relationship of these two (or more) is often a focus for much conversation and hand-wringing within a congregation (see Guenter, 2012). 

And yet, though both singing hymns and preaching sermons have produced countless songs and innumerable manuscripts, many of which have been gathered into libraries and studied by specialists throughout the last two millennia, and though countless books and articles have been written about the theory and theology of both activities, little scholarly attention has been given to the interrelationship of the two.  Surely laity and clergy both recognize the centrality of these two practices and continue to comment regularly on what they do and do not appreciate about a particular sermon or hymn, but they often ignore how singing and preaching work together in a liturgy.  

 In this brief essay, we will consider ways that hymns and preaching work together within worship to offer Christians opportunities to reflect theologically on the way of Jesus Christ in their lives, and to be moved, spiritually and emotionally, to respond to the claim of God on their lives with faithfulness.  To accomplish this goal, we will not attempt to offer a historical survey but rather a phenomenological approach to the interrelationship of hymns and preaching.  In other words, we can begin to understand their shared purpose and work within worship by looking at five foundational commonalities between singing hymns and preaching sermons.  Both hymns and preaching are primarily and fundamentally:  1) aural, 2) communal, 3) theological, 4) visionary, and 5) persuasive.  What is meant by each of these terms is the subject for the remainder of the essay. 

1) Both practices depend upon the basic bodily sense of hearing.  To be sure, there are also important visual elements to singing and preaching, but both are primarily apprehended through the ears of those able to hear we only have to shut them when a hymn is sung or a sermon is spoken during worship to remember this.   Further, the sound of both come through the human voice, which, says Don Saliers*, ‘carries with it a central characteristic of what it is to be human—the awareness and the ability to ‘‘speak’’ the world of objects’ (Saliers, 2007, pp. 65-66). The word ‘speaking’ here not only denotes the physical activity of vocalizing a meaningful sound but thinking, writing, or representing in some way the world around us.  And both hymns and preaching have the ability to communicate aurally in profound ways what is not fully communicable:  e.g., the mystery of the divine, unimaginable sorrow and suffering, ineffable joy.  

This suggests another dimension of the essentially aural quality of these two practices for those who have the physical capabilities of hearing and speaking: because sound made within a communal context is ephemeral and unable to be captured and held as a moment in time, neither the singing of hymns or the preaching of words can be frozen as an object to be viewed, except as notes or words on a page—which are, of course, pale shadows of the experiences themselves.  Even sound recordings of the two encapsulate only certain features of the experience, not the whole event.  Further, that moment of hymn-singing or preaching never lasts for long and cannot be repeated in quite the same manner as the contexts in time and space and participants change. 

One other point about this dependence upon our sense of hearing:  to be completed as a practice, both sermons and hymns must be spoken or sung by some and heard by others.  Jeremy Begbie (1957- ) speaks of ‘the basic realities of music [as] music making and music hearing’ (Begbie, 2007, p. 41).  Both activities are essential to the practice of music and its subset, hymns.  To be sure, with regard to hymns, we might hope that everyone in a worship service is singing and hearing at the same time, but that rarely happens in any given congregation.  Begbie’s point could also be made about preaching:  someone must speak the words and others must hear them in order for the practice to be accomplished.  For persons who are hearing impaired or unable to vocalize sound, this necessary quality of mutual transaction that takes place between two or more people in preaching and singing events occurs through visual, kinesthetic or other means. 

2) This factor points to a second commonality:  both practices necessarily take place within a community. In fact, the very definition of Christian practices used in this article implies a corporate setting in which two or more persons engage in activities in response to God’s love in Jesus Christ. Moreover, hymn singing and preaching enhance the sense of community, koinonia, among believers, particularly in worship but in other settings as well (for a fuller discussion of the role of music in developing community, see Bradley, 2012). 

This communal dimension of singing hymns and preaching sermons therefore has a performative quality to it.  Although the word, ‘performance’ with regard to any activity in worship, including preaching and singing, is often used pejoratively, Richard F. Ward (1951- ) helps us move beyond such a narrow understanding.  He says that the roots of the word itself ‘suggest that performance describes a coalescence of thought and enactment within a communicative event that is charged with liveliness and engagement.  This would situate performance at the very heart of human interaction, since thought is not fully realized until it is embodied and enacted through expression’ (Ward, 2008, p. 237).  So if we take performance to refer to the incarnate manifestation of a prepared and thoughtful verbal expression of faith we see that both preaching and singing fit into such a definition. In Ward’s words, ‘Sermon performance is a journey from the preacher’s ear, across the landscape of the soul, and to the voice’ (Ward, 2008, p. 239). So is hymn performance. And, back to Begbie, when we give voice to sermons and hymns and others hear them, the practices are made whole and complete and worshippers have the opportunity to enact belief, not simply utter it. 

