Sunday Night Hymn-Sing

hymn sing

I spent the first fifty years of my life faithfully attending Christian churches. In the mid-1970s, I enrolled in classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. I spent twenty-five years pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. I think I can safely say that Christianity has made a deep imprint on my life — good and bad.

Many of my posts deal with the negative aspects of Evangelical Christianity. Inherently Fundamentalist, Evangelicalism causes untold pain, suffering, and dysfunction. (Please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?) It will be a good day when a future generation of freethinkers finally suffocates the life out of Evangelicalism. Already in the early stages of death, there is coming a day when the Fundamentalism many of us knew so well will no longer exist. Not today, not tomorrow, nor a year from now, but the signs are clear — at least to me — that Evangelicalism is rotting at its core and will one day tumble to the ground. All praise be to Loki!

This doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t have many fond memories of the time I spent attending and pastoring Evangelical churches. In fact, my good memories far outnumber the bad ones. I found the work of the ministry quite satisfying. I suspect this is due to the fact that I enjoy helping people. In another life, I might have been a social worker, aid worker, or done some other work that put me in close contact with needy people. I am what you might call a fixer — someone who loves taking on rehab projects. Unfortunately, this impulse led me to take on several broken, dysfunctional churches that didn’t deserve my labors. The best thing that could have happened to these churches — here’s looking at you, Victory Baptist — is that they died a quick death. They didn’t deserve to have me as their pastor. While I would like to think that I have gotten smarter over the years, truth be told, I am still attracted to helping others, even when it is not in my best interest.

Being a pastor gave me opportunities to be around likeminded people. I thoroughly enjoyed communal events. One such event was Sunday Night Hymn Sings. Several times a year, I would schedule a night where all we did was sing. No preaching, just singing. There was no agenda, no program. I would take song requests from congregants. If the pianist couldn’t play a song, we would sing it acapella. Sometimes, only the men would sing, or the women. Sunday Night Hymn Sings were always a highlight of the year.

I can read music, and there was a day when I had what others called a golden tenor voice. Unfortunately, years of preaching and throat infections ruined my voice. It saddens me to think that my grandchildren will never hear me sing, never listen to Grandpa and Nana sing a duet (Polly was a member of a traveling music group during our Midwestern days). Such is life.

Last week, I was listening to some Southern Gospel music on YouTube. One of the songs was a thirty-minute recording of a Baptist hymn sing. Oh my, the memories that came flooding back to me. As tears filled my eyes, ruined voice or not, I sang along with the church and its music leader. I have mentioned before how connected I still am to the religious music of my past. While I don’t believe its lyrical content, there’s something about the music itself that elicits deep emotional feelings from me. I suspect I am not alone in having such feelings. Ironically, Polly HATES religious music — apart from Christmas music. She’s even gone as far as to ask me NOT to play hymns, Southern Gospel, and Contemporary Christian music while she’s home. Some readers might be surprised to know that many of my posts are written while Christian music is playing in the background. Not today. I am in a The Band Perry, Dixie Chicks, and Shania Twain mood.

Our Sunday Night Hymn Sings would last anywhere from ninety minutes to two hours. We would sing, and keep on singing until congregants stopped offering up requests. I found these sings to be emotionally — and at the time, spiritually — satisfying. There’s something about music that reaches deep into our beings. I can’t explain it, I just know that music is an essential part of my existence. If I had to name several things I miss from my Christian days, one thing would be hymn sings — especially those from my days as pastor of Somerset Baptist Church in southeast Ohio. (The building was built in 1831, with oak floors and a 25-foot ceiling peak. The acoustics were phenomenal.)

Did the churches you grew up in have hymn sings? If you are an Evangelical-turned-atheist/agnostic/humanist/Pastafarian, do you miss the music? Do you miss belting out What a Friend We Have in Jesus or Amazing Grace? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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15 Comments

  1. Brunetto Latini

    I don’t miss the praise choruses. I hated them. I heard “Majesty!” so many times I wanted to throw-up. But I liked hymns.

    While I’ve thrown out most of my CCM, I kept every 2nd Chapter of Acts CD and every Annie Herring CD. The two 2nd Chapter of Acts Hymns albums are the best recordings I’ve ever heard. My favorite hymn is “Oh the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus”, and it never sounded better than when performed by 2nd Chapter of Acts.

