Carrying Songs Into Old Age


There was a comment in the new hymnal thread about older people in long-term care hearing and responding to music they remember. This is something that has struck me as well; as my grandma was getting older, it got pretty hard to have conversations with her — her mind and mouth just weren't connecting right. But I could bring my guitar and play some hymns, and while she didn't remember all the words, she remembered a lot, and they totally resonated with her.

Mark H observed in the other thread that as congregations grow less denominational, this idea of a core set of songs that most people can carry into their old age is becoming impossible across a denomination. I might go further and say that as people seem to become more "nomadic", it's extremely hard even within a single congregation, especially those that place a lot of value on playing a lot of newer songs.

What do you think — is it possible to inculcate these kinds of songs for people to keep with them as they age? Is it worth putting effort into? Are there practical things that you're doing to try? What songs do you think fall into this category for your congregation?

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Hey JT, love the discussion topic - one of my favorite things to do is go to the nursing home and play hymns on the guitar, as well. My favorite (and theirs) seems to be "In the Garden" - they request it every time and I gladly oblige. Oddly enough, however, it seems that even in nursing homes, there's a large variation of what people know depending on what tradition they grew up in.

I think the "longevity" of songs is a legitimate issue, as is the idea of having a theoretical "songbook" - what my worship professor at Dordt would describe as the 40-100 songs that are repeated fairly often. I think this number reduces if churches only have one service on Sundays and how transient the group is (we're lucky if many of our folks show up every three weeks).

To the latter, we solidly focus on the team approach - 2-3 fixed bands that always play together (just like in the real world). With that, we have teams select songs they'll play (whether hymns, worship songs or songs they write) and they are then ineligible for the other teams to pick. Each of the teams works with about 20 songs at a time (if they add one, they drop one) and get really good at those. The added benefit is that we repeat enough music that the church gets to know the music, too.

There's another church in GR that writes all their own music and gives CD's to guests so they can know the "songbook", as well.

To the former, I think longevity of songs is nice, but I think it can become an idol like any other good thing in life (and church life). I love being able to hum songs to myself (and God) during quiet time, but I'd say its 33%/33%/33% between hymns/songs I sang when I started in worship in the 90's/songs my bands play now. Maybe that's indicative of the modern worshipper - we all hide certain songs in our hearts.....and it might mean I don't know the songs the guitarist plays in MY retirement home, but I'm cool with that. :)

Its really a lot like classic rock and modern pop songs.....everyone knows a couple Beatles songs, a couple Elvis songs, a couple U2 songs.....and something by Lady Gaga we heard last week and wish we didn't. Music has both a personal and corporate dimension and both are important, though not exclusively.

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I'm right there with you. I cut my teeth preaching in a nursing home with people in different stages of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. They would respond in different ways to the sermon. Some wouldn't respond at all. But within the first three notes of an old hymn it was like a choir singing. Only the family members seemed to use the song books. The two songs that they knew almost every word to was "Blessed Assurance" and "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" which was almost fitting. They may not have heard or understood anything I said, but the congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ praised His name in song.

As for having a solid hymnody that can carry on, I think there are some praise songs from the 70's and early 80's that are starting to get to that point such as "Lord I lift your name on high" and I think Hillsong's "Shine Jesus Shine" is getting there as well. But I think there is also a need to re-introduce the older hymns in a way that is fresh and able to interact with the upcoming generation of leaders who will one day pass along the hymnody to their next group of leaders.

What a fantastic topic- one that should resound with multiple generations. (I'm currently a sophomore at Calvin.)

It is possible? Of course it is! My suggestion: Start early. I remember standing in the pews of church tearing up to a hymn over the organ when I was a kid. Why, you might ask? I was moved. There are just certain songs that resonate with people. I might have rarely looked at the lyrics of the song as a kid, but these are the ones that stick in my head. "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation. O my soul praise him for he is your health and salvation. Come, all who hear, brothers and sister draw near, join me in glad adoration." Or even Martin Luther's fantastic hymn: "A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. Our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. For still our ancient foe does seek to work us woe; his craft and power are great and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal." This list is much longer in reality!

I find that the more contemporary songs need to prove themselves, in a sense. I agree with Josh that some songs are making their way to almost a sort of canonization. The largest factor is time. This is for all songs. The second factor is musical preference. Whether it be traditional or contemporary, it's up to the individual congregation. Some songs sound better on the organ than on guitar, vice versa. The songs that sound great on both are the ones that are typically played more often, almost out of principle.

