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Album Review – Paul Zach: Hymns

The Context

Singer/Songwriter Paul Zach has released 1 EP in 2018 and has contributed to several of the albums already reviewed here on the blog, including The Porter’s Gate albums. Accordingly, he is no stranger to crafting songs for congregational singing. His newest release, Hymns, is simply that—fresh arrangements of time-tested melodies and lyrics. Zach has also cultivated the art of cowriting, as evidenced in the aforementioned Porter’s Gate albums, and Hymns includes many featured guest vocalists with whom Zach has written in the past. Familiar guests include Liz Vice, Leslie Jordan, and Page CXVI, with Taylor Leonhardt and The Sing Team rounding out the list.


The Content

Appropriate for the COVID season, this album sounds like it was recorded in an aged, empty church with wooden pews, with a few friends spaced out in the room playing and singing these hymns together. Rather than feeling empty or isolated, however, these songs immediately draw the listener into the intimacy of the recording, and even on my first listen I was drawn to sing along with the comforting melodies of the chosen hymns. Musically, Zach leans on acoustic instruments as the foundation for each song: acoustic guitar, piano, organ, and upright bass. This folk/americana style lends itself well to each hymn, and Zach harmonizes beautifully with each of his various guests. Although some of the starting keys that fit Zach’s tenor/baritone voice may be a bit high for general congregational use, these arrangements could easily be re-keyed without losing their intimacy and dynamics. Lyrically, Zach makes no changes to the original hymn texts and chooses not to add any new choruses or refrains to the arrangements. Rather, he uses verses of the hymns that often are omitted when such new elements are added to hymnody. The hymn choices span several generations, including the African-American spiritual “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” Other notable songs include: “Take My Life and Let it Be” (with its ebb and flow and soothing harmony), “Come Thou Fount” (including the swelling organ in the final verses), and “No Not One” (with its blues vibe and catchy bassline).


The Conclusion

This hymns album is a precious listening experience, and may remind some music directors and worship leaders of “old” songs that need a re-introduction in local churches. As Paul Zach makes clear, these songs have endured in part because it doesn’t take a full production team to sing them—an acoustic guitar and an earnest heart (and some talented friends to help) are all it takes to capture a fresh yet familiar take on rich and important hymns. This album comes highly recommended for those who need to rest in gospel truth or be reminded of songs that may be important to re-introduce during the reset that COVID quarantine has provided the local (and global) singing church.


To listen to the album, go to: Spotify Album – Hymns by Paul Zach


Review provided by David Calvert, who is the Creative Arts Director for Grace Community Church in rural North Carolina and a PhD graduate in Theology and Worship from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.


We know that planning worship during the global pandemic has not been easy. With all of the added stress, new skills (audio/video editing!!!), and constant curveballs, we know that you’re probably tired. With Easter just around the corner and plans being made, we hope that these accompaniment tracks will ease your burden a bit, giving you time and energy to focus on other projects and congregational needs on the horizon.

In total there are 15 hymns with the majority of those being recorded in two different styles. With the exception of the acapella selections (which necessitate vocals), these are provided without vocals so that you, your cantor, choir, or congregation can add their own voices to the track. Hymn suggestions are based on the Revised Common Lectionary readings.

All of these are public domain hymns, are free to download, and should be considered “creative commons,” meaning you can use them in any way you would like as long as credit is given to The Center for Congregational Song.


Downloads are available at the bottom of this page in our SoundCloud player, or by going to our SoundCloud account here.


Song List

1st Sunday – Feb 21st – A CAPPELLA SUNDAY

Jesus, Lover of My Soul [ABERYSTWYTH] – A Cappella with vocal percussion loops

My Hope is Built on Nothing Less [SOLID ROCK] – 1. A Cappella with soprano on melody  2. A Cappella with no melody


2nd Sunday – Feb 28th

Be Thou My Vision [SLANE] – 1. Piano & Violin    2. Full Band

The God of Abraham Praise [LEONI] – 1. Organ   2. Hard Rock

Fairest Lord Jesus, Lord of all creation [CRUSADERS’ HYMN] – 1. Organ  2. Band


3rd Sunday – March 7th

I Want Jesus to Walk with Me [WALK WITH ME] – 1. Simple Piano      2. Funk-Inspired


4th Sunday – March 14th

Of the Father’s Love Begotten [DIVINUM MYSTERIUM] – 1. Organ      2. Synth

Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us [BRADBURY] – 1. Piano & Flute       2. Wind Ensemble