    Reply
  2. GeoffT

    I still think that hymns provide some of the most moving music, and my absolute favourite Christmas carol is ‘Oh holy night’ sung by the Cambridge choir. I have no heed to the words as such, only insofar as they blend with the music to produce their effect. Classical music in general would be massively deprived if it weren’t for religious music, but that’s just because historically composers (and artists) received commissions from churches, which were able to afford them. I can switch off from the religious element (though occasionally it can be hard, such as with Handel’s Messiah, which is in English) and just enjoy the effect, largely because most of the words are in German or Italian. It’s like enjoying opera (not that I’m overly keen); opera plots and stories are often way beyond silly, and knowing them positively hinders enjoyment, hence being in a foreign language is actually desirable!

    Reply
  3. ObstacleChick

    Hymns were a HUGE part of my life. My grandfather was a musician – naturally gifted and self taught, as a teen he and his buddies formed a band to play at barn dances and local shindigs before WWII. His alcoholic father was livid that his son could make the same amount of money at weekend gigs as he did working a week at the foundry and would try to confiscate his son’s wages. My grandma loved singing, and one day a week she would use her lunch money to pay a local woman for piano lessons. My grandfather had a guitar and would play his old songs, including old timey Southern gospel. Grandma had a piano, and every day she would play hymns and sing. She also liked music by the Gaithers a lot. Unlike grandpa, she never played or listened to secular music. Grandma was in the choir at church for many years. My mom liked singing but wasn’t very good, though her musical taste was much broader than her mother’s. My grandparents paid for my piano lessons for 13 years, and I became technically proficient at playing classical music (I was Tennessee Association of Christian Schools state champion twice, once in classical keyboard and once in sacred keyboard). I was in choir at school and youth choir at church. I thought CCM was trash though. In college, I was in concert choir and in an a classical vocal group that was a credited course. In liberal Christian church I was in the choir. I haven’t been in choir for a dozen years and miss it a lot. My daughter was in choir at school, and was selected for NJ Allstate choir 3 times. She is the only one in our family who has never been in church choir (though occasionally the choirs would perform an old-timey gospel song as part of cultural diversity).

    I hate a lot of the lyrics of hymns, but they are as comfortable as an old blanket. Sometimes I will still play on the piano and sing Christmas songs (my favorite). Today, I enjoy a wide variety of music, and my husband is into music as well (he plays guitar).

    Reply
  4. Wes

    Great post. Reformed fundamentalist here. Not an atheist, but definitely on the more questioning side of any type of faith.

    But, old Baptist hymns still stir my soul. Blessed Assurance, Victory in Jesus, The Solid Rock, Power in the Blood… they all touch me still.

    As you, I don’t believe the literal words of all of the songs, but the concepts of safety and comfort are still there.

    Reply
  5. Steve Ruis

    Ah, music is supposed to have an emotional impact. This is why it is universal.

    Interestingly, in the book “Pagan Christianity?, Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices by Viola, Frank and Barna, George, the authors make the point that music was not part of Christian practice in the early centuries. That it was the Romans who introduced music and choirs into church services (and a whole lot more, including vestments, elevated platforms, separation of the laity from the priesthood).

    I am often aghast at the “church songs” written for children (“The bells of Hell go ring-a-ling-a-ling, but not for you and me …”) but there seem to me no boundaries on zeal. My favorite song as a child was “Onward Christian Soldiers” probably due to its martial rhythm, but it is a strange metaphor to use for a Prince of Peace god.

    Reply
    1. thatotherjean

      There’s a CHILDREN’S version of “The Bells of Hell?” That’s disgusting. It was originally written, so far as I can find out, in 1911, and was made popular by British airmen in WWI. There have been several versions over the years, but one for church children? Ugh.

      The original lyrics were:

      The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling
      For you but not for me:
      For me the angels sing-a-ling-a-ling,
      They’ve got the goods for me.
      Oh! Death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling?
      Oh! Grave, thy victory?
      The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling
      For you but not for me.

      Definitely not intended for children.

      Reply
      1. Matilda

        I got kids clubs and Sunday school classes to sing ‘Deep and Wide’ enthusiastically for years. You know, the version where you miss out a word every time…so you end up humming ‘Mmm’ for every word. It was only when I was on my way out of faith, I realised the fountain in the song was jesus’ blood, and I’m quite blood-phobic! It’s a horrible concept.

        Reply
        1. Carolk

          Matilda, do you guys do the hand motions to “Deep and Wide”? I hadn’t thought of that song in about 60 years and I didn’t realize the fountain was the blood until you pointed it out.