Yet another word can be said about the communal aspect of preaching and singing hymns. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), among others, has helped us comprehend the communal nature of interpretation.  That is to say, meaning never belongs solely to an author of a text (i.e., any created piece including hymns, sermons, musical pieces, art work, etc.); meaning results in the interplay of author, text, readers and listeners, within a particular context (Ricoeur, 1976).  This necessitates the presence of readers and listeners in the completion of the interpretive moment.   When we recognize the necessity of their presence, they become partners in the creation of meaning that is faithful to the gospel as it is perceived in a community and in the formation of a response to God’s activity in that preaching and singing moment.  While this factor is made explicit in congregational hymn singing, modern homiletical theory has also embraced the significance of listeners in the creation of the meaning of the sermon.  Fred Craddock (1928- ), one of the earliest proponents of listener-oriented preaching, explains that the preacher in speaking to members of his congregation ‘should recognize them as the people of God and realize that the message is theirs also.  He speaks not only to them but for them and seeks to activate their meanings in relation to what he is saying’(Craddock, 1971, p. 60). 

3) The third commonality resides in the recognition that both preaching and singing hymns are expressions of Christian theology, broadly defined by Thomas Aquinas* as faith seeking understanding in a myriad of forms and in particular historical and social contexts.  While this may seem obvious in the practice of preaching, clergy and laity often ignore this primary theological aspect of hymns.  Martin Luther*, the great Reformer, understood the capacity of music to preach theology:  

human beings alone, apart from all other creatures, are given voice and reason, so that they may be able to and know to praise God by combining songs and words:  with clear, resounding preaching and praising of God’s mercy and grace, whenever beautiful words and delightful music are combined and heard together (Loewe, 2013, p. 72). 

 This kind of ‘preaching and praising’ God in the hymns sung by congregations remained an emphasis throughout the period of the Reformation and into the subsequent centuries of the development of various Protestant denominations.  For example, Carlton R. Young* has demonstrated the importance of ‘lyrical theology’ in the hymns of Charles Wesley*, who put to music the Wesleyan doctrine of grace in all its forms, prevenient, sanctifying, and justifying. (Young, 1995, pp. 157-169).  Alexander Campbell (1788-1866), one of the founders of the American Restorationist movement that generated the Christian Church (see Disciples of Christ hymnody*) the Churches of Christ (see Churches of Christ hymnody, USA*), and the Christian Churches (independent), wrote in his hymnal entitled Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs (Bethany, Virginia, [1828] 5th ed. 1856) p.6: 

The Hymn Book [sic] of a Christian community, next to the Bible, is more generally read and much and often read by all true Christians.  It is assumed that it does, and certainly it ought, to contain the marrow and the fatness of the gospel and the exercises of the Christian heart on all the themes of Christian faith, hope and love.  It is the best substitute in the world for what is usually called a confession faith, an exhibit of Christian doctrine and Christian instruction.  It is, moreover, a sort of stereotyped gospel, and to unconverted persons it is the next best thing to a sermon or to an exhortation on the great themes of Christian salvation. . . . We may, therefore, sometimes sing the gospel to sinners as well as preach it to them (the author is indebted to the Revd Dean Phelps, who quoted this in a sermon at Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 18 April 2013). 

Countless other hymn writers since the Protestant Reformation have contributed to the expressing and shaping of theology in various churches from the beginning to the current explosion of hymn composition in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  Preachers have also made use of this theology in lyric form, most visibly in the often critiqued sermon form of three points and a hymn quotation. 

The theology that has been communicated by hymnist and preacher has been shaped by the conversation among three sources of information:  traditions, cultures, and human experiences. For a full exploration of this model of theological reflection, see Whitehead and Whitehead (1995). The fact that sermons and hymns make use of various aspects of Christian tradition including Scripture and theological affirmations is readily apparent.  In fact, practitioners easily access a wide range of Christian tradition in planning preaching and hymn singing within worship through the use of lectionaries and liturgical calendars  What may not be quite so evident is the constant use of material from the surrounding culture and human experience in expressing theology in hymns and sermons. The widespread use of praise choruses in the musical style of popular American music genres like rock and roll and country is but one expression of this phenomenon.   At the same time, many hymnists across the globe, such as I-to Loh* of Taiwan, are using musical idioms, instruments, and dance traditional to their own countries and ethnic groups to inculturate Christian themes and beliefs (see Sound the Bamboo*). Ironically, this has met with only limited success because churches who have sung the gospel in Western style for so long find it difficult to reappropriate their own cultural materials in the expression of Christian truth.  

