Last week during the early service at church I was looking out on the congregation during the hymn (I don't have to keep my eyes glued on the music all the time so I look around occasionally). Since the singing is sometimes difficult to detect at this service owing to a small congregation I was looking around to see if people were singing. I was especially worried that a fairly new hymn--and in a contemporary idiom--might not be well received, or, for that matter, sung.
My quick survey was inconclusive. From my corner of the altar area the scattered people in the pews were a bit hard to make out--were their lips moving or not? And what were they thinking?
I remember a time, years ago, when a new hymn was being sung, and I looked up to see a woman near the front, frowning loudly, lips closed, apparently taking it rather personally that this hymn had been chosen, and making it clear to everybody that this was not her favorite hymn. This happens sometimes. People think that the people who choose music for their church are deliberately trying to make their lives difficult. To which I'd like to bring two observations: we try not to, and, we ought to, some of the time.
There are a lot of things that could be said about new or unusual hymns. One is that they are necessary. If a congregation sings its favorite few all of the time they will only reinforce the self-centered idea that church is there primarily to make them feel good about going. It's all about what you got out of the sermon; whether you liked the organ music; whether that hymn was too fast. This strikes me as theologically dangerous. Not to mention it is not good for our society in general. If we are trying to inculcate the idea that people need to love each other, to be there for each other, and not to insist on their own ways, we are going to have to provide some opportunities for that to happen. I can't tell you how many hours I have spent playing hymns that are not in my top 500.
But it should be observed that people in leadership roles and people who are not usually see things very differently. A person whose vocational life revolves around something (like music) is much more likely to want to try something new, and to get bored with the same material, than a person who spends 15 minutes a week singing and doesn't think about it all the rest of the time. The same five hymns don't grate on a person who can't remember that they sang them last week; not only that, but such a person is probably not at all concerned about the music anyway and is more interested in the comfort and joy familiarity brings. Learning a new hymn usually does the opposite. It is an uncomfortable experience--no matter how much you might end up loving that hymn later on, the birth pangs are never easy.
I know something about this because I spend a lot of time working on new music, and it never feels that fun. Once I can play the piece I'm glad I went through the turmoil of learning it, but at first, no matter how much enthusiasm I had when I reached the organ in the morning, after an hour or two my mind is swimming in notes and I feel like I've mentally bench pressed all I can handle for a while. I'm tired. Learning will do that to you.
So I'm never unsympathetic to people who feel uncomfortable with new things, even though I think it is part of our responsibility as leaders to broaden the horizons of the laity. Within reason, our tolerance for adventure, and making the sacrifice to expand our understanding is good for the folks in the pews. But suppose it is the middle of the service and it is time to sing something I've never heard before. What do I do? I could spend the time being frustrated and silent, and then give the music director an earful when the service is over. But supposing I want to do something more constructive, what do I do? Here are a few coping mechanisms:
---Listen. If its a hymn, you'll hear the same melody on every verse. Probably the same musical phrase repeated on several of them. Maybe lines 1, 2 and 4 are the same. If its a praise song, maybe the chorus is easier to pick up on than the verse. Generally, if its a new hymn, I play it all the way through for the congregation before we start, rather than a simple one or two line introduction. Once at a service I told people I was going to keep playing it until felt like they knew it--look up and smile when you think you've got it, I said. When I see enough people looking up and smiling, we'll start! In any case, if the hymn has four verses, make a deal with yourself to join in on verse 3 and spend the first two just listening to the tune so you can pick it up. No rush.
---Meditate on the words. There's no reason you can't pray during a hymn! If you feel like you can't pick it up, read the words to yourself and think about them. This is something we ought to be doing more of anyway, whether or not we can sing the hymn! And if you don't mind being a bit of a gadfly, you can say them out loud. The worst thing that can happen is the people in the pew with you will think you can't carry a tune.
---Pick a note that sounds like it belongs and chant the words on that note. You may get a few looks, but, hey, people need their worlds enlarged a little, right?
---Have a sense of humor about it. Nobody is really noticing that you aren't singing the hymn (except maybe the organist :) If all else fails, grab a tambourine or some woodblocks and join in!
---Become an organist. (this one is easy!) That way you don't have to sing unless you want to. Also, you get to dance.