5th Sunday – March 21st

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended [HERZLIEBSTER JESU] – 1. Organ     2. Guitar Ensemble

Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy [RESTORATION] – 1. Funky Band


Palm/Passion Sunday – March 28th

All Glory, Laud and Honor [VALET WILL ICH DIR GEBEN] – 1. Organ & Brass        2. Hard Rock

What Wondrous Love Is This [WONDROUS LOVE] – 1. Synth & Violin

Praise, Praise, Praise the Lord (Cameroon) [LOUEZ LE SEIGNEUR] – 1. Percussion & “oo” Choir      2. Percussion Only

Sanna, Sannanina (South Africa) [SANNANINA] – 1. Percussion & “oo” Choir      2. Percussion Only

O Sacred Head Now Wounded [PASSION CHORALE] – 1. Organ & Cello     2. Strings


Playlist & Downloads

Download by clicking a track and then look for the “download” button on the top right hand corner of the soundcloud player. You can also go directly to our SoundCloud album here.


We weren’t going to post anything about Kanye West and his new album. Frankly, he gets enough press already and most of his music isn’t designed nor does it lend itself well to be considered “congregational.” But the latest news of him claiming to be the “greatest artist God has ever created” does open up an opportunity to explore that claim and learn about some church music history.

So here’s a list of 10 artists who Kanye obviously doesn’t know about that we think are worth mentioning when discussing the “greatest artist God has ever created.”

1. Theological Mastermind: Ambrose of Milan

Often called “The Father of Western Hymnody,” Saint Ambrose of Milan was a key figure in solidifying the idea that Christ was not a creation of God, but rather a full part of God from and of the beginning. Can many other artists in our history or today claim that they literally shaped and then defended a key tenant of the Christian faith? Check out one of his hymns we still sing today, “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright.”

2. Composer & Theologian: Hildegard of Bingen

Given credit for founding scientific natural history in Germany, this 12th century nun is also one of the most well-known Pre-Reformation sacred composers. Just listen to this stunning performance of one of her chant arrangements.

3. Tune-Writer: Louis Bourgeois

You know the branch of Christianity called “Reformed” and “Presbyterian”? Well, the music that they sing was and is largely influenced by Louis Bourgeois who was largely responsible for the milestone “Genevan Psalter” in the 16th century. Most famously he’s credited with composing the tune OLD HUNDRETH, which is sung by countless congregations each and every Sunday. Here’s a great a cappella singing of the tune from a recent worship conference:

4. Composer & Theologian: J.S. Bach

It’s hard to find a composer who more carefully and skillfully combines music and theology than J.S. Bach. Organ, Orchestra, Voice…you name it. So many of his compositions are considered masterworks and are performed across the world each year by multiple ensembles that we don’t know where to begin. So here’s a playlist of the “best of Bach” for your listening pleasure.

5. Concertized Sacred Music: G.F. Handel

While much of Handel’s music is unremarkable when it comes to the “greatest” conversation, his oratorio Messiah has been continually sung/performed for over 270 years and counting. In 2014/2015, 13 of the 22 largest American orchestras performed the work 38 times. When people think church music, they think Messiah. Here’s a full performance:

Also, how can we mention Messiah and not also link to the “Soulful Celebration” remake from 1992?

6. Song Writer: Fanny Crosby

A blind woman living in the late 1800s, she wrote more than 8000 hymns and gospel songs and over 1000 secular poems. Her most popular hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” has appeared in over 900 hymnals and continues to be sung today. We were going to mention Charles Wesley, but we couldn’t leave out Ms. Crosby who wrote more hymns than he did!

Here’s another setting of Crosby’s hymn from the black gospel tradition:

7. Composer and Scholar: Harry T. Burleigh

The grandson of a partially blind ex-slave, Harry T. Burleigh did arguably more than anyone else in history to preserve and advance the music of Black Americans. For an introduction to his life and legacy, you can click here.

8. Secular/Sacred Crossover: Duke Ellington

One of the greatest and most influential jazz musicians, Sir Duke was not only a jazzer but a dedicated christian. His concerts of sacred music were a unique cross-over that paved the way for the church and the secular music industry to meet and influence each other.

9. Sacred Album: Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace

After her recent death, if you weren’t aware of the life and legacy of Aretha Franklin, you should be now. Her iconic album “Amazing Grace” was a game-changer for sacred music.