Preachers seeking to trace the activity of God within their own settings have used current events and cultural ideas and data in their sermons.  The Apostle Paul, as depicted in the Book of Acts, serves as the paradigmatic figure for this when he preaches to the Athenians of their unknown god and his identification of that one with the God revealed through Hebrew scripture and Jesus Christ (Acts 17: 22ff.).  Nonetheless, many preachers are searching for ways to avoid cultural imperialisms and to allow voices from the global south and Asia to be heard in correlation with the gospel.  Twenty-first century postcolonial theology, in particular, has provided resources for helping preachers, as well as musicians, and their congregations to move beyond the western cultural hegemony of the 19th and 20th centuries so that the ideas, beliefs, and cultural gifts of Christians around the globe can be voiced.  At the same time, the use of culture without careful consideration presents numerous challenges to preachers.  The question of when it is appropriate to use an image or idea from the surrounding milieu to express a particular truth and when it is not is a difficult one to answer with complete satisfaction. 

Furthermore, the employment of human emotions and subjective experiences in theological reflection has become increasingly common since the 19th century. The Unitarian minister Frederick Lucian Hosmer* in his hymn ‘I cannot think of them as dead’ (1882) transforms his own experience of grief into an affirmation of the eternal presence of the saints:  ‘And still their silent ministry/ Within my heart has place,/ As when on earth they walked with me/ And met me face to face’ (see Chalice Hymnal: Worship Leader’s Companion, St Louis, 1998, p. 645). This kind of subjective involvement between the individual and God is now a commonplace in popular Christian music which often draws heavily upon certain psalms which also speak of the dependence of the author upon God (See especially Psalms 23, 131, 139).  And sermons today often begin with a personal story or feeling of the preacher and include, often uncritically, an interpretation of a biblical text as read through the experiences and emotions of the preacher and her congregation.  The result in both hymns and sermons that rely too heavily on human living is the muting of the rich voices of Christian tradition and an implicit anthropological theology that has little to say about God apart from our own experience of the divine. 

Although Christian hymn writers and preachers have traditionally used their experiences and the raw material of their cultures, they have often done so to express profoundly counter-cultural theological claims and to move communities to liberating action.  Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the interrelationship of African American hymns and preaching.  From the liberationist correlation between the events of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt and the experience of slavery in preaching to the thinly veiled messages and raw emotion of spirituals like ‘Swing low, sweet chariot’* and ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’, African Americans have been conveying both comfort and hope through sermon and song.  In the American civil rights movement, the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) and his colleagues and songs such as ‘We shall overcome’* and ‘Lift every voice and sing’* challenged their listeners to speak out against the prevailing white culture and speak up for the rights and dignity of all people.  In so doing, they shaped new theological expressions, out of their own cultural critiques and human experience, not to mention Christian tradition itself, which continue to reverberate throughout Christianity today. 

4) This leads us to a fourth and related commonality:  both preaching and the singing of hymns have the possibility of offering visions of a world that God intended but has not yet been realized.  In other words, through an economy of words they paint the eschatological hope that speaks against what is terrible and terrifying in human life and creation itself.  And they offer the hope that this state of affairs will not be allowed to continue forever, for God will fulfill the promise implicit in the depiction of the Garden of Eden in Genesis.  In the Book of Revelation this hope is vividly drawn in the heavenly throne scenes.  ‘Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is within them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’  And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshiped’ (Revelation 5: 13-14).  This scene interrupts depictions of the disorder and injustice promoted by the Roman Empire with a vision in which all creatures praise God exclusively in unison and in harmony.  Preachers and hymn writers have been defying the status quo descriptions of reality with stirring, often poetic, rhetoric.  For example, Miriam Therese Winter* picks up this theme in her hymn, ‘O for a World’:  ‘O for  a world where everyone/  respects each other’s ways,/ where love is lived and all is done/ with justice and with praise.’ W. Russell Bowie*, in his hymn, ‘O holy city, seen of John’*, did the same thing a century earlier. Countless sermons are preached every week around the world in which God’s shalom is held out as the overriding purpose for which Christians live and work. 

