The following article appeared in the February edition of Forward in Christ. It is is the eighth article in a nine-part series on hymns and their use in our churches.
“The people barely sing along.” “The congregation sings poorly during the service.” “The pastor complains of low participation by the congregation in singing.”
Have statements like these ever been heard in your congregation? You might even assume that they come from the lips of 21st-century lifelong Lutherans who are saddened by the fact that congregational singing isn’t what it used to be.
But these laments came out of church visitation programs conducted in Germany during the decades following the Reformation. Some of them describe congregational singing well over a century after the Reformation began.
Yes, Luther said, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 53, p. 323). His efforts to put the gospel back on the lips of the people is one of the reasons the Lutheran church is often referred to as “the singing church.” But for the first hundred-plus years, the Lutheran church’s journey to earning that title apparently got off to a pretty rough start.
Serving new treasures
From the beginning, Luther’s efforts to restore congregational singing included the production of new hymns. In a one-year span from 1523 to 1524, Luther wrote 24 hymns. Some of them found their way into the first Lutheran hymnals, which were published in 1524.
This sudden production of new hymns is understandable. Luther and the other Reformers wanted the theology of Scripture to be implanted deeply into the hearts of the people. But it was not easy. One might wonder why they didn’t stop since it was difficult to get people to sing these hymns.
We can be thankful that they didn’t. Luther and the others continued to write new hymns. As a result, we celebrate the Reformation singing “A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon” (Christian Worship [CW] 200:1, written by Luther in 1528 or 1529).
New songs appeared even after Luther’s death. As a result, we confront our own mortality, singing, “Lord, let at last your angels come; to Abram’s bosom bear me home that I may die unfearing” (CW 434:3, written by Martin Schalling around 1567).
As the years went by, new songs helped Christians sing God’s truth. We remember our Savior’s passion, singing, “A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth, our guilt and evil bearing, and, laden with the sins of earth, none else the burden sharing. Goes patient on, grows weak and faint, to slaughter led without complaint” (CW 100:1, written 100 years after Luther by Paul Gerhardt and first published in 1648). In addition, we approach the Lord’s Table for Holy Communion singing, “He who craves a precious treasure neither cost nor pain will measure, but the priceless gifts of heaven God to us has freely given” (CW 311:3, written by Johann Franck and first published in 1649).
And we have new songs to sing from our own time. We take up the task Jesus has given his church, singing, “Preach you the Word and plant it home to those who like or like it not, the Word that shall endure and stand when flow’rs and mortals are forgot” (CW 544:1, written by Martin Franzmannn and first sung in 1973). We also exit God’s house on Sunday, singing, “Go, my children, sins forgiven, at peace and pure. Here you learned how much I love you, what I can cure” (CW 332:2, written by Jaroslav Vajda in 1983).
Our Lutheran forebears put into practice what Jesus said to his disciples: “Every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52).
Hymns are one way to teach. We have old hymns that teach God’s truths, and we have new melodies and words too. We will use the old hymns, but the Holy Spirit will continue to move God’s people as he has always done to create new hymns to praise God and teach his truth. The musical feast will have such variety.
Serving them well
If the early Lutherans encountered frustration for more than a century as they strove to promote congregational singing, we ought not expect things to be different today. Odds are every person reading this article has experienced the frustration of trying to use a new treasure brought out of the storeroom of Christian hymnody.
Let’s assume that our synod’s next hymnal has two hundred “new” hymns. Those new hymns don’t need to all be served to God’s people within the first year. Our church body’s next hymnal presents us with the opportunity to bring out new treasures to God’s people for an entire generation.
In the last few years I’ve experienced the joy of doing so. More than 20 years after Christian Worship was published, I’ve still been able to give people an opportunity to sing new treasures, not because the treasures themselves are new but because they are new to people. I’ve enjoyed listening to my youngest walk around the house singing, “A mighty fortress is our God, a . . .” (she doesn’t have the second line down quite yet). I’ve enjoyed watching my congregation acquire a taste for treasures like “Lord, When Your Glory I Shall See” (CW 219), which is by no means easy to sing the first time around.
Learning our next hymnal’s new hymns isn’t a race. It’s a feast. Let’s sit back, slow down, and savor every bite.
Respectfully making room
What exactly does it mean that our next hymnal will have two hundred or more new hymns? “New” means a variety of different things. In some cases, it simply means it’s new to us. It might be a hymn that has been around for many years but is finding its way into our hymnody for the first time. It might be a hymn from previously-used resources like The Lutheran Hymnal.
In other cases, new will mean repackaged or repurposed. It might mean that the translation was altered or different stanzas selected. It might mean that the text was paired with a different tune.
In other cases, new will mean new. There will be recently written hymns from today’s batch of talented hymnwriters God has raised up for his church.
A taste for some of these new hymns will come almost immediately. A taste for others will take time to acquire. In both cases, our prayer is that future generations will agree that a great many of them are treasures.
We invite your feedback as we work on finalizing which of the more than 700 hymns from Christian Worship and Christian Worship: Supplement will be included in the new hymnal. Every month we will post a segment of our current hymn list, indicating which hymns are slated to be kept and which are slated to be cut. You can view the monthly list and, if you want, choose up to 10 hymns from the cut list that you would like to see kept in the new hymnal.