How can I select hymns for all seasons?
Major hymnals like the Evangelical Lutheran Worship,
as well as supplements like With One Voice
and This Far By Faith,
are designed to have hymns that can be used throughout the church year, from Advent through the long season of Sundays after Pentecost. With all these hymns to choose from, it is no wonder that pastors, church musicians, and congregational worship committees regularly ask themselves "What do we sing this
In selecting hymns, it is important to keep three things in mind.
- First, what is the theme of the day? Consider the season of the church year, and look at the week’s appointed lessons and prayer of the day – these form the scaffold that supports the other more flexible texts of worship, like the hymns, the sermon, and the prayers of the people.
- Second, what are the liturgical actions that are taking place on this day? Will there be a baptism? Holy Communion? The installation of parish council members? Farewell and Godspeed to some longtime members? Each of these will further shape the setting in which the hymns will be sung.
- Third, and most particular, what is the purpose for each hymn within the service? An opening hymn gathers the community, and a closing hymn sends it forth. The hymn of the day serves as the congregation’s "amen" to the sermon, and hymns sung during the distribution of communion can be meditative reflections on both the Eucharist and the theme of the day. In choosing hymns, these different purposes call for hymns that move with the current of worship, not try to swim against it. "Sent Forth By God’s Blessing" is a fine hymn, but it is hard to imagine using it to open a worship service.
In most hymnals, one obvious place to start looking for hymns is to look at the section headings that appear above each hymn. In the ELW, for example, the hymns are arranged in groups that start with the seasons of the church year, followed by other subjects and topics like baptism, communion, the beginning of worship, etc. Check the section for the appropriate season (Epiphany, Lent, etc.), sacrament (Baptism, Communion), or theme (Peace, Praise and Adoration, etc.)
Note that these headings are not designed to limit a congregation’s music, but to assist planners in finding appropriate hymnody. The subject headings in the hymnal are not a law that says "sing this hymn only during one particular season." Having said this, the perennial question "But what about singing Christmas hymns during Advent?" is sure to come up. The answer to this question is not found in some law, but by considering the incongruities that appear if we sing "Silent Night" on a bright Advent morning when the lessons of the day speak not of birth but of waiting. The theme of the day says one thing, the hymn is saying something else, and the result is often a mess. The same conflict appears when we consider singing hymns with "alleluia" during Lent. Alleluia is the great cry of Easter, which does not fit with the lessons and prayers for the Sundays of Lent. On the other hand, sometimes "out of season" hymns can work quite well. "Let All Together Praise Our God" is found in the Christmas section of LBW, but it fits well with the Gospel reading on the First Sunday of Lent that tells of the temptation of Jesus. The hymn speaks of Jesus exchanging divine power for human weakness, of Jesus as servant, and of "grace in lowliness revealed." One stanza stands out in particular: "He [Jesus] undertakes a great exchange, puts on our human frame//And in return gives us his realm, his glory and his name." With a properly crafted sermon, this could be a fine hymn of the day or hymn sung during the distribution of communion.
Another resource for finding appropriate hymns are the various indexes, either within the hymnal or elsewhere. Many hymnals have indexes in the back, suggesting hymns by topic or by reference to a particular biblical passage. Some hymnals also have a concordance volume, that allows someone to search for hymns that use particular words ("peace" or "joy" for example). If you have an electronic version of a hymnal, these usually come with search engines that serve the same purpose.
Sundays and Seasons
, published by Augsburg Fortress, is another resource where weekly hymn selections are offered. Various Internet Web sites offer suggestions as well, as different people, congregations, and organizations publish musical suggestions that blend with the Revised Common Lectionary. Some of these Web sites envision quite elaborate worship, while others are more bare-bones in their vision. Some sites are subscription-only, while others are free.
Finally, do not neglect the "indexes" that lie between the ears of other people in your parish. While a single person – the church musician or pastor – is capable of selecting the hymns for worship, the result can be much richer when a group gathers for this purpose. The lessons are read by the group and the indexes studied, but the conversation between the people around the table can bring to mind other hymns that would be appropriate. This could be the parish worship committee, a subcommittee thereof, or an entirely separate group that gathers only to select hymns.
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.
Choosing Contemporary Music: Seasonal, Topical, Lectionary Indexes. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000. This one-volume reference work is designed to aid worship planners in the selection of contemporary song. It is organized by the three-year lectionary cycle and contains integrated scriptural, seasonal, and topical indexes. This volume indexes such collections as Gather, With One Voice, This Far by Faith, and Worship & Praise. ISBN: 0806638745.
Musician's Guide to Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
- Sundays and Seasons. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress. A comprehensive worship planning guide based on the Revised Common Lectionary and the church year. The resource contains three major sections: annual introductions to the year, the Gospel and Lectionary; seasonal overviews that include "images of the season," environment and art for worship, a worship music overview and a comprehensive set of alternative worship texts (including the weekly prayers.)