5) Finally, the fifth characteristic that unites preaching and hymns is their capacity to touch emotion deeply and move people to new thought and action.  For centuries, Christian preachers have followed Aristotle (384-322 BC) and his rhetorical descendants in dividing the practice of rhetoric into categories of ethos, ‘the listener’s perception of the character, personality, and trustworthiness of the preacher’; logos, ‘the appeals to reason in the content of the sermon’, and pathos, ‘the role of feeling in the event of preaching’ (McClure et al, 2004, p. 15).  When all three of these parts work together in a preaching moment, those who participate can be moved to respond out of their trust in the preacher, the presentation of rational arguments and the elicitation of a range of emotions.  To accomplish this, preachers have at their disposal a variety of tools including image, symbol and metaphor, story, memory, an appeal to imagination.   With regard to this last tool, Thomas Troeger*, homiletician and hymn writer, in his now classic textbook, Imagining a Sermon, speaks of engaging all the senses in a sermon in his principles for the practice of what he calls ‘imaginative theology.’  These include ‘alerting the eye to keener sight,’ ‘feeling the bodily weight of truth’, and ‘listening to the music of speech’ (Troeger, 1990, pp. 29-30). 

Hymn writers, both lyricists and tune composers, have music itself as a means to touch emotion and move congregants to a new understanding.  How music does this is, of course, a much debated topic beyond the scope of this essay.  Nonetheless, in Begbie’s words, ‘music can play its part in educating, shaping, and reshaping us emotionally.   . . . it can voice not only what we do feel but what we could or perhaps should feel’ (Begbie, 2007, p. 302). Saliers  pushes the matter one step further by asking the question, ‘Could it be that we cannot understand the world theologically except by being formed in certain emotions and dispositions that music engenders?’ (Saliers, 2007, p. 62).  

The point of this discussion of emotion in preaching and hymns is to remind us that their fundamental purpose is not simply to make people feel something in worship but to persuade listeners to respond to the Christian message, however that is presented in any given church.  The function of singing hymns and preaching sermons is not to entertain, although aspects of these practices will surely delight us, nor to upset or unsettle congregants merely for the sake of disturbing them, although again surely that will happen.  The point is to elicit emotion in such a way that those who sing hymns and participate in the preaching moment will seek to find ways to respond to what God is doing through the music, through the words, and in the world.  

In conclusion, there are, to be sure, differences as well between hymns and preaching just as there may be other similarities not explored in this essay.  Nonetheless, reflecting upon these commonalities help us to see how these two practices became hallmarks in one form or another of Christian worship throughout the centuries and across the globe.  They also help us see how, in varying degrees of success, these two practices continue to work together to offer opportunities to believers to proclaim and hear the gospel of Jesus Christ, to know and to feel the love of God, and to respond to that love both within worship and in the world.


Nancy Claire Pittman



Further Reading and Sources

  1.  Dorothy C. Bass, ‘Introduction’, in Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Grand Rapids, 2001).
  2. Jeremy S. Begbie,  Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Grand Rapids, 2007).
  3. C. Randall Bradley, From Memory to Imagination:  Reforming the Church’s Music (Grand Rapids, 2012).
  4. Fred B. Craddock, As One without Authority  (Enid, Oklahoma, 1971).
  5. _______________, Preaching (Nashville, 1985).
  6. Eileen Guenter, Rivals or a Team? Clergy-Musician Relationship in the Twenty-First Century (St Louis, 2012).
  7. Andreas J. Loewe, ‘Why Do Lutherans Sing? Lutherans, Music, and the Gospel in the First Century of the Reformation’, Church History 82/1 (2013), pp. 69-89.
  8. Martin Luther, Praefatio zu den Symphoniae Iucundae, translated and quoted by J. Andreas Loewe, Church History 82/1, as above.
  9. John S. McClure, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, L. Susan Bond, Dan P. Moseley, G. Lee Ramsey, Jr.,  Listening to Listeners: Homiletical Case Studies (St Louis, 2004).
  10. Don E. Saliers,  Music and Theology (Nashville, 2007).
  11. Thomas H. Troeger, Imagining a Sermon (Nashville, 1990).
  12. Richard Ward, ‘Performing the Manuscript’, in The New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching (Nashville, 2008).
  13. James D. Whitehead and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead, Method in Ministry: Theological Reflection and Christian Ministry (revised edition, Lanham, 1995).
  14. Paul Scott Wilson, ed.  The New Interpreter’s Handbook of Preaching (Nashville, 2008).







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