An Apology for Hymnology
Is hymnology on the decline in our circles?
We wanted to find the answer to that question as part of the survey sent to WELS teachers earlier this year. Even when the answers from respondents in whose classrooms you wouldn’t expect to find hymnology (e.g. preschool, college) were filtered out, it seems as though about 30% of our classrooms don’t include hymnology in the curriculum. Since the question was asked of teachers in a wide variety of settings, those results may be inconclusive or inaccurate. Your personal experience and anecdotal evidence could probably paint a more accurate picture.
Why is hymnology so important? Early Lutherans suffered persecution and even death because they would not stop singing Christ-centered hymns. In our early days, singing Lutheran hymns was often an act of protest against hostile authorities. Even Roman Catholic bishops opined that Luther's hymns had "damned" far more souls than Luther's sermons! If hymnology is becoming less common in our classrooms, we are walking increasingly out of step with this grand tradition. No room in the curriculum for hymnody at a Lutheran school? I would humbly suggest a prayerful reconsideration of this practice.
And this is the key: Luther's church was the singing church, but not because of any feature of Germanic culture. Luther's church was the singing church because early Lutherans taught their children how and what to sing. Music, both theoretical and practical, made up roughly one quarter of the Lutheran curriculum for 200 years of our history. For centuries, it was simply understood that the school choirs would take the lead in singing at church. Singing hymns served as a major bridge between the classroom's desk and the church's pew. It still can today.
If hymnology is in the decline, it would certainly parallel what is happening to music across our land. Children are not taught the "sounds of America" (Yankee Doodle, etc.) any longer in school. Music programs are scrapped when budgetary belts need tightening. With the help of our iPods, we are consuming music like never before. Ironically, we seem to be creating less and less of it. Any serious attempt at teaching hymnody will find a teacher swimming against the cultural stream!
And that's ok. We go against that same cultural stream when we catechize, teach Bible history, teach a Christian worldview, etc. There are some aspects of the Christian life that can’t be "caught." More often than not, the Christian faith - including Christian hymns - needs to be taught. This teaching will become more and more difficult as the world spins toward the day of its judgment.
Until then, I'll offer a bit of advice and an insight. The advice? The lessons we teach students today will accompany our students for a lifetime. The hymns you teach to ten-year-olds will be sung by them in a nursing home when they are ninety-year-olds. Picture the ninety-year-olds in the school desks! Teach them what will last. Teach them what they will need for a lifetime - including sickness and death-time.
The insight? I've found this to be true: Students learn to love what their teachers are passionate about. A good place to start would be to make sure we are well-versed in the raw gospel power found in our hymnody. As we do, faith will flourish and rafters will once again rise in Lutheran churches! That's not the wishful thinking of a pastoral musician. The gospel has always found a way to make it happen!
You might have heard that a hymnology curriculum is currently being developed by our synod’s Commission on Worship. In the meantime, we’d love to hear what you’ve found to work (and what you’ve found to be frustrating). What can our next hymnal include to assist you as you share our gospel-rich heritage of music with the next generation?