Sing with Understanding | Harry Eskew and Hugh T. McElrath


In Sing With Understanding, Harry Eskew and Hugh T. McElrath seek to bring back the power of congregational singing. Eskew served at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for 36 and then joining Mercer University’s faculty in 2001, serving as a Professor of music history and hymnology. McElrath served at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for 50 years both as full-time and adjunct faculty in the areas of voice and hymnology. This book’s focus “is to encourage more meaningful congregational singing of hymns” (ix).

The authors begin this examination with the foundation and structure of hymnody, from the texts to the tunes as well as the sources of the hymns. The texts must be understood as poetry, and when well paired to music becomes elevated to something much greater. When examining these various aspects of a hymn, it needs to fit together nicely to function everything must be paired thoughtfully, and “For a happy marriage of hymn text in tune, they must be compatible in meter, accent, mood, an association” (47). With these aspects in line, it empowers the text to significantly impact the congregation. These aspects work together with the source of truth being from the Scriptures and communicating the theology of belief a body holds to shape and truly impact those who participate.

Similarly, to understand the hymn structure, understanding the history and significant development to hymnody adds understanding to the power of the hymns and the impact they may be able to have. The authors showed the biblical basis of music and worship and its development in the early church and solidified practices in the Medieval era. Once arriving at the Reformation, the authors demonstrated that this era “brought about a renewal of congregational song in much of Europe. Hymns known as crowds developed in Germany and Scandinavia. In other areas, metrical psalmody developed, and psalters were published in French, Dutch, and English” (98). Each of these various protestant groups sought to correct the church’s practice created different forms of music in the worship gathering. In addition to the general history of hymnody, the authors took a closer look at particular trends in British in American music as well as various cultural perspectives.

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While understanding the structure and history of hymnody can be impactful, it must be understood how to use hymnody within the church. The authors have listed four main areas where hymnody must be used. These include proclamation, worship, education, and ministry. These critical areas must be done well. Regarding worship, the authors wrote:

The setting most natural to the function of the hymn is the service of public worship. A hymns worship function cannot be explained apart from some understanding of the nature of corporate devotion. Public worship is a multifaceted phenomenon subject to consideration from many perspectives. One of the most fruitful is to think of it in terms of drama (249).

This drama acts out the dialogue in worship that we see, such as in Isaiah chapter six. All areas should examine how these songs can be used. The impact of congregational song for building up discipleship and education must be utilized. Many aspects of the service are led by the leaders, and “ while listening to a sermon can be a passive experience, hymn singing is meant always to involve the congregation actively” (277). The focus of music of the church should focus on caring for our people, worshiping God well, teaching the congregation, and caring for the needs of those we serve.

Many trends in music and worship continue to develop in the modern church. To see and understand these trends can help church leaders to better serve and impact the congregation in a way that glorifies God. In Sing With Understanding, Eskew and McElrath sought to show the structure of congregational songs, the history of their development, and how it is best applied to the church. This book is well suited to anyone involved in music in the church or those who wish to use them in the most effective way to glorify God well.

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