True Confessions of a Congregational Hymn Picker
Jonathan P. Bauer
I have a confession to make. I’ve stopped feeling guilty about the hymns I don’t pick.
Let me explain. As a pastor who picks the hymns that the congregation sings, there have been plenty of times when I’ve heard comments about a hymn I did pick for a service. It’s much less frequent, however, to hear a comment about a hymn I didn’t pick. I’ve learned to expect, “Pastor, that’s one of my favorites!” as well as, “Pastor, I can’t stand that one!” I don’t expect, “Pastor, Pentecost 8 of Year A would have been the perfect opportunity to sing this one!” And yet, even though people rarely comment on the hymns left unsung, those are the ones I sometimes think about most.
If you’ve ever been involved in picking hymns, you know that for every hymn that finds a spot in the service there are a dozen you considered that didn’t. It’s not as if those dozen are clunkers. They are Christ-centered, gospel-proclaiming, scripture-teaching hymns. And yet, for one reason or another, they don’t find their way into the service. They are the hymns of omission, if you will. And a while back, I stopped feeling guilty about them.
Picking Practically vs. Pastorally
When I first started picking hymns, there were all kinds of factors I took into account. Some were textual. I would look for hymns that best-captured the specific gospel truth found in the service’s assigned readings. I might pick a hymn based on a single word or phrase that used language from the day’s sermon text.
Other factors were musical. I would pick hymns that people would find easy and enjoyable to sing. I would consider the musical resources we had available so that the hymn might involve a choir or instrumentalists.
More recently, however, my approach has changed. I haven’t stopped thinking about the factors mentioned above. But I’ve started taking more careful stock of the total number of hymns I pick and the frequency with which pick them. I haven’t stopped asking, “Which hymns work best in this specific service?” But I’ve starting asking more frequently, “What is the overall body of hymnody that the congregation knows well?”
Now I view picking hymns as much more of a pastoral task. This subtle change in approach has been most noticeable in one specific way. I find myself intentionally picking fewer hymns more frequently as opposed to more hymns less frequently.
Why sing fewer hymns?
Why the change? I wish I could take a little more credit for it. However, it was much more something that happened to me rather than the other way around. More and more
I saw firsthand the profound effect that well-learned and well-loved hymns can have in the lives of God’s people.
If you’re one of the many young people in our congregations, it may seem as though your pastor struggles to communicate the gospel in a way that addresses the specific challenges you face. He’s likely as aware of that struggle as you are. As you face temptation, confront peer pressure, or battle to develop a Christ-centered identity, he’d love it if you remembered everything he ever told you in a children’s sermon or a confirmation class. But even though that’s unlikely, he’d be thrilled to know that the words close at hand as you face the challenges of youth include those of a hymn like “God’s Own Child I Gladly Say It.”
If you’re new to Christianity or Lutheranism specifically, your pastor knows that you may struggle with specific questions about the Bible or carry theological baggage from your past. He would love to think that his twelve-week Bible Information Class will answer every single question and transform you into a dyed-in-the-wool Lutheran. But even though that’s unlikely, he’s thrilled knowing that sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura are planted deeper in your heart every time you sing a hymn like “Salvation Unto Us Has Come.”
If you’re nearing the end of your earthly pilgrimage, your pastor knows that death is called the last enemy for a reason. He would love to think that in those last moments you would cling for comfort to something you heard in one of his sermons. But even though that’s unlikely, he’d be thrilled to know that the words running through your head as you stand at the doorstep of glory are the words of a hymn like “Jesus Your Blood and Righteousness.”
Are we giving our hymns the opportunity to do what they are so uniquely capable of doing? Hymns have a unique ability to take precious gospel truths and smuggle them deep into the human mind and heart. Hymns can take those truths and accomplish two equally-important and seemingly-contradictory goals. They can lock those truths away in a secure, impenetrable vault. At the same time, they can make those truths readily available to be summoned forth when needed most. That is, of course, assuming we allow them to.
Let’s do a little math. If, in a given year, a congregation sings 260 different hymns (only one-third of what’s in our current hymnal and supplement), do you know how many times they’d sing each one? Assuming four hymns per service and sixty-five unique services a year, they’d sing each of those 260 hymns only once.
Is singing a hymn once a year enough? Will the three-year-old who can’t read yet come to know any of them? Will any of their words pop into the teen’s mind as he endures bullying at school? Will any of them occur to the husband who’s being lured by the temptations of pornography? Will any of them be inaudibly mouthed by the ninety-year-old with dementia in hospice care?
If I showed you the list of hymns we don’t sing at my congregation, you might be shocked. There are some good ones on that list. Some classics even. But I’ve stopped feeling guilty about the hymns we don’t sing. Rather, I rejoice in the unique blessings that come from the ones we do sing – and the frequency with which we sing them.
Jonathan Bauer, chairman of the Communications Committee of the WELS Hymnal Project, is pastor at Good News, Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin.
This is the third article in a nine-part series on hymns and their use in our churches.
Author’s note: There’s a supplementary blog article on welshymnal.com for some practical ideas on singing hymns more frequently.
RESPECTFULLY MAKING ROOM
Like Christian Worship, our church body’s next hymnal will again put 600+ hymns in front of God’s people. Those responsible for selecting those hymns would be the first to admit that not all hymns are created equal. Some have richer gospel imagery than others. Some have more doctrinal content than others. Some elicit more emotion than others.
Valid arguments will be made about why a specific hymn that was included should have been excluded and vice versa. There will be some that you would want sung at your funeral. There will be others that you prefer never to have to hear again. All 600+ hymns won’t equally satisfy the specific standards you set for hymns. The point is that they don’t need to.
Rather, we hope that the 600+ hymns offered in this hymnal provide an opportunity for every congregation to find a rich and full subset that makes up its unique diet of hymnody. We pray that those hymns – learned and loved well – would serve God’s people with the precious gospel both in large, established congregations and new mission starts, both in the rural heartland and on the urban coasts, both in life’s highs and life’s lows, from the early years of their youth all the way to their dying breath.
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Author: Jonathan P. Bauer
Volume 104, Number 9
Issue: September 2017
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