Searching for Modern Music for the Hymnal
As the hymns committee began its search for the 200 or so new hymns that will be included in the next hymnal, that search included scouring dozens of published hymnals from all corners of English-speaking Christianity. As a result, when we speak about the “new” hymns that will appear in our next hymnal, we mean hymns that will be new to us. In some cases they are also new in the sense of having been written rather recently. In some cases they have been around for decades or more.
In addition to searching these published hymn collections, we also searched the music that has been produced in recent years within wider English-speaking Christianity, including what is often referred to as Christian contemporary music. We searched artists’ and publishers’ websites. We asked for song lists and recommendations from congregations who regularly use this type of music. Hundreds of songs were looked at, and eventually about 150 were presented to the hymns committee for their review. Of that 150, roughly 50 were presented to the project’s executive committee for their review.
A variety of different reasons could be given for making such a search. But the most important one starts with a very simple assumption, the same assumption that lies at the heart of our church body’s decision to publish a new hymnal in the first place. That assumption is that the Holy Spirit continues to give good gifts to Christ’s Church for the carrying out of its mission. Those gifts didn’t stop in 1524 with the publishing of the first Lutheran hymnal. They didn’t stop in 1993 with the publishing of Christian Worship. They aren’t restricted to any specific generation or denomination. Until Christ comes back, we should expect the Holy Spirit to continue to bless us with gifted poets and composers who put the beautiful truths of the gospel to poetry and music. And if that’s the case, it’s only natural that we would try to identify all of the gifts that could be of benefit to the gospel ministry of our church body’s congregations and schools.
So what did we find? Having been heavily involved in the search described above, I’d like to offer a few reflections.
Observation 1: Much modern music is produced with different priorities than those of a hymnal project.
It’s easy for any evaluation of modern Christian music to be carried out on a pass/fail basis. In other words, the goal is simply to determine whether a song is acceptable for use in our worship or not. Under such a pass/fail approach, the primary focus would naturally be on the words of the song in question.
While this is certainly the place to start and while there are certainly songs that we would conclude are unacceptable for use in our church body, a helpful evaluation goes much further than this. The contents of a generational, denominational resource like a hymnal are selected on the basis of specific priorities. In contrast, much of so-called contemporary music, while not unacceptable for worship, is nonetheless created with very different priorities.
In some cases, the difference in priorities is textual. Our hymnal project is looking for songs whose words proclaim biblical truth in general and gospel comfort in particular. In contrast, many songs are written not primarily to proclaim biblical truth but to give expression to the Christian’s response to that truth.
In some cases the difference in priorities relates to congregational participation. A hymnal is a worship resource designed to be put in the hands of an assembly and used together by that assembly. Words and music are placed side by side so that the collective assembly has everything it needs to be able to proclaim the gospel in song together. In contrast, many songs are written to be performed for an assembly rather than produced by an assembly. Even though the assembly may be able to participate, this ability would come only after hearing the song a good number of times so that the melody is known by heart. If the musical notes of the song were to be displayed to the people at all, they would be more of a hindrance than a help.
Finally, in some cases, the difference in priorities relates to intended shelf life. A hymnal is a curated set of songs meant to serve an entire generation of worshipers. Its inherent expectation is that most of the hymns included have a shelf life of at least a generation. Additionally, a hymnal passes on to future generations a good number of hymns that centuries of worshipers have found worthy of use and adds our assessment to theirs. In contrast, many songs are written to catch on quickly but wear out just as quickly in order to make way for a new set of songs that will do the same. During our search among Christian contemporary music, it occurred to me that if we were to tell one of these artists that we were going to take one of their songs, publish it in a hymnal, and twenty-five years from now plan to still be teaching it to people who have never heard it before, their response might be, “Now why would you go and do something like that?” For comparison’s sake, imagine if our current hymnal were full of Christian songs that were popular back in 1991. As much as those Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith albums were well-loved back then, I’m not sure they’d be getting much use today. For many songs, publication in a generational, denominational resource isn’t in keeping with their purpose.
Observation 2: Observation 1 is not without exception.
