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The Hymn of the Month


Does your congregation introduce a “hymn of the month” every four or five weeks? I once watched John L. Bell, a well-known figure in the world of congregational song, imitate the average music leader’s attempt to teach one of these songs to their congregation for the first time: “Well, so, it’s a new month, which means that we’re going to learn a new hymn of the month, and it’s a tricky one, so we probably won’t get it right, but just follow me, and we’ll do our best to make it to the end.” He didn’t use those exact words, but he nevertheless suggested through this impersonation that music leaders sometimes make their work overly difficult. By predicting that congregants will fail to sing a new song well (and by making our low expectations known to them when we introduce the song), do we empower them to sing with courage and exceed our expectations? Not according to Bell. More likely, by communicating to congregants that we doubt their capacity to sing well, we confirm that they won’t succeed before they even make an attempt.



That’s not the only trouble that comes with introducing a new hymn at the beginning of the month. When I was collecting statistical data on my own congregation’s musical repertoire, I found that in our case, these songs were substantially different from our other selections, so much so that one could accuse us of exoticizing them. For instance, we sang a song from an Indigenous source (written by a Mohawk man) for the first time throughout the month of October, and we sang it with the aid of a drum instead of a piano or organ. That was very new for us. In November, we sang “Masithi,” a song with South African origins, in its original language, Xhosa, but none of us speak Xhosa. It would’ve been obvious that neither of these songs suited us very well if a stranger walked into the sanctuary while we were singing them. They were challenging and uncomfortable to learn, which might explain why neither of our song leaders (cantors) have selected them in subsequent months. We sang them—we sang each of them four times, in fact!—but since they don’t seem to be entering our canon in the long term, did our efforts to learn new music from other cultures and communities simply amount to tokenism?


Accepting the challenge

When learning a new song, repetition is so helpful. That’s the beauty of introducing a hymn at the beginning of the month and continuing to sing it each week! As Bell reminds us, though, and as my own congregation demonstrates, there are other confounding variables that might inhibit our efforts to introduce a hymn of the month with both integrity and success. Indeed, there are no quick fixes or easy answers when it comes to teaching music to a group of amateurs or fostering cultural appreciation without appropriation. I do, however, believe that congregations navigate both of these concerns best by accepting the challenge instead of balking at it. After all, with the exception of “Masithi,” my congregation only sang in English over almost six months, even though some of our own members spent their childhood speaking another language. For us, learning an unfamiliar text and tune functions as a subtle, perhaps even subconscious, effort to dismantle linguistic privilege within our congregation. For that reason among others, I would lament if we gave up the challenge of learning a hymn of the month.



As music leaders, it is our task to invite the congregation to accept the challenge of singing a hymn of the month, not just in the short term, but in the long term as well. Responding to Bell’s critique, which addresses a short-term concern, music leaders need not dismiss congregational anxieties about learning a new song, but they might still graciously offer confidence and encouragement in the face of such apprehension: “We are learning a new song this month! It’s different from a lot of our other music, and we might make mistakes, but I’m confident that we will find lots to love about it over time. Who knows? It might become another one of our favorites.” By suggesting that “it might become another one of our favorites,” the music leader alerts congregants to the possibility of returning to the hymn of the month after the month ends, thus extending the challenge into the long term. After all, if the congregation does find “lots to love” in it, it would be a shame to stop singing it after four weeks. On the other hand, it might take more than four tries to develop an attachment to the new song that parallels what congregants feel for their existing favorites. Still, by promising that some level of attachment will form over an undefined length of time, it won’t shock the congregation to see the song appear in the order of service again in future months.

In my view, then, accepting the challenge of singing a hymn of the month is a short-term commitment with long-term implications. If the music leader doesn’t realize and articulate the nature of this commitment, though, how can we expect the congregation to give their assent to it?


Conversation Questions

In writing this blog post, I must also be clear that I aim to spark a conversation rather than conduct an exhaustive investigation. So, I conclude with some additional questions beyond the scope of what I can address here:

  1. What are some other advantages and drawbacks of featuring a hymn of the month?
  2. What is the best way to introduce a hymn of the month?
  3. Should we even call it a “hymn of the month,” especially if it suggests that the hymn only exists for a month before disappearing from the congregation’s repertory?
  4. Are there new or better ways to teach new songs to amateur singers?
  5. Most importantly, when we accept the challenge of learning new music together, what gifts do we receive that we might otherwise miss?


Blogger Mykayla Turner holds a Master of Sacred Music with a Liturgical Musicology concentration. She recently obtained her A.C.C.M. in Piano Performance from Conservatory Canada, and she is currently completing a Master of Theological Studies. Mykayla has presented research at conferences in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Apart from her academic work, she is an active church musician and liturgist. She works as a worship coordinator for a Mennonite congregation in rural Ontario.