Creating a Strong Hymn Arrangement

Innovating in worship begins with knowing where we started. And a whole lot of our churches started with hymnbooks.

I know some worship leaders who want to incorporate hymns into their current worship music, but don’t know where to start.

Well good news! We can benefit from all the beauty, familiarity, and spiritual depth of hymns and stay fully modern in our approach. Hymns can accompany some of the most worshipful moments in your church, and that begins with a strong hymn arrangement. Here’s what I do — let this be a jumping-off point.

Also check out: Traditional vs Contemporary: How to end that conversation by starting a new one.

1. Start from a place of respect  

Hymn appreciation time. Read through the text. Listen to the melody. Ask yourself questions. 

  • How will this hymn help people in my congregation experience God? 
  • What’s particularly compelling about this hymn?
  • It there a narrative arc? Is verse order important?
  • Is there a natural rise and fall of energy in these lyrics?

It will be evident if this arrangement was made from a place of love and appreciation. 

And so, my fundamental rule for all my arrangements: This hymn arrangement must feel engaging, innovative, and familiar enough that people can pick up a hymnal and sing along. 

(Warning: at no point in this article will I say “Now it’s time to write a chorus or a sassy bridge!” We’re here to enhance and elevate what’s great about the hymn, which is already a complete work of art. We can’t improve a hymn that’s worked for decades or even centuries by shoehorning it into a pop song. At least I can’t!) 

2. Simplify to what’s absolutely necessary 

In any reorganizing, reworking, or rebuilding project, my process always includes reckless simplifying. Even if I know I may put some things back, starting fresh gives me a better view of what’s in front of me. 

Let’s look at Beautiful Savior. Here’s the hymn page a lot of us are used to.

Ask yourself, with your congregation in mind, What is absolutely essential about this hymn?

Often, the things that make hymns beloved by worshipers are:

  • Familiar melody
  • Familiar structure
  • Strong theology
  • Fun, old-timey language

Don’t mess with those. Hymn arrangements fall flat when they become so contorted that our congregation can’t worship confidently, and when we lose trust, it’s hard to get it back in an hour on Sunday. (No joke, I once heard a Joyful, Joyful arrangement that not only syncopated the melody into smithereens but also made it a mashup with Lean On Me.) We can do so much better, worship leaders!

There are tons of things you can mess with, however. Things like:

  • Problematic lyrics (heavy patriarchy, violence)
  • Boring instrumentation (The organ has it’s place. Probably not here, though.)
  • Outdated chording

Toss ‘em out. They’re not helping. Now you’re left with the most essential parts of the hymn, and the bare bones of an arrangement. Luckily for us, there’s a lot of great things to work with in Beautiful Savior.

2. Rebuild

This is where I throw it into a chord chart. I also put in chords that will be necessary to support the melody, with no extra chordal expression. 

Play through it. See if you feel anything forming in the empty spaces. Try out different rhythms, mess with some chords — this is where it gets fun! 

When I play through the bare bones of Beautiful Savior, I start to hear a syncopated rhythm pulsing through it.

3. Make it yours 

Now’s your chance to work your magic. Three things that may be helpful to ask in this process are: 

  • Where is this song going, dynamically? 
  • How far can I take this and still keep the non-negotiables?
  • What pieces of expression will help make this arrangement engaging?

While I’m building a hymn arrangement, I find it helpful to switch back and forth from a micro view (what interesting things are happening verse by verse?) to macro view (does the whole song feel cohesive?). This is essential for me not to get stuck on one particular aspect of the song. 

Your arrangement can be as complex or simple as you’d like, as long as it holds to the fundamental rule. Engaging, innovative, familiar. (I encourage you to err on the side of simplicity first.) 

4. Make it your band’s

Your band’s involvement is paramount here. It may be helpful to tell them to approach this like a current worship song, not a traditional hymn. I’ve had a few band members who initially struggled with harmonizing and playing along with these arrangements because they looked at it through their traditional hymn lens, so it may be helpful to make this distinction.

As you rehearse this song, pay attention to places that seem to unravel or stick rhythmically. Workshop it. Try new things. If it sounds fluid and natural when played by your band, it’ll feel that way to your congregation. 

Here’s how Beautiful Savior turned out for me:

I believe music is one of the most tangible ways that God interacts with her gathered people. Your hymn arrangements can create a great environment for that to happen. Now get out there and start innovating! 

Want me to lead a workshop on hymn arrangements with your team? Contact me to set something up!

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