10. Contemporary Artist: Kirk Franklin

If you listen to Kanye’s new album and you’re familiar with the history of church music, and specifically black sacred music, you’ll hear a lot of influences in there. In fact, it’s hard to hear very much that is new at all. In particular, Kirk Franklin was paving the way for much of what you hear on Kanye’s album. If you’re not familiar with Franklin’s work, one of his most well known early albums is “Hero”:


Finally, this list is in no ways official or comprehensive. In fact, it’s very particular to a European and then white & black American history of church music. Other than Kirk Franklin we didn’t even mention any other music contemporaries like Marcos Witt of CanZion Productions whose music and educational ministries have reached Spanish-speaking Christians across the world with numbers in the millions (thanks for this tip, Adam Perez), or Shirley Erena Murray whose hymn texts are at the cutting edge of ecotheology, 21st century Christology that is in concert with scientific thought, and expressing non-western Christian worldviews. Our list is also hyper focused on music instead of art as a whole (remember the claim was on being the greatest “artist”). And, or course, there’s also the question of what the definition of a “great” Christian artist is, which most people would have to agree has to have different metrics than what the popular music industry gives us.

So, in short, no. Kanye is certainly not the “greatest artist God has ever created.” Seriously? Is there even such a thing? Probably not. We’re all made unique and are given a particular calling by God, not to mention there have been some seriously talented artists in the past and will continue to be in the future. Maybe a more accurate claim would be that Kanye is the greatest Prosperity Gospel Christian Rap/Hip-Hop Artist God has ever made who gave his life to Christ in the early 21st century. That’s probably true.


Author Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.


This episode is with English hymn writer and retired minister in the Church of England, Christopher Idle. It was recorded by Ben Brody at The Hymn Society in Great Britain and Ireland’s 2019 Annual Conference in Canterbury, England. For a full biography of our guest, click here.




Season 3 – Episode 4

In this interview with Christopher Idle who has written over 500 hymn texts, meaningful texts are shared from his faith story. Having been formed and served in the Anglican tradition, this interview explores what it like to be a hymn writer: struggles, discouragements, successes, and encouragements.


Listening time: 21 minutes


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Also available on: iHeartRadio



This episode is with professor of religious studies, hymn writer, and chair of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song which produced Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, Dr. Mary Louise Bringle. It was recorded by Ben Brody at The Hymn Society’s 2019 Annual Conference in Dallas, TX. For a full biography of our guest, click here.

Season 3 – Episode 1

In this interview with Mary Louise Bringle, we get to hear about her faith journey, how she became a hymn writer, and so much more about how hymn-writing has shaped her life and how her life has shaped her hymn-writing.


Listening time: 42 minutes


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Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song, adjunct professor of worship at Wingate University, and Director of Music at Light Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD.



This kind of information may be old news to some of our readers, but there are those of you who may not have grown up singing from a hymnal and have recently found yourselves being asked to either use or sing from a hymnal. I bet many of you might also teach Sunday School classes, confirmation classes, or other educational settings where a simple article on “how to use a hymnal” would be particularly useful to share. So here we go!


What is a hymnal?

If you google this question, you’ll read first that a hymnal is a noun with the definition of “a book of hymns.” But a hymnal is much more than that. For more in-depth answers to this question, I’m going to rely on two very thoughtful organizations. The first is The Hymn Society in Great Britain and Ireland, which is a sister organization to The Center for Congregational Song’s parent company, The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. The Hymn Society in Great Britain and Ireland offers many “short guides,” one of which specifically answers the question what is a hymnal? The subheading they use with brief explanations following each are:

  • A good hymnal immerses us in Biblical language and the Biblical message.
  • A good hymnal is a handbook of theology.
  • A good hymnal is an important teaching tool.
  • A good hymnal is a key part of corporate worship.
  • A good hymnal is the voice of the church through history.
  • A good hymnal offers a broadly ecumenical meeting-place.
  • A good hymnal reminds us of the world-wide church to which we belong.
  • A good hymnal is a repository of the church’s diverse music styles.
  • And more…to read the full article, you can click here.

For another short but good read on what and why a hymnal is, check out this 1-page document from Samford’s “The Center for Worship and the Arts”: “Using-a-Hymnal”

Finally, if you’re in the “but aren’t hymnals going away” camp…or you have any friends or colleagues asking that question, here’s a wonderful article on the topic by John D. Witvliet of The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.


What’s in a hymnal?

