When Martin Luther discussed the selection of music and readings for his parish in Wittenberg in 1523, at a time of great liturgical upheaval in that community, he pointed to two dangers:
[The Bishop] should choose the best of the responsories and antiphons and appoint them from Sunday to Sunday throughout the week, taking care lest the people should either be bored by too much repetition of the same or confused by too many changes in the chants and lessons. ["An Order of Mass and Communion For the Church at Wittenberg, 1523," Luther’s Works (53:38)]
Boredom and confusion: the twin fears of all who care about music in the church.
For most congregations who are interested in developing their repertoire, boredom is the immediate concern. Someone in the congregation – the church musician, the pastor, the worship committee, a faithful singer in the pews, someone – is saying "We need to add some new hymns to our worship – there’s too much sameness; there’s something missing." [In this context, new means "new to us," not "written in the last 20 years."] After this call is issued, however, the fear of confusion kicks in. Can we learn new hymns in a way that won’t disrupt worship? Can we still sing the old hymns? Will we feel "at home" and comfortable with the new hymns, the way we do with the old ones?
Three issues are intertwined when we talk about expanding a parish’s repertoire of hymns: (1) choosing which hymns to introduce, (2) deciding how to introduce them, and (3) reinforcing the new material after it has been introduced. Before getting into these issues, though, we need to have an idea of what we already know.
What Is Missing from Our Repertoire Right Now?
Some congregations keep a hymnal in the church office or at the organ marked with the dates on which each hymn was sung. (If more than one book is used in worship, then one of each would be needed for the record keeping.) After a few years (or perhaps even a shorter time span), it becomes obvious what the congregation’s repertoire actually is. If your parish does not have such a hymnal, someone could take old service folders for the last year or so and use them to get this hymn record started.
Take this record of hymn usage, and look at which hymns are known well, and which not at all. Are there patterns that emerge? Are there sections in the hymnal ("Community in Christ," "Witness," "Peace, Adoration," etc.) that are rarely or never used? Ask questions that contrast different types or categories of hymns, and see if anything seems missing or out of balance:
- Are they mostly inner focused, personal hymns ("Take My Life, That I May Be") or outer focused, communal hymns ("Rise Up, O Saints of God!")
- Does one ethnic origin (German, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, etc.) predominate among the well-known hymns, or is there a mix? Are they all European in origin, or does the mix include African, Latin American, and Asian as well?
- Do the hymns come from different historical eras: the 20th century, 18th century, 16th century, etc.
- What are the images used for God? Is God usually spoken of as Father? Rock? Fortress? Friend? Is God transcendent and all powerful in all the hymns, more down-to-earth and personal, or a mix of both?
- When speaking of or to God, to whom do the hymns refer? Does the mix of hymns include all three members of the Trinity, or does one person stand out from the others? That is, are they mostly Father/Creator hymns, Jesus/Savior hymns, Holy Spirit hymns, or a mix of all three?
- How is the church viewed: a collection of holy people (in contrast to the evil found outside the church), or a community of sinners?
- Is the world seen as a dangerous, broken, sin-filled place, or a place of grace, bounty, and beauty?
- What about the musical styles? Do all the hymns feel like military marches? lyrical, bouncing folk songs?
- What kind of vocabulary do the hymns use? Do they all use "thee" and "thy"? Is there a preponderance of one kind of image – flock after flock of sheep, or battalion after battalion of soldiers, for example?
This is not an exhaustive list, but something to get the conversation started. Questions like these will point out gaps that you might want to fill as you consider what new hymns to look for.
If the folks who are interested in expanding the repertoire of hymns have certain hymns in mind already, these might be used to discover gaps in the parish repertoire as well: "What’s different about this new hymn, when compared with the hymns we usually sing?" While one person (the pastor or church musician, for instance) could do this work alone, it is best if a group of people look at these questions together. Often one person will see something that others have missed, or offer an insight that puts everything into perspective. At the end of this discussion, you should have a pretty good idea of what’s missing, which points us to the question of selecting new music.
Where To Start?
If a congregation is unsure of its ability to handle new music, a good place to begin might be with new texts set to familiar melodies. This enhances the congregation’s confidence while exposing them to new texts, with their new images, metaphors, and phrases. For example, Ruth Duck’s Epiphany hymn "Arise, Your Light Has Come" (ELW 314) is set to the same tune (Festal Song) as "Rise Up, O Saints of God!" (ELW 669).