          I could never understand why they’d have little kids who could not read singing “jesus Loves Me”. They don’t know what the Bible tells them.

          Reply
  6. Karen the rock whisperer

    I grew up in the post-Vatican-II Catholic church, in the San Francisco Bay Area (far, far away from the Vatican and delighted to run with the church reforms). When I was just starting elementary school, new hymns began to appear in church. These were often accompanied by guitar rather than piano, and had a folksy beat. That really appealed to me, and so I grew up singing hymns that I really could relate to. I loved that music. I haven’t been to a Catholic service in decades, but bits and pieces of the music still run around in my brain.

    My favorite was the Prayer of Saint Francis (of Assisi, I think):

    Make me a channel of Your peace
    Where there is hatred, let me bring Your love
    Where there is injury, Your pardon Lord
    And where there’s doubt, true faith in You

    Make me a channel of Your peace
    Where there’s despair in life, let me bring hope
    Where there is darkness, only light
    And where there’s sadness, ever joy

    Oh Master, grant that I may never seek
    So much to be consoled as to console
    To be understood as to understand
    To be loved as to love with all my soul

    Make me a channel of Your peace
    It is pardoning that we are pardoned
    In giving to all men that we receive
    And in dying that we’re born to eternal life

    Oh Master…

    I don’t believe in any deities, but there’s a lot of positive stuff in this hymn.

    Reply
    1. Carolk

      Karen, I can remember singing Make Me a Channel of Your Peace in our folk group. Some of the songs that grew out of the post Vatican II liturgical reforms were not good, but some were excellent.

      Reply
  7. MJ Lisbeth

    I grew up Catholic. I don’t miss the songs: as a writer, I see most of them as bad poetry. I don’t miss the music, though, for exactly the opposite reason: While some is treacly, some masses and hymns were composed by no less than Bach and Handel. I mean, really, who can dislike the “Alleluia!” chorus of “Messiah”? And you don’t have to go to church to listen to that music, so I don’t have to miss it.

    Even worse than the traditional songs, though, were the “Folk Masses” of the 1960’s and early ’70’s. Having someone with a guitar play tunes that were popular five or ten years earlier seemed condescending, at best.

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  8. MJ Lisbeth

    In one of his essays, James Baldwin recounts his days as a boy preacher. Although he stopped believing, he acknowledged the influence his church had on him:

    “There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord. . . . I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing the church, as Leadbelly and so many others have testified, to ‘rock.'”

    Reply
  9. Dr. R

    I always hated these “sangins” as we called them in the mountain community where I grew up. Some churches did the fa-so-la shape-note singing, but it was invariably out of tune and grating on the ears. But at least some of those hymns were halfway decent, musically and lyrically. When our church did it, it was always trashy “praise” music. I absolutely hated, loathed, despised that music.

    One reason I quit piano lessons as a teenager was that my mother insisted that I could not study Beethoven or any other classical music unless I also studied that trashy “praise” music.

    To this day, I either have a panic attack or fly into a rage when I hear that disgusting, stomach churning noise.

    I never understood why an omipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity would need naked apes to sing its praises. It always struck me as very narcissistic, both on the part of the deity and on the part of the naked apes! (As an aside, we did not use the term omnibenevolent. I never encountered that term as a Christian, and my unpleasant corner of Christianity would have considered such a concept heretical!)

    Also, as a musician myself, I recognized (then and now) emotional manipulation when I heard it. It always seemed more than a little dishonest. (Of course, it also struck me as dishonest that the preacher didn’t seem to believe in what he was preaching but that’s neither here nor there…)

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  10. Van

    Yes,we did that occasionally in our southern baptist church. Not for 90-120 minutes though. It was done in place of the Sunday night sermon, usually when the pastor could not preach for whatever reason. Then seems like we went through a stretch and did it whoever there was a fifth Sunday in the month, and called it Fifth Sunday Singing. My mother was the church pianist, so she had to play the whole hour. Rarely did I see her get flustered with a request.

    A few of the hymns still tug at me. Holy, holy, holy is one. The last few hours of my mother’s life, we played a piano instrumental CD of hymns recorded by a family friend. When we noticed she had stopped breathing and the hospice nurse confirmed her heart had stopped, my brother-in-law pointed out It Is Well was playing, so that one tugs at me even as I type.

    Reply
  11. Trenton

    I’m with Polly, christian music and prayer will often cause a physical reaction in me, and not in a good way.

    Reply

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