A dear brother in my congregation (a retired pastor) heard the news that I was going to be chairing the Hymnody Committee for the new hymnal. “Well that should keep you busy!” he replied. He then took the opportunity to give me my first feedback on the new hymnal’s contents: “Get rid of ‘Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old’ (CW 267). We sang it twenty-five years ago at my previous parish and it was a disaster!” (He has since made that request official to Pastor Michael Schultz, our new hymnal’s project director.)
There is no doubt that “Isaiah, Mighty Seer” is a difficult hymn. There is also no doubt in my mind what happened twenty-five years ago when “Isaiah, Mighty Seer” flopped. I’m willing to wager that there was no choir to help, no soloist to lead, and no instruments to introduce. I’m also willing to guess that the organist played the hymn at a glacial pace. If that wasn’t the case twenty-five years ago, it certainly is the case in much of our synod’s current musical practice. Poor “Isaiah, Mighty Seer.” He often sounds mousy instead of mighty!
Fast forward twenty-four years. Last year we celebrated our parish’s 125th anniversary. The Reformation celebration was designed to introduce modern Americans to our German roots. Parts of the service were done auf Deutsch. We offered up a mostly English rendition of Luther’s German Mass. We sang “Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old” for the Sanctus in the communion service. After a brief organ introduction (during which the people could read a paragraph about the hymn’s rich history and biblical basis), we had the choir chant the first two-thirds of the hymn. Then when it was time for the angels around the throne to sing, we pulled out all the organ stops, added the congregation, and threw in a brass quartet for good measure. “Holy is God the Lord of heavenly hosts!” thundered three times in the sanctuary. It still wasn’t “A Mighty Fortress,” but it was a good sing.
What was the difference? Something that is equally important whether you are a large congregation with more resources or a smaller congregation with fewer resources: we took care to introduce people to a new hymn.
At first glance, you might assume this blog’s title suffers from dyslexia. Hmmm…. Pastor Christie probably meant to write “Introducing New Hymns to Your People.” After all, the new hymnal will have hundreds of new hymns that will need introducing.
But think about it for a moment: does a hymn need to be introduced to people or do people need to be introduced to a hymn? A hymn is only a collection of syllables and sounds notated on paper or an iPad. A hymn has no life in and of itself. The work on the hymn’s side of things is done once it reaches the point of publication. It is the people who need our attention. They need to learn how to hum a hymn’s melody. They have the hearts that will be warmed by a hymn’s theology. Their fingers and vocal chords will transform quarter notes and letters into the worship of our Redeemer! Introducing people to hymns is a pastoral task. Whether we are pastors, teachers, directors, or instrumentalists, we must keep in mind that we are dealing with real people, with their worship of the Holy Trinity, with the Holy Gospel. In sum: Lutherans don’t do music for music’s sake. We do music because it carries the good news of Christ to people’s hearts.
I promise that the Hymnody Committee will work long and hard to make certain that only the best hymns “make the cut” for our new hymnal. I ask for your prayers to that end. In the meantime, I ask you to keep on working to introduce your people to good hymnody both old and new. To that end, you will be in my prayers! Finding 600+ hymns among tens of thousands will be hard work. Teaching your people the meaning and melodies of a few hundred hymns? That’s the real work! May the Lord of the Church help you do it.