Yesterday we looked briefly at all seven of Wesley’s Directions for Singing and some of his reasons for giving them. Today I’ll ruminate and gab about his first point.
1. Learn these Tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.
As we begin, we should remember is that Wesley was writing this in a hymn book for Methodists. “These Tunes” are Methodist tunes. The thing we ought to glean from that is that Wesley is concerned for a particular people. Any pastor or leader has the same concern for their flock. Any parent has the same concern for their children. Wesley wants his people to learn these tunes for two reasons: 1) to disseminate doctrine, and 2) to establish a pattern for formation.
First, “these Tunes” were important because they contained doctrine. So the thought goes, if you learn these first then you’re starting out on the right foot. There is a bit of walk before you run going on here. Here are the fundamental things we want you to learn and to meditate on. Get these down pat. Once they are drilled into your brain to where you are singing them in your sleep, then go ahead and start learning other songs. An important thing to remember is that these tunes aren't just stepping stones to some greater doctrine of God. These contain the truth of the gospel that we never move beyond. Wesley is trying to establish a foundation to build upon, not a game of hopscotch where we start at #1 and move on.
Secondly, “these Tunes” were important to learn first because they established the rhythm of their worship. Learning the same songs and learning them well has a formative effect on people. This is the soil of tradition. The people learning “these Tunes” will have a common language and share a common bond in their fellowship, and this language and these bonds are passed down to their children. On a grand scale it’s similar to Christmas Carols. Almost everyone can join in without the aid of a book. These songs not only aid in worship and praise, but are used to build up the body. People can use their in-common language to minister to one another. When someone you love dies, these songs give you a voice to sing. And if you can’t sing because the pain is so deep, the body of Christ can sing for you and to you. When the kindness and goodness of God rushes upon you like a burst of fragrant spring air, these songs can give you voice of thanksgiving.
I find that I can relate to a high degree with the idea of learning “these Tunes” before learning any others. Five years ago or so, I was leading worship for a relatively new congregation. There was no clear direction or long view regarding what songs they would sing as they gathered. As I stepped into the role the first thing I sought to do was to develop a repertoire of common songs. I came up with about 65 hymns I felt were solid songs of truth and beauty and for a little over a year they were the only songs we sang. Even within the relatively small number of 65 songs I narrowed the focus even more. About 40 of those songs immediately became ‘core’ and so we sang these songs over and over. We learned “these Tunes” before any other.
And we did learn more songs. Once the congregation began to take ownership of these tunes it actually became easier to introduce new songs. These new songs were used because the occasion required it or because I was seeking to lead the people to fresh fields of truth and beauty. Happily some of these new songs would eventually become one of our ‘core’ songs. One of the fascinating things that resulted from this (and perhaps this was part of the method—heh—to Wesley’s madness) was that our congregation sang the ‘core’ songs better and louder, with more focus and enthusiasm than the other songs, every time. I continued to develop and build our song base, and continued to expand our ‘core’ songs. By the time I stepped down our ‘core’ songs had increased to around 85 songs.
I actually didn't learn this from Wesley. I think I picked it up from Bob Kauflin. But it’s the same principle and it was extremely beneficial to me as a leader and to our congregation. It infused doctrine and it established a pattern for formation in weekly worship. It is at the same time exciting and sobering to imagine what effect these songs might have on the seven year old who is sitting in the pew. Will he sing these songs to voice his joy and thanksgiving? Will he pass them on to his kids? Will God use these songs to sustain him in the trials to come? When I'm dead and long gone, and when he is old and grey, raspy of voice and shaky of hand, only moments away from death, will these songs, like a whisper, pass over his lips as he enters into glory?