We like to sing!
What is worship like in our churches? How will we prepare for the next hymnal?
Jonathan P. Bauer
What does worship in our synod look like? Is it large sanctuaries with vaulted ceilings or tiny storefronts with makeshift altars? Are the people aging German farmers sitting on wooden pews or young suburbanite families sprawled out on aluminum folding chairs? Are the instruments for worship organs, digital pianos, a brass ensemble, or an acoustic guitar?
Whatever one might imagine it will include the familiar red book that sits in our pews, the one we’ve finally stopped calling “the new hymnal” and now know simply as Christian Worship.
Producing a new hymnal
In public worship, people of different ages, races, and backgrounds come together for a single purpose—to declare “the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done” (Psalm 78:4). Public worship requires each of us to set aside our own personal preferences and instead show concern for the entire body of Christ. As a result, it’s only natural that—for better or worse—a church body’s hymnal will shape that church body’s worship.
That makes the development of a new hymnal a rather daunting task. Those entrusted with the task have sought to listen to what the people of our church body have to say about worship. The WELS Hymnal Project’s mission statement puts it this way: “This hymnal will be produced with thorough study of the character of worship in WELS and the prayer that it may be used joyfully by the people and congregations of our synod.”
To that end, the WELS Hymnal Project’s communications committee has been busy working to understand what characterizes worship in our church body. For the past two years, congregations were invited to participate in sharing information and feedback on their worship. Roughly one hundred congregations have been participating each week. Hymn usage data has been collected from any congregation willing to share it.
The project director, Pastor Michael Schultz, has been invited to many conferences and conventions and has collected feedback at each one. The project website, www.welshymnal.com, includes a contact form through which upwards of a thousand comments have been submitted.
Finally, the Hymnal Project conducted four surveys in 2014—one each for pastors, teachers, musicians, and finally for all worshipers—and received just shy of 7,200 responses.
The information gathered in these various ways has been processed and shared with all those working on the project. Several additional research efforts are planned for 2015.
Gathering varied responses
After looking at a great deal of information and listening to a great deal of input, the task of developing a new hymnal might seem even more daunting. Points of view vary greatly. A relatively equal number of passionate comments have been offered from opposite points of view. After reading some of the comments and the data we’ve collected, one might be tempted to think that developing a single set of resources that serves and shapes the public worship of our church body is a futile endeavor.
However, such varying points of view lead us to remember what Paul told the Corinthians: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). In Christ, what unites us far surpasses that which makes us different. Furthermore, variety within the body of Christ is not to be lamented but rather celebrated. Finally, when our eyes are opened to some of the different viewpoints within our church body, it’s a needed and healthy reminder that we must continually strive to seek the good of the whole body in our public worship. As Paul said, “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church” (1 Corinthians 14:26).
Singing in worship
So what have we learned so far?
The people of our church body want to be actively involved in worship. Specifically, they love to sing and want to continue to be able to do so. Seventynine percent of those who completed the final survey described themselves this way: “I enjoy singing and feel confident doing so.” A good portion of those who completed the same survey (34 percent) indicated that they enjoy singing in parts. Many comments indicated that worshipers do not want too many parts of the service to be taken from the congregation and given to the choir.
Many of the comments that are critical of Christian Worship come from those who feel
it frustrates their ability to sing. What sometimes stands in the way of their love of singing? Quite a few individuals point to the range of a hymn. Just over 50 percent of those who filled out the final survey commented that hymns often have notes that are too high for them to sing. Quite a few comments have been submitted requesting that hymn keys be lowered. Some have indicated that they often sing in harmony because it enables them to sing a part that is more in their range. In fact, one of the requests we’ve heard most frequently is for songs of the printed orders of service to include all four parts rather than just melody.
A common complaint about some of the hymns in Christian Worship has been that the harmony settings are too difficult. A solid majority (83 percent) of the musicians who filled out our survey indicated that the difficulty level of Christian Worship hymns and songs was “Just right for the average musician.” Most of those respondents were organists and keyboardists. But when it comes to singing, we have heard a different tune. Both the worshipers in the pew and the choirs in the balcony have expressed a desire for harmony settings for hymns that are simpler and easier to sing.
Does the variety of the hymnal make it difficult to sing new hymns? Plenty of people have commented that there is already too much variety in worship. The new hymns are often unfamiliar and considered difficult to sing. Some of those same voices are concerned that a new hymnal will only lead to less familiarity with an ever-increasing array of resources and that will make it more difficult to sing. Others would like to see more variety so that what they are singing doesn’t become stale. In the question for all worshipers that asked about the variety of hymn styles in Christian Worship, 8 percent indicated that there is too much, while 22 percent indicated there is not enough.
Even though opinions differ regarding the best way to facilitate singing, it has been encouraging to hear how strongly people desire to sing in worship. It is also a good reminder that, whether it’s a decade-long hymnal project or the weekly work of organists, instrumentalists, and choirs, the goal should always be to encourage and facilitate active participation of worshipers.
Jonathan Bauer, who serves on the WELS Hymnal Project’s communications committee, is pastor at Good News, Mount Horeb, Wisconsin.
This is the first article in a two-part series on the work of the hymnal project.
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Author: Timothy J. Spaude
Volume 102, Number 4
Issue: April 2015
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