I’ve heard a lot of teaching recently on what makes a good sacred congregational song, and among qualities listed, “accessibility” is inevitably among them.
I wholeheartedly agree with this point: for a hymn to be congregational, it has to be, well, congregational! The congregation has to be able to sing it. In other words, there are some songs that, while very good, just don’t work with particular congregations at particular times (or they’ll never work with any congregation!). There have been several times when I’ve introduced a hymn to a congregation, only to decide later that it just wasn’t working at that time for that congregation. Some other congregation? Maybe. Some other time in the future? Hopefully, if it’s a worthy hymn.
However, when most people talk about the need for a hymn to be accessible, I think what they really mean is that it must be immediate.
There is a difference between something that is accessible, i.e., it is within the capabilities of the congregation, and something that is immediate, i.e., the congregation is able to immediately connect with it and gets immediate satisfaction from it.
The former — accessibility — is a true virtue of hymnody. The latter — immediacy — runs quite contrary to the nature of worship and is instead a product of a consumer society.
A good hymn, while well within the capabilities of the congregation, will be profoundly deep (both in text and tune). These two virtues (accessibility and depth) are not opposites. They are the distinguishing marks of a good hymn.
Immediacy and depth, however, are contrary. Something cannot be deep and immediate. For something to be immediately gratifying, it must be shallow. It must immediately stimulate the senses somehow, and depth cannot do that.
A good hymn is like the wine at the wedding at Cana. The first drink certainly quenched the thirst of those at the wedding, but the supply was endless, and it got better as they continued to drink.
A hymn can be accessible, and yet the congregation might not “get it” the first time they sing it. Or the second time. Or the third time. An accessible hymn will likely connect on some level, but to be accessible means that with some time and work, a congregation will eventually be able to learn and sing the hymn. But anything with depth will probably take at least a little time to really appreciate, and the rewards are always greater when time is involved.
When choosing (or writing) hymns for our churches, let’s aim for accessibility and depth, not immediacy.