Another possibility for congregations like this involve hymns with strong, easy-to-sing refrains. Most refrains can be sung quite easily after only hearing them once, and a soloist or vocal ensemble can handle the stanzas. After the congregation has heard the stanzas sung several times, then have everyone sing the entire hymn together. Many of the African American spirituals fall into this category, like "Go Down Moses" (WOV 670), as do many contemporary songs like "Shine Jesus Shine" (ELW 671).
Chants that are designed to be sung as a form of meditation or devotion are often easy to learn. In contrast to strophic hymns in which the congregation sings each stanza once from beginning to end, these chants are usually short in length, but sung over and over. This repetition allows the singers to join in as they feel comfortable with the tune, and can be quite powerful either during evening worship or during the distribution of communion. "Jesus, Remember Me" (ELW 616) is one example from the Taize community. The text is quite simple – "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom/Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." The tune is likewise simple, and invites even the most musically challenged singers to join in. For example, on Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion in the year of Luke, the congregation hears the story of the two criminals crucified with Jesus, and using "Jesus, Remember Me" as the only music during the distribution could be quite powerful.
Another meditative chant is "Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying" (ELW 752), which comes out of the contemporary Christian music tradition. One powerful use of this piece is during the prayers of the church. Instead of the usual "Lord in your mercy/Hear our prayer," this piece becomes the congregational response to each petition. In some parishes, the organist/pianist plays the music lightly underneath each of the petitions, inviting the congregation to hum along as the petition is given.
These chants usually begin simply, with everyone singing in unison. Once the melody is established, more confident singers begin singing in parts and the accompanist(s) can embellish the melody as well. One common question is "How many times should we repeat the chant?" The answer is simple – as often as seems appropriate – which varies from parish to parish and occasion to occasion. (It’s like asking "How long a silence should we have in the prayers for people to offer their own petitions silently?")
As you can see, the question of which new hymns to learn is related to how these hymns are introduced.
Mechanics of Introduction
In general, the more familiar a congregation is with a hymn, the easier it is to introduce. Imagine a three step process that unfolds over the course of a month. Step one is to start with the tune. Use the music (no words yet) as a voluntary during the collection of the offering, pre- or post-service music, or devotional music during the distribution of communion. Step two is to introduce the words. Have the choir or a soloist use the hymn as an anthem, or have the pastor preach on the hymn. By calling careful attention to powerful images and felicitous phrases, the preacher can (a) have the hymn writer share in the homiletical task, and (b) increase the congregation’s desire to sing the hymn. Step three, finally, is to have the congregation sing.
Performance practice also has a role. The first time a congregation sings a new hymn, the melody needs to stand out very clearly. The accompanist might have some wonderful arrangements of the hymn that can be used down the road, but when the hymn is new, the melody should not get lost in the accompaniment. The same holds true for tempos and rhythms. Some musicians will vary the tempo of different stanzas, to give appropriate added emphasis to the text, but when a group is learning a hymn, variations in tempo and rhythm can distract from the hymn, rather than add to it.
Another way to help the whole congregation sing more confidently the first time they sing the new hymn is to teach the hymn to a small group first. This group would then either serve as a choir to introduce it more generally, or would act as a leaven that is sifted into the whole congregation. One group often used to introduce certain new hymns is the children, who can learn and practice the hymn during Sunday School or Vacation Bible School. Another possibility would be to use the new hymn during a retreat, and let the retreat participants help introduce it to the rest of the congregation. This could be a weekend WELCA gathering, a youth group overnight lock-in, a summer float trip, a winter ski trip, or any other opportunity where a small group will have regular worship in a different setting. Because the setting is out of the ordinary, there may be an openness to music that is out of the ordinary as well.
Most of all, use some common sense when looking at the whole worship service. Don’t use a new opening hymn, new hymn of the day, new hymns during the distribution, and a new closing hymn all in the same service. Instead, set up some contrasts by carefully selecting some of the old familiar hymns to go with this new hymn, like pairing "We Give Thee But Thine Own" (ELW 686) with "Let Us Talents And Tongues Employ" (ELW 674) for example.
Keeping the Hymn Going
Once a hymn has been introduced, it needs to be reinforced. Again, repetition is the key – the more familiar the hymn becomes, the more it sinks in to people’s hearts. But how to do this while avoiding the demon of boredom? Several possibilities suggest themselves.
- Use the hymn as the theme for midweek Advent or Lenten services. The seasons of Lent and Advent offer special opportunities for learning new hymns. Quite often these midweek services are built around a theme that is explored from week to week. If the theme for the season is taken from a hymn the congregation wishes to learn, it could be sung each week, giving the congregation 4 or 6 weeks of repetition.
