In my earlier post introducing Chris Anderson’s new hymn, I mentioned that I appreciated his text on several levels. Here are a few reasons, which I believe are native to many strong hymn texts: (Note: I am using the term hymn in this post to refer to a sacred song written primarily for congregational singing, which you may think of as a worship song or spiritual song.)
Consistent meter and rhyme scheme
When writing for congregation, predictability is generally a good thing, especially when it comes to meter and rhyme scheme.
Have you ever been distracted in worship when the line you just sang didn’t even remotely rhyme how you expected it to? Have you ever tried to sing with gusto only to find yourself singing a “momentary solo” when the phrase took an unexpected turn? I raised my hand for both questions. Recently, I read a post by Bobby Gilles in which he describes the meter and rhyme scheme of a hymn as a “contract” that the author is drawing up for his readers (listeners and singers). That contract is set in stone by the time the first verse (or stanza, if you prefer) is over. The reader will now expect the author to “keep contract” by keeping each subsequent verse in the same meter (which includes proper syllabic stress on the words of each phrase) and rhyme scheme. Bobby does a great job illustrating this with a text by Isaac Watts.
Parallelism and logical progression
A good song (or hymn) tells a story. It leads the listener/singer on a journey. It preaches like a great sermon. Listen to this story: “Come, lonely heart…Drink, thirsty heart…Rest, guilty heart…Joy, grateful heart.” The parallelism helps us follow the path and progression of the story, like a well-crafted outline.
Think of the great redemption-story progressions of the hymns And Can It Be and Arise, My Soul, Arise. Recall The Power of the Cross by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, leading us through the events of the crucifixion. Brian Pinner and I have also tried to follow a logical progression when we wrote O God, My Joy (when God is my joy, I am sustained through trials and compelled to fight sin) and See the Christ (the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ). Nothing ruins a story (or a hymn) like aimlessness.
A note of warning, however: Just as alliteration is not always the best choice for a sermon outline, close parallelism may not be for your hymn, either. We appreciate it when it really works, but don’t sacrifice content or a better turn of phrase just for the sake of parallelism (e.g. notice that verse 3 of The Power of the Cross steps away from the parallelism of the other verses.)
Both specific and broad application
Chris’s text follows the story of the woman at the well in John 4. It plainly applies to her situation. But it’s written in such a way that it also plainly applies to me! And it could easily be sung with a wide array of topics and passages in a worship service. Our hymn See the Christ is also an example, following Philippians 2:5-11, yet appropriate for several topics or occasions.
Simplicity and repetition
This is not necessarily a universal virtue in hymnwriting. I appreciate many wordy and complex hymns, and Chris certainly could have written a much heftier hymn on John 4. There are some huge, complex themes in that chapter! But I found myself really drawn to the strength of simplicity in Chris’s text. There is such relief and welcome in the refrain-like phrase of each verse: “No soul is too small for His mercy; No sin is too great for His grace!” And the way each verse opens and ends with the same phrase keeps them focused, compact, and poignant.
I close with an exhortation: It’s easy to criticize a preacher when you know something about preaching or public speaking, and it’s easy to criticize a hymn text when you know something about hymnwriting. But the amazing and baffling thing is that God may choose to work powerfully through a “weak” vessel (e.g. the apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5). So, yes, do try to write admirably. But let God amaze you by how He chooses to work.