Hymnals generally have some, all, or more than the following sections:

  • Opening Liturgy/Worship Section – The beginnings of hymnals often include creeds, worship orders, prayers, and more. These are often denominationally specific, but often times these resources are broad enough to meet the needs of a variety of traditions and perspectives.
  • Hymns & Songs – This is, of course, the largest section of a hymnal. Hymns & songs are often organized by liturgical season (Advent, Christmas, etc…) and/or by theme (Confession, Adoration, Gathering, Sending, etc…).
  • Psalms – Sometimes psalms are included in the main part of the hymnal, but some hymnals have a special section for psalm settings. Sometimes this is near the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the “Hymns & Songs” section mentioned before. Depending on the tradition a hymnal is from, these psalms may be musical settings, musical refrains with words for the verses, or just words that have “points” to enable chanting.
  • Copyright Index – Hymnals almost always include the bulk of the copyright information (and on the copyright holders) in an index in the back.
  • Topical and Scriptural Indices – Most hymnals will have both a topical and scriptural index. These are great for looking up hymns and songs that deal with specific topics (like a list of hymns that deal with “Comfort,” or if you’re trying to find a hymn that references a specific scripture (like a list of hymns that Luke chapter 2). The scriptural index is sometimes accompanied by a separate “lectionary” index that has hymn suggestions for all Sundays in the lectionary.
  • Other indices that are usually included are a list of authors, composers, and sources; tune names; Tune meters; and hymns alphabetically by first line.
  • For a wonderful explanation of how to use many of these common hymnal indices, check this article out:


More Resources

If you have any questions about hymns or hymnals, there are two go-to places:

The first is The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and the second is These two organizations are the experts and have staff

that are more than willing to help answer your hymn and hymnal-related questions.


Here’s a fun video of how to use a hymnal (from a Lutheran pastor using a Lutheran hymnal…but generally useful information!).


We hope you’ll enjoy exploring your hymnal(s) and teach others about all they have to offer our communities of faith and our families.



This episode is the 2nd part of Ben Brody’s interview with retired bishop and renowned hymn writer Timothy Dudley Smith.


Season 2 – Episode 5

In this interview with Timothy Dudley Smith we continue to hear about his story of faith and music-making in the church. His writing process, results, and impact are discussed.



Listening time: 24 minutes


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Also available on: iHeartRadio



This episode is with music professor and leading expert on Music of the African Diaspora, African American Culture, the Black Church, and Christian Worship, Dr. Emmett Price. It was recorded at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship at their annual Worship Symposium.


Season 2 – Episode 4

In this interview with Dr. Emmett Price, we hear about his personal journey through song that informed his role as a pastor and now as a scholar focusing on the musics of the Black Church.



Listening time: 39 minutes


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This episode is with Dr. Lisa Weaver and Dr. James Abbington. It was recorded by Ben Brody at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship during their annual Worship Symposium in January 2019.


Season 2 – Episode 1

In this interview with two of the most influential scholars and leaders in church music, Ben Brody asks about the creation of the newest GIA African American hymnal “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism,” what hymns have influenced these guests the most in their lives, and how certain hymns and songs become favorites of individuals as well as larger denominations.





Listening time: 36 minutes


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Also available on: iHeartRadio


Guest Blogger Zach Light-Wells in an Associate Director of Music at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas, and is earning a Master of Sacred Music in Choral Conducting from Perkins School of Theology and Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University.



So, why is there a band in the sanctuary?

For me, it’s difficult to imagine a world without music. How is it that on the busiest of days, when I can’t seem to remember what I had for dinner the night before, I’ll find myself humming a tune that I haven’t heard in a decade? How can we forget important anniversaries and birthdays but still remember every note of a melody we sang during advent years ago? Oddly enough, music simply isn’t bound by time: music existed long before we took our first breaths, and music will continue to be part of the earth’s existence long after we each pass on.


In The Beginning…

So, where did this mysterious, untameable medium come from? In the beginning, when God hovered over the waters of creation, God spoke the universe into order, day by day, night by night, in sequence (Genesis 1). Intentional, rhythmic, and divinely improvised, God’s cadence of creation—God’s own song of life —stirred the cosmos into existence. From the depths of the earth to the furthest frontiers of the universe, God continues to create: to sing and paint the universe into being. Created in the image of our own Creator, we, too, are called to be restless: to be co-creators in an ever expanding universe. In music-making, we participate in God’s active, vibrant re-creation of the earth. In music-making, we fulfil our divinely inspired vocation.

Music will continue to be part of the earth’s existence long after we each pass on.