- Retreats like the ones mentioned above also offer the possibility of repeated use of the same hymn several times over a relatively small period of time.
- Use the new hymn as a "hymn of the month," but care has to be taken with this option, so that the hymn that sounded so new during the first week does not become stale by week four or five. Some hymns lend themselves to this better than others, and some placements of hymns work better than others as well. The hymn of the day is usually not the best place to sing the hymn of the month for four or five weeks in a row, since that hymn is designed to tie in with the Gospel and the sermon – which change from week to week. Opening and closing hymns, however, might work much better. Keep in mind how each hymn functions.
Once the congregation has learned the hymn, musical embellishments are one way to keep it fresh. Now is the time to vary tempos and rhythms, use more elaborate organ registrations, and bring out different arrangements and harmonies.
Where to Find New Music
There are all kinds of places to look for new hymns, and the place for most people to start is right in front of you. Start with the hymns you don’t sing already in the resources you already own. There are 893 Hymns and Songs in the new worship resource, Evangelical Lutheran Worship
Another possibility for new hymnody would be to invest in hymnal supplements or additional hymnals. Several resources produced by Augsburg Fortress are widely used throughout the ELCA: With One Voice is a supplement with over 200 hymns that are not in LBW, Worship & Praise offers over 160 contemporary praise songs, This Far By Faith draws on the roots of the African American church, and Libro de Liturgia y Cántico is a Spanish language Lutheran hymnal.
Some ELCA parishes also draw on the materials produced by other publishing companies. If there is a hymn you already know and would like to find more hymns like it, look to see who the copyright holder is, and then go check out other publications from that publisher. (In every hymnal, the copyright holders are identified, either in a small footnote at the bottom of the hymn or in an appendix at the back of the hymnal.) Another approach would be to take an author who has written something you already know and like, look for a collection of that person’s hymns.
Another obvious approach is to ask around, being as specific as possible about what you are looking for. Your worship committee could ask members for suggestions of hymns they have sung elsewhere. The pastor could ask her colleagues at the weekly Bible study, the organist could talk to his or her counterparts at nearby churches, etc. After asking, then have some people visit these other parishes, to hear how this music sounds in worship.
In this search for new music, do pay attention to copyrights and permissions. As Paul said to the church in Rome, "Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due" (Romans 13:7). Authors of hymn texts, composers of tunes, and arrangers of hymns work hard to create the music we sing, and deserve the credit and compensation for their work.
For the Long Haul...
If you are serious about expanding your congregation’s repertoire of hymns, consider having your church musicians and pastors join the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians [ALCM] and/or the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. ALCM is a pan-Lutheran organization, while the Hymn Society is a larger ecumenical association. Both are dedicated to the music ministry of the Church, and exist to bolster those who lead such ministries. Both hold regular conferences and workshops, and both publish fine journals and newsletters. Members of these groups are regularly exposed to new and "new-to-you" hymns, which keeps their congregations’ music ministries fresh. You can find out more about each group at their Web sites: http://www.alcm.org/ and http://www.hymnsociety.org/.
To get a much deeper look at how hymns work and the variety of music that congregations use in worship, Brian Wren’s book Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000) is a fine resource. Wren provides glimpses of worship and song that cover a wide range of times, places, genres, and styles, and he gives his readers a good vocabulary for discussing church music.
Finally, keep reminding yourselves that the selection of music for the church is an active process, not a static event. The dangers of boredom and confusion are always close at hand. Thankfully, it only takes a small bit of careful attention by those who design worship to keep them from bringing harm!
- Association of Lutheran Church Musician (ALCM): http://www.alcm.org/
- The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada: http://www.thehymnsociety.org/
- Buckley Farlee, Robert, ed. Leading the Church's Song. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998. A practical introduction to leading congregation song in a variety of musical styles and with various instrumental accompaniments. This helpful guide, with audio CD included, can help church musicians master the skills necessary to confidently lead congregational song with stylistic integrity and cultural sensitivity. ISBN: 0806635916.
- Buckley Farlee, Robert. Musicians in the Assembly. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001. One of the first publications in the new Worship Handbook series. This small booklet is intended as a primer for all who serve as leaders of church music in congregations. ISBN: 0806642793.
- Eskew, Harry and Hugh T. McElrath. Sing with Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Hymnology. Second Edition. Nashville, Tennessee: Church Street Press, 1995. ISBN: 0805498257.
- Sydnor, James R. Introducing a New Hymnal: How to improve congregational singing. Chicago: GIA, 1989.
- Wren, Brian. Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.