All of that said, even when a song is evaluated on the basis of the various priorities inherent with a hymnal project, it’s still impossible to evaluate each song on a pass/fail basis. Rather, songs meet these priorities in varying degrees. This is true even of songs written in a rather traditional hymnic style. Some hymns proclaim gospel comfort better than others. Some include more of the believer’s heartfelt response to that gospel. Some hymns are readily singable by almost any assembly. Others are more difficult to sing or almost require vocal leadership. Some hymns are sturdy enough to last for generations. Others catch on quickly but likely will not be sung fifty years from now.
Even though much of the Christian music being produced for popular consumption today has different priorities than those of a hymnal project, that rule is not without exception. As I searched through list after list and website after website, it was great to see how many artists today are committed to producing music whose priorities match ours: music that clearly proclaims the gospel, music designed to encourage participation by the assembly, and music designed to have some staying power.
As a result, our next hymnal will include some songs that we believe worshipers will find lively and upbeat. It will include songs whose sound and poetry are fresh and relevant to today’s generation of Christians. However, there won’t be a batch of songs that is clearly different from all the rest. They won’t be relegated to their own section with their own heading, “Contemporary,” if such a thing were even possible. If you didn’t look at the bottom of the page to see when the hymn was written and by whom, you might not even realize that a particular song is considered “contemporary,” just like a person might listen to Koine’s setting of “Salvation Unto Us Has Come,” and have no idea that it was part of that first Lutheran hymnal published in 1524.
It’s not as if there’s this clearly defined line where one leaves the world of hymnody and enters the world of Christian contemporary music. Instead, most songs meet the criteria that differentiate those two genres in a wide variety of degrees.
Observation 3: The search will always be worth the effort.
As a result, while the search may have been tedious and while a great deal of the music we considered doesn’t fit with the priorities of a hymnal project, the search was worth the effort.
Our hymnal project has the priorities it has not simply because it happens to be a hymnal project. Rather, we have those priorities because we are convinced they are beneficial for God’s people as they gather for worship. Songs that focus on the believer’s response to God’s love have their place. But it’s good to have an overall diet of hymnody that puts the focus on gospel truth so that our confidence continues to be grounded in God’s work for us rather than on how that work happens to make us feel in the moment. Songs that catch on and wear out quickly can be valuable. But something just as valuable might be lost if a believer spends their entire lifetime learning a completely new set of songs every decade rather than having some that have the ability to last from cradle to grave. Songs that are designed to be performed for worshipers rather than produced collectively by them can serve a purpose. But in a society that’s already saturated with consumerism, it’s good to help believers see that they are part of a royal priesthood chosen and equipped to proclaim God’s praises rather than simply consume the praises that are produced by a select group with the talent to do so. In other words, we’re producing the specific type of worship resource we’re producing for a reason. It’s because we are convinced that these priorities best serve Christ’s church as it carries out its work.
That also means that it’s worth looking for, and finding, and including songs that fit those priorities and at the same time are accessible and enjoyable to sing and whose sound is fresh and relevant to today’s worshipers. Some of these modern songs might not last for generations or centuries. But by including songs that will catch on very quickly, we hopefully allow worshipers to discover the one on the very next page that has the ability to last for generations. By including songs that are easier to sing, we hopefully make it easier for worshipers to put in the worthwhile effort to learn the ones that are more difficult. By including songs whose sound is already relatively at home in the ear of newer worshipers, we hopefully make it easier for them to see that they can make a joyful noise to the Lord just as well as they can make a joyful noise to their pickup truck (sorry, country music fans) and that they can cry out in anguish to the Lord just as well as they can cry out in anguish over a recent breakup (sorry, Emo fans).
Finally, including modern music in a hymnal is very much in keeping with another priority inherent in producing a generational, denominational resource like a hymnal. It’s a reflection of one of the most beautiful and miraculous characteristics of Christ’s Church: our unity. Rather than the Church being one more group whose existence is determined by the shared interests of all the members, Christ’s Church brings together people from every tribe and every tongue, every nation and every generation, every political bent and every musical preference. Rather than being one more organization where everyone insists that every individual preference is met, the Church is an organization where everyone insists on setting aside those preferences for the good of the whole body. We hope our church body’s next hymnal will be a valuable tool for realizing that priority as well.