I'm excited for the new hymnal to come out. Certain congregations with all organ music will be playing contemporary songs with that pure pipe sound. How awesome will that be! Each congregation deals with the subject differently, and certain songs will just always be in our minds, regardless of if we really try to keep them there or not. :)



I agree that there is a disconnect between the desire to have a common "core set" across the denomination and the reality of how most congregations find songs to sing. We just don't all use the same, single source anymore.

It seems to me (but I might be wrong about this) that one of the unfortunate consequences of the Gray Hymnal was a decline in singing the Psalms because many of the tunes were unfamiliar and difficult. I would imagine that many people who spent much of their lives with other Psalters have Psalms as many of the songs they remember into old age. But I, having sung mostly out of the Gray, know very few. That's too bad, and I hope the new hymnal includes many singable, memorable songs using Biblical texts so that some of what we cherish into old age is scripture.

Maybe we won't be able to have a unified effort across the denomination, but in each of our congregations we should work to sing Biblical texts often so that these become our life-long favorites. I also make a point of saying, "This song is based on _________," whenever we're about to sing a song from scripture so that hopefully people begin to remember that "Create In Me A Clean Heart" comes from Psalm 51, for example.


Our congregation is doing a summer sermon series called "Heart songs of God's People." We invited members of the congregation to submit to a pastor their favorite worship song and why (the "why" being the important part). We are asking everyone who submitted to share on a Sunday morning why a song is their "heart song." This is venue for members to give a theological reflection or a personal testimony. Then the sermon will be on a Bible passage that the song references. We are doing this partly because Sept-May we have two morning services, one traditional, one contemporary, and we would like to pull these groups together rather than having effectively two separate congregations. We hope that this will shift the emphasis away from style and towards God.

The reason I mention this in this thread is because I don't think it is in our best interest to attempt to create a "core set." People have their "heart songs", the songs of their old age, for many different reasons. I think worship leaders and pastors have a responsibility to find out what they are. I realize that this makes the possibilities pretty endless, but I think the diversity can be helpful and enjoyable for the church.


What a great idea! Hey, let's share a few here, too!

Everyone....what's one of your 'heart songs' and why?

Community Builder

Mine is "Let All Things Now Living." The first time I heard it was at a funeral of a young man, sung there because it was his favorite. I thought the words and images were beautiful and I memorized the first verse.

I love the comfort of "who fashioned and made us, protected and stayed us, who guides us and leads to the end of our days." The image of "a pillar of fire shining forth in the night, 'til shadows have vanished and forward we travel from light into light" fills me with hope. I was afraid of the dark as a kid and liked the image of that pillar of fire the Israelites followed, and I imagine myself going from one lily pad of light to another.

I sang this song to my kids as a lullaby, and now that they're grown, it is often the memory of their little baby selves that comes to my mind as I sing it. When my oldest went to Calvin College, at the orientation service for parents, Chaplain Cooper read a letter from his daughter and then we sang, you guessed it, "Let All Things Now Living." Men & women alike were sobbing. :)

The lilting tune is a joy. When I led evening praise time years ago, I'd go through the hymnal looking for Welsh tunes because I knew I'd like them. And the descant soars above the song "triumphantly," as in the first verse.

I'd love hearing about others' heart songs.

My little girl Yana has been through a number of surgeries to treat a significant heart defect. A long road full of struggle for all of us. As we walked this road as a family, there were a few songs that resonated with us as heart songs.

"Be still and know that I am God." - simple and profound message. Especially the second verse: "I am the Lord that healeth thee."

Here are a few hymns that drifted to the surface in these times:
"Great is thy Faithfulness."
"When Peace like a River"
"My Jesus I love thee"
My wife and I have both noted how hymns are often the first songs that come to mind in times of trouble.

Some more contemporary songs that resonate deeply with me:
Be Unto your name
The River
Ancient Words
How Deep the Father's Love for Us
Let it be said of us
My heart is filled with Thankfulness
Blessed Be Your Name
How Great is Your Love oh Lord (No eye had seen)
For the Lord is Good
Here I Am, Lord

I think most of these songs will end up being "canonized." Or at least they will be in my heartsongs list.

And of course there are the joy songs... More upbeat drum music, generally. Days of Elijah, Not be Shaken, the list goes on for a while.


Favorites: 'Precious Lord, take my hand...' re: My supplication to acknowledge my need for God to be in my life.
'Just a Closer Walk With Thee' re: Walking with Jesus gives me peace.

The group of songs categorized as "Dr. Watts" re: they are call and response songs