Hymn Arranging for the Holidays

Christmas is here! 

But really, if you’re a worship leader, Christmas is kind of always here, isn’t it? 

For many churches, there’s a lot riding on a successful Christmas Eve service: we want to minister to once-a-year attendees, to honor hardworking volunteers, to receive offerings that will keep the building heated, and to worship wholeheartedly on this holy day. Mix into all that church dynamics and how Christmas celebrations are usually centered around tradition, and you can kiss your desire to innovate goodbye. Golden calfs reign supreme. 

And let’s be real. Who wants to receive an email on December 26th that says “YOU RUINED MY CHRISTMAS”? 

Be encouraged, worship leader — you can honor tradition and innovate at the same time. 

There’s tons of room to innovate with hymns! 

In my post Creating Strong Hymn Arrangements, I shared the process I walk through every time I approach arranging a hymn. Here are the steps: 

  1. Start from a place of respect (if you don’t love this hymn, you’re not going to love the process)
  2. Simplify to what’s absolutely necessary (keep what’s great, cut the crap)
  3. Rebuild (now that you have your parameters, time to play!)
  4. Make it yours (what will make this unique to your church’s worship identity?)
  5. Make it your band’s (translate your ideas so your band has the best possible chance to see it through)

Let’s apply these to my all-time-fave Christmas hymn, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. Surely you’ve seen this beauty before…

Start from a place of respect + simply to what’s absolutely necessary

Starting from a place of resect is pretty easy. Hark has been around since the 1700s, it has nuanced lyrics and theology, and it’s so singable even the Peanuts kids can do it.

This song is familiar to the extreme, so we have to make sure the melody, rhythms, and lyrics stay as consistent as possible. Let’s elevate what people love about this song. The rest—like chording, patriarchal lyrics, and instrumentation—we can have fun with those.

Rebuild & Make It Your Own

Now we have set the boundaries for what we can do. At this point, I usually throw the song into a rudimentary chord chart: 

As you can see, I’ve already started to play with how this could be put together. There are some unhelpful patriarchal lyrics, which I’ve corrected with the single best lyric rewrite I’ve ever seen: “Pleased as man with man to dwell” becomes “Love is born in us to dwell.” Wonderful! (I think the first time I saw this was on a post from hackingchristianity.net.)

Make it your band’s (and your church’s)

You may notice that in the original hymn arranging post, I lay the songs out in a similar way:

VERSE I – just the leader, band joins at the end of the verse

MIDDLE VERSES- band plays

LAST VERSE – bring down, build to the end

I use this layout as a starter for most of my arrangements. I’ve found it works well in worship because the simple first verse shows the congregation that this is the same hymn they know and love — similar to when a hymn leader plays the verse instrumentally before people start singing. Once the congregation knows you haven’t messed with the great parts of the hymn, they can relax and enjoy the rest of the hymn in its new style. It’s important to find subtle ways to build trust with your congregation.  

Here’s what the finished product looks and sounds like. I worked out a theme of repeating  chords that ties the whole thing together quite nicely. 

The recording below was put together on my own with Spire – a free (for iPhone users) 8-track recording app. This app has really revolutionized how I make rehearsal recordings for my band. And I’m not even getting paid to say this!

Merry arranging, everyone! May you be blessed as you find new ways to worship the newborn Savior this month!

Want me to lead a workshop with your worship team or staff? Head over to my contact page!