Letting Hymns Do What Hymns Do Best
Author’s Note: A previous blog article, also published in the September edition of Forward in Christ, was about scheduling hymns. Specifically, it made the case for scheduling fewer hymns more frequently rather than more hymns less frequently. The following article supplements that one, offering a few practical suggestions along those same lines.
How to schedule fewer hymns
If you’re in a position where you pick congregational hymns, you know your congregation better than anyone. Perhaps the place to start is simply realizing that they might be thirsting for less variety in their hymns than you think they are. (If you’re not in that position, consider saying as much to the person who is!)
Here are a few specific suggestions for scheduling hymns frequently enough to allow them to do what they do best:
Sing the hymns of the day.
This list of hymns does more than match up specific hymns with specific seasonal and Sunday emphases. It also ensures that a specific group of hymns - chosen for their especially rich content and distinctly Lutheran character - are sung frequently. As an added bonus, following this schedule instantly accomplishes 25% of your hymn-picking task!
Sing seasonal hymns.
The natural rhythm of the church year provides opportunities for singing specific hymns frequently. For example, there are three seasons of the Church Year when the Gloria in Excelsis may be omitted or replaced (Advent, Lent, and Easter). Alternate canticles might be used (for example, “This Is the Feast,” CW 265, during the Easter season). You might also consider selecting a seasonal hymn instead. After singing a hymn half a dozen or more weeks in a row, the congregation will likely be ready to put it away for awhile. But when you come back to it later, you’ll find they know it well and are excited to sing it once again.
Sing situational hymns.
Each hymn has a place not only within the context of the Church Year but also within the context of the service. Consider developing a small repertoire of hymns for various spots in the service. Hymns that highlight the work of the Holy Spirit or the blessings of baptism make great opening hymns. Hymns that focus on the blessings of hearing the Word often make great closing hymns. For distribution hymns, you might rethink your goal of making use of the entire Holy Communion section and instead make use of a subset of it frequently enough that you notice people singing the words as they approach the altar.
During the Middle Ages, churches used what were known as sequence hymns. These were seasonal hymns sung before the reading of the Gospel. “All Praise to You, Eternal God” (CW 33), “Christ is Arisen” (CW 144), and “We Now Implore God the Holy Ghost” (CW 190) are three examples that were used during Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, respectively. Situational use of hymns in this way doesn’t have to be limited to these choices. Consider singing one stanza before the gospel and one stanza after the gospel as a way of highlighting the works and words of Jesus as the apex of the service of the Word.
Sing well-wearing hymns.
As a general rule, the faster a hymn catches on, the faster it wears out. As counter-intuitive as it might sound, if you’re going to make an effort to sing specific hymns more frequently, consider picking ones that aren’t instant favorites. They might not be humming them in the car on the way home from church the first time they hear it, but they also won’t be wishing they could get it unstuck from their head. Eventually they will catch on and people will grow to love them without tiring of them as quickly.
Create more opportunities to sing.
Of course, the objective of having hymns that people know and love well can also be achieved by people singing those hymns more often in more situations. We would love for our rich treasury of hymns to be used in people’s homes around the breakfast table and during bedtime prayers. Our Lutheran schools offer nearly limitless opportunities for our young people to have our hymns on their lips. Encourage families to sing. Continue to teach hymns in our schools - including our Sunday Schools. Whatever effort is put forth, it’s more than worth it.
Hopefully those suggestions spark a few ideas for how you can let hymns do what they do best. God bless your efforts to get these wonderful gospel-proclaiming treasures into people’s ears - and deep into their hearts!
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Catch up on the latest writing from the WELS Hymnal Project.