Choosing hymns – more than picking our favourites

The connections between hymns and older people run deep, both spiritually and physically, discovers the Revd Dr Margaret Goodall. How does this information inform our worship preparation?

It is often the case that choosing the right hymns can take as long as thinking through the sermon. When I became a Methodist local preacher a friend at church commented that I’d now be able to choose all my favourite hymns! But my experience is that this is rarely the case as either they don’t seem to fit what I want to say, or they don’t meet the needs of the people in the congregation.

Hymns are an important part of worship and often stay with the worshipper as long – if not longer – than the sermon. So their choice should be made carefully as they are an important part of worship. This is especially true, it seems, for older people.

Anton Boisen (1876 – 1965) in 1916

This year is the 50th anniversary of the death of Anton Boisen, an American who founded the clinical pastoral training movement over 75 years ago. He wrote about the “forces of healing and power” which lie within religion and as a result put together a book of hymns for those who were suffering. He called his book Hymns of Hope and Courage.

A little while ago, Dr Janet Eldred and Dr Mike Lowis of Christians on Ageing (CCOA) conducted some research that asked whether hymns can lift the spirits, and if so, how.* In their research, Boisen’s belief that worship (including hymns) elicits ‘‘tender memories’’ was borne out. They discovered that ‘peak experience’ responses were obtained from two contrasting selections of hymns: the up-beat and the gentle. They also noted the effect of hymns in 3/4 time, which reduced the effect of stress-induced hormones and encouraged feelings of spirituality, and in 4/4 time, with its link to breathing and the heart beat.

Conversely, have you felt the effect of singing a hymn to the ‘wrong’ tune?

Hymns are usually sung with others, so the very act of people coming together can often promote the ‘‘tingle factor’’ of pleasure from sharing. But hymns also connect people with memories of loved ones and associations with happy times (or even sad times, such as funerals) from the past. Hymns also link those who responded to people, times and places and so summon up a wealth of memories: of lessons learned, of people loved, and of experiences shared.

Words which older people used to describe their experience of singing hymns were: “uplifting”, “praise”, “spiritual”, “memories”, “soothing”, “bonding” and “a good sing”.

Methodist Homes (MHA), the housing and care charity, has started a research project looking at the importance (or otherwise) of hymns and to see how far Boisen’s choice of hymns is echoed in hymns MHA chaplains choose today. Many of our churches have a similar age profile to MHA projects and we hope to discover more about the effect of hymns on older people and offer this as a resource to others leading worship.

Preparing for worship demands much of the preacher or worship leader, but if choosing hymns is more than picking our favourites then we need to be purposeful in our choices.

* Their findings were published in the journal Practical Theology (Vol 7, Issue 3, September 2014) in an article authored with Albert Jewell and Michael Jackson, titled ‘“Your heart can dance to them even if your feet can’t”: Anton Boisen, older people, and the therapeutic value of hymns’.

The Revd Dr Margaret Goodall trained as a music teacher and then became a Methodist minister. She now works for MHA as Chaplaincy Development manager. Margaret says that she was “brought up in a small village chapel where singing hymns was the highlight of the service!”

Categories: Making the most of hymns, Worship Resources.

3 Responses to Choosing hymns – more than picking our favourites

  1. Peter Rogers says:

    As I get older I observe that “ageism” is one of attitude, and not necessarily age itself, and many of those now in their 70′s and 80′s grew up in the rock ‘n’ roll years of the 50′s. It is interesting that one of the phrases above which older people used to describe their experience of singing hymns is “a good sing”. My parents, now deceased, and their contemporaries regarded a good sing as singing the hymns with choruses in the old Methodist hymnbook, something I more associate with Primitive Methodism. Unfortunately many of these are not in modern hymnbooks, and were left out of Hymns & Psalms, which has very few modern hymns in it, even for the 80′s, and is very much “Anglican” or Wesleyan in nature. Some of the modern songs are more akin to Crosby and Sankey, etc. which might be why some elderly people from Primitive backgrounds accept them more readily than might be supposed. I have been to some congregations with an older age range and have been left wondering what did Elvis do for them? Some modern words can be sung to well known tunes, but not the dreary ones Lorraine Hawkins refers to. I do occasionally take a short service at a local MHA, where most of the residents are dementia sufferers and I do try to pick hymns that I think they will remember, but their hymnbook has a very limited selection, something else that might need addressing.

  2. norma singleton says: 85 years old and I too love the old hymns, I was brought up on them and spent a lot of time when younger accompanying sunday school children in their singing. I also like some of the modern ones but so many of them don’t have inspiring words, too much repetition and sentimentality, and many of them about ‘I’ and ‘Me’ which I don’t like. When unable to sleep at night I recite to myself favourite words of hymns, my parents favourites as well and find this a great help.

  3. Lorraine Hawkins says:

    I am very interested in growing dementia-friendly churches, and appreciate that well-known old hymns are very much needed by people with dementia, but it is all too easy to lump together “old people”! My husband is 80 and I am 70, my parents were 89 and 90 when they died, and all of us love to sing the new songs, especially those by Stuart Townend and Graham Kendrick, with helpful words. Our church started a monthly Praise Service with modern music, hoping to attract young people, but the average age of those who attend must be around 70, and we all love it. So, please encourage people to remember that many old people love modern songs as well as the old ones.
    With old hymns, I also feel that a dreary tune turns my mind off the words!

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