Announcing a hymn does not require a university degree or a knowledge of music and poetry. However, it does call for a thoughtful transition from whatever precedes the singing, to prepare the audience for receiving the message intertwined with the music.
Too often we sing our hymns mindlessly out of habit or tradition, ignorant of the author's original purpose. When that happens, are we really doing much more than barking at print? How important that whoever announces the hymn does so in reference to its meaning.
Picture yourself in church, sitting quietly after the sermon. The elder rises and says: "Our closing hymn is number 541." How inspired are you by that announcement? Granted, it is necessary to inform the congregation where to find the hymn, but wouldn't it be better to say something like this: "Our closing hymn, number 541, summarizes the message we've just heard. Notice the threefold prayer in the three stanzas 'Lord, speak to me,' 'Lord, lead me,' 'Lord, strengthen me.' Hymn number 541."
1. Preview the hymn. Is it too much to ask the elder to read through the hymn before announcing it? To my sorrow, I have heard more than once: "Let us sing the consecration hymn, Number 330, 'Take My Life and Let It Be.'" Now, what kind of consecration is that, when we ask the Lord to take our life and then let it alone! That is precisely what "let it be" means. A simple solution is to add the next word in the hymn, which does not appear in the title: "Take my life, and let it be consecrated."
When you do that, the audience sits up and takes note. For the first time some will have an idea of what they are asking the Lord to do with their lives when they sing that hymn.
2. Find the heart of the hymn. The definition of a hymn requires that it be based upon Scripture; otherwise, it is simply a sacred song. It was my privilege to supply the scriptural references to every hymn in The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal. This daunting task left me with admiration for those writers who transformed and collated various texts into a harmonious whole. Some hymns even gave the nucleus of a sermon.
One notable example is Charles Wesley's composition in celebration of his own conversion. An elder might typically announce it by saying, "Now let us sing Number 198, And Can It Be.'" The audience dutifully mouths the words, ignorant of their rich spiritual background. Wesley was aligning his own experience with the New Testament incident in which Peter found himself miraculously delivered from prison into freedom:
"Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth and followed Thee."
How many times have you sung those words without connecting them to Peter's angelic deliverance from prison or to Wesley's personal testimony? A thoughtful preview of the hymn would identify its link with the book of Acts. Further research would uncover the connection to Wesley's conversion. All this would enable the announcer to bring new life to the congregational singing of that grand old hymn.
3. Don't preach another sermon. Some who seek to avoid a superficial announcement of a hymn find themselves preaching their own sermon. There is no need to fall into that other extreme. Announce the hymn briefly and announce it well.
The Bible directs us to "sing praises with understanding" (Ps.47:7). Thoughtfully introducing a hymn helps make this possible.
Edward White, Ph. D., a retired minister and music teacher, writes from Bracknell, England. He is the author of Singing With Understanding.