On Not Singing All the Stanzas

As I grew up singing in church, it was common for me to hear various songleaders say things like, “Third stanza as the last,” or “We’ll sing verses one, three, and four.” In my own songleading, I used to do that sort of thing as well with relative frequency. Initially, it was as much imitation of the songleaders I knew, as anything else. As time went on, other reasons came to the fore. I might skip a stanza in order to conserve time. Or I might skip a stanza that I thought was doctrinally deficient or questionable. And sometimes I skipped a stanza on the fly because on a given occasion the song was simply too long (or high) for my voice to last through it , or it was clear the congregation was not doing well with the song.

Over time, though, I’ve become less likely to skip stanzas. In fact, at one point, it became a matter of internal pride that simply don’t do that sort of thing: the song had those stanzas in it for a reason, and we’re going to sing them all!

However, the pendulum, thankfully, has swung back a bit. I still do not generally skip stanzas. In fact, sometimes I add stanzas: there are very often some excellent stanzas of hymns that are original to the hymn but not included in a given hymnal. But I am willing to omit stanzas thoughtfully in conjunction with these points:

(1) Most (I daresay) older hymns have fewer stanzas in the hymnal than they originally had. Longer hymns generally have certain stanzas that are superior in their wording and sentiment, and naturally those are the ones that are included when a hymnal editor has to whittle a (say) twenty-stanza hymn down to the three or four stanzas that can be included on a typical page. So, if I omit a stanza, I’m simply doing (at one level) more of what the hymnal editor has already done.

(2) That said, stanzas must be omitted thoughtfully. I still remember being at a gathering where people were encouraged to choose a hymn they’d like everyone to sing, and we’d sing the first stanza. Eventually, someone chose “A Mighty Fortress”, and we sang only the first stanza. I wasn’t leading the songs on that occasion, but I couldn’t help myself; I had to speak up and ask that we sing another stanza. Ending our singing of that song by describing our ancient foe and not bringing Jesus into the picture was simply too much for me! Many times, a stanza can be omitted from a given hymn without doing violence to its flow of thought; equally, however, such an omission is inadvisable when it leaves a gaping hole in the song as a whole. One must be sensitive to the sort of hymn in view. If a hymn is exploring different dimensions of a given subject (e.g., “Jesus Shall Reign”), as opposed to setting forth a progression of thought (e.g., “A Mighty Fortress”) a stanza typically can be safely omitted.

When stanzas are omitted, however, I find it best to note this just before — not while — the song is sung. If a stanza is omitted for a theological reason, it may be a good idea to make a quick note as to that reason as the song is introduced.

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