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What Hymns Work Best in a Contemporary Setting

At worship conferences, I teach a class called “Blending Hymns With Contemporary Worship” to packed, desperate audiences. It seems to be the never ending problem: how to use hymns in contemporary worship.

Just which hymns should you use? I believe there are popular hymns that everyone should know—hymns that have stood the test of time and cross denominational borders. And, some hymns are more conducive to contemporary worship than others.

A few years ago, I coined the term “hymn cranks,” which stirred up some nasty emails. “Hymn cranks” describe those trouble-making people in your church who are constantly pestering you to use hymns, hymns and more hymns. At one church where I worked, a guy in the congregation kept himself busy during the praise set by tallying how many hymns were or were not used. You can imagine the trouble I was in if I dared to NOT do a hymn on any given Sunday.

Then there was the deacon who was fixated on obscure, antiquated hymns written by Isaac Watts. This hymn crank wasn’t satisfied that we did a healthy dose of popular hymns—he constantly pestered me to use his favorite, “How Sweet and Awesome is this Place,” in our praise sets. I have sung hymns my entire life, consider myself to be somewhat of a hymn expert, and had never heard this one. Here’s the second verse of this lovely ditty:

Here every bowel of our God
With soft compassion rolls;
Here peace and pardon bought with blood
Is food for dying souls.

I’m sorry, but we’re simply not going to sing a hymn about God’s bowels in a contemporary worshiping church with electric guitars.

This deacon finally worked himself up into such a hissy fit that he threatened to leave the church. Over a hymn about God’s bowels.

And people wonder why the average tenure of a music director is two years. (He eventually regained his senses, calmed down, and I never did do that hymn!)

In no particular order, here are the top 10 hymns everyone should know, drawn from years of polling at my HymnCharts.com website and my personal opinion, that work best with contemporary worship:

“Amazing Grace”
“Holy Holy Holy”
“Be Thou My Vision”
“Come Thou Fount”
“All Hail the Power” (CORONATION)
“What a Friend We Have In Jesus”
“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”
“I Surrender All”
“Crown Him With Many Crowns”
“It Is Well With My Soul”

The classical chord structure of these hymns is what makes them useable in contemporary worship as well as lyrics that are, for the most part, singable and modern enough for the average person in your congregation.

Interestingly, the older the hymn, the easier it is to translate to a praise band. Even though songs like “At Calvary” are in many hymnals, they’re not actually hymns but “Gospel songs.” The sing-songy, lilting quality and chromatic melodies give these late 19th and early 20th century tunes an inherent dated feel, and it’s pretty hard to create convincing contemporary arrangements with them.

Bottom Line: Season your praise sets with the most popular hymns.  

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Arranger/composer Don Chapman is the creative energy behind several websites devoted to contemporary worship: HymnCharts, WorshipFlow, and WorshipIdeas.com. He's the editor of the weekly WorshipIdeas newsletter that is read by over 50,000 worship leaders across the world.