But, who exactly benefits from music-making: the songwriter, the listener, the participant, human or the divine? If we recognize music-making as an intrinsic human activity, must we classify music-making solely as an instinctual human obligation? In other words: if music-making, or creating, is woven in to the DNA of humankind, is the aim of music-making simply the fulfilment of human instincts, or are there more significant purposes for making music within the walls of our sanctuaries?

According to the apostle Paul, music serves two primary functions: to serve God and to serve neighbor. “Be filled with the Spirit in the following ways: speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts” (Ephesians. 5:18-19, CEB). Perhaps intentionally, Paul reflects Jesus’ summary of the law found in the gospels: when asked “what is the greatest commandment,” Jesus responds “you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength… you will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31, CEB). Just as we seek to serve both the God and neighbor in our daily lives, we seek to serve both God and neighbor in our music-making, for even the angels sang “glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14, KJV).


Fred Pratt Green

Hymnist Fred Pratt Green describes making music for the service of God particularly, declaring “when in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried: Alleluia!” When the bible mentions music-making, it’s most commonly describing an act of praise, in which music-making glorifies God: “O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day” (Psalm 96:1-2, NRSV). Throughout scriptures, in recognizing the abundance of the Creator, creation is expected to worship God with music; “Let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy. Let all creation rejoice before the Lord…” (Psalm 96:11-13, NIV). When we offer God our praise, we acknowledge the beautiful complexity of the Creator, while simultaneously acknowledging the beautiful complexity of God’s creation. When we offer praise, we recognize God’s supreme love for all of creation. When we offer praise, we revel in the cosmic mysteries of God, while simultaneously thanking God for the abundant blessings in our lives. When we celebrate the goodness of God, God hears our songs— our very own musical creations— and, in our joy, God sings with us.

When the bible mentions music-making, it’s most commonly describing an act of praise…

When I say “our songs,” I should clarify that musical creativity isn’t merely reserved for songwriters and composers. In many ways, a worship band or sanctuary choir constantly explores the act of creating. In each moment of music-making, whether rehearsed or improvised, pre-written or spontaneous, each musician contributes musical ideas specific to that very moment in time. Because each musician adds their own unique, independent musical interpretation to the whole, each moment of group music-making is inherently distinct: never will the same sonic landscape, instruments or voices, or the same exact combination of vibrations and stillness exist again in time. When an entire congregation sings an ancient or pre-existing melody, the assembly invokes the voice of the original songwriter while collectively embodying a new musical idea. Regardless of the musical intent of original composers and songwriters, communal music-making brings new music into being, unique in both time and space.


Communal Music-Making

For this reason, congregational music is distinct among all elements of the Christian liturgy: congregational music invites neighbors into a corporate and immediate act of creation. Communal music-making, then, is exactly that: making, creating, and re-creating. In communal music-making, we mirror God’s song of creation: we perform an act that is intangible, vast, and transcendent. When we make music together, we offer our unique selves to our neighbors. While the result of our music-making may be a single, unified moment of sound, it is only achieved by the acceptance and inclusion of our differing voices and instruments. Just as the only requirement to receive communion is a willing heart, the sole requirement of music-making is the willingness to participate. Therefore, communal music creation is only made possible by the willingness to share the experience with others. Just as persons of all social statuses, gender identities, races, sexualities, skin colors, abilities, ages, and social classes are welcomed to the table, so, too, are all persons, voices, instruments, and abilities welcomed in to the song of the church.


Why Shouldn’t There Be?

So, why is there a band in the sanctuary? To answer a question with a question: why shouldn’t there be? The style of music or the type of instruments involved have no bearing on our ability to make music together, it is only our unwillingness to join the song that prohibits us from singing. The good news is this: it doesn’t really matter what our music ends up sounding like, what’s important is that we are willing to make music together; what’s important is that we are willing to co-create with our neighbors and with our Creator.

Congregational music invites neighbors into a corporate and immediate act of creation.

In a society that is seemingly more polarized each day, are we still willing to create something together? Are we willing to create something unique, to give life to a new creation, together? Are we willing to share ourselves with our neighbors? Are we willing to share ourselves with God? Are we willing to sing the songs of the whole church, of the whole world, and of all of creation?

A hymnist once penned, “and from morn to set of sun, through the church the song goes on.” As for me, it’s difficult to imagine a world without music.


Read More Blogs from “Centered in Song”


Guest Blogger Zach Light-Wells