28 July 2008

Criteria for Selecting Hymns

I've always had a passion and appreciation for hymns. Even as a little boy, I loved hymnody and the hymnal (I treasured having my own copy of the book), and I would often spend hours on end studying the information given about each hymn. The hymns that I loved best as a child are not the ones that I appreciate most now, but I remember how much they once meant to me, and I know the power that hymnody can have. As I pastor, I have become increasingly aware of the benefits and dangers inherent in that power of hymnody. There's a strong emotional component, which can be either detrimental or beneficial, depending on whether it's serving or distracting from a good text (or aiding and abetting a poor one). Both the music and the poetry of hymns, and the fact that they are sung (and that they are sung together as a congregation), serve their potential for catechesis. A good hymn well-learned through regular use will teach people the faith more efficiently and stick with them far longer than almost any sermon. I say that not to disparage the importance of preaching, but to exalt the significance of hymnody.

Over the past several years, especially in connection with my work on the Lutheran Service Book, and then also in the process of introducing and using that new book in my congregation, I've become even more conscious of hymns and more conscientious in the way I select them. I'm more deliberate about the process by which I choose them, considering not only a week at a time, but the whole scope of the Church year and the whole corpus of our Lutheran hymnody. I have tried to learn from both my own pastoral experience and my study of historic precedent and practice. I have listened carefully to my colleagues in the ministry and to my musician friends, in the hopes of benefiting from the experience and expertise of others. I have taken into account the way in which certain hymns especially commend themselves for use, in a variety of ways, and have accordingly made an effort to use those hymns regularly. I have also followed the cues of my fathers in Christ in my catechetical use of hymns.

There's frankly a lot to be considered and taken into account when it comes to selecting hymns for the singing of the Church. There's a lot at stake, too, because hymns are not neutral or innocuous. They make a tremendous impact, whether positive or negative. I honestly believe that almost nothing else we do has greater long-term catechetical consequence than the hymns that we sing with our congregations over the course of weeks and months and years and lifetimes. Singing is fundamental to who we are as Christians, and what we sing matters.

Contrary to some recent scuttlebutt, it's not true that I only have ears for ponderous sixteenth-century chorales written in a minor key. It is true that I appreciate many of those hymns very much, and I do consider the Lutheran chorale a precious treasure of our heritage. The classic chorale is not "ponderous" (not if it is played correctly and well), but musically sturdy and solidly supportive of the text; and the text, which is definitive when it comes to hymnody, tends to be a rich and full confession of the Word of God. It really is hard to beat that combo. But I welcome good hymnody from wherever and whenever it may originate, in diverse musical styles, and serving sundry purposes; much as the inspired Psalter spans a wide range of moods and uses. There are truly great hymns from every age and every corner of Christendom. The measure of a hymn's worth, in every case, is its faithfulness in confessing the Word of Christ. With that, a number of different criteria come into play in determining how, when and where a given hymn may best be used in the service of that Word. Here follow a dozen of those criteria that I have found most helpful in my approach to this important pastoral task:

1. Not every hymn can or should say everything, but every hymn should say something. What it says should be a confession of the Word of God (that is, it should say what God has said), both the Law and the Gospel, properly divided, with the Gospel predominating.

2. The hymns selected for a particular day should confess the Holy Scriptures appointed for that day, in particular the Holy Gospel. That is especially true for the Sundays following Pentecost. During the festival seasons of the Church Year (Advent through Eastertide), many of the hymns may reflect more generally the seasonal emphases rather than any one particular Reading.

3. Hymns should be implicitly (if not explicitly) Trinitarian and Christocentric. There should be no doubt or ambiguity as to who the "God" of a hymn is, nor as to what He has done and is doing in the Person and work of Christ Jesus. Which also means, by extension, that hymns should be implicitly (if not explicitly) Sacramental in proclaiming the Gospel. Not just "God," but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Not just "Christ," but Him crucified for our transgressions and raised for our justification. Not simply "once upon a time," but actively present and at work, here and now, to forgive sins and give life in the means of grace, through the preaching and administration of the Gospel.

4. The appointed Hymn of the Day should be regarded as one of the Propers, and should therefore be used. Exceptions to this rule should be exceedingly rare, and only for compelling reasons.

5. At Matins and Vespers, Morning and Evening Prayer, the "office hymn" should be appropriate to the time of day (morning or evening), comprehensively pertinent to the season of the Church Year, or directly related to the particular occasion.

6. The Hymn of Invocation is fundamentally a prayer for the Holy Spirit to open our ears and our hearts to hear and receive the Word of God and the gifts of Christ in the Service. In some way, more or less, the hymn should articulate that purpose.

7. Distribution hymns may specifically speak of the Lord's Supper. It is not necessary that most of them do so. It is appropriate and helpful for distribution hymns to pick up on aspects of the Holy Gospel of the Day, or on the special emphases of the liturgical season, in order to identify the Jesus who gives His body and blood in the Sacrament with the Jesus proclaimed, confessed and celebrated in the preaching.

8. If there is an offertory hymn, it need not describe the offering, because it is an offering, that is, a priestly sacrifice of prayer, praise and thanksgiving. An offertory hymn should give thanks and praise by confessing what God has said and done, or else it should pray for that which He has promised.

9. If there is a final hymn following the Benediction, it should not put the people back under the Law, but it should underscore and emphasize the gift and certainty of the Gospel and express a joyful confidence in the life that is already theirs in Christ Jesus. It may also serve as a prayer of eschatological longing and hope for the consummation of God's promises in the resurrection.

10. A solid core of good Lutheran hymns should be used with a fair degree of repetition throughout each year, in order that the people learn to know those hymns by heart through singing them.

11. It is helpful to identify a particular hymn from the Divine Service on Sunday (usually the Hymn of the Day) to be sung throughout the week: in the daily prayer offices of the congregation, in the daily catechesis of the home and family, and at meetings and other gatherings of the people.

12. Hymns that have established themselves in the piety of the people over the course of years, even if not the strongest examples of good hymnody, should be used with careful consideration, allowing for the significance that has attached itself to such hymns in association with the life of the Church. Weaker hymns, however, should be supported by a context of stronger hymns (with reference, in either case, to both text and tune).


WM Cwirla said...

Wow! An apostolic twelve. Cool. I suggest that everyone read the chapter on hymn selection in Charles Merrill Smith's classic "How to Become a Bishop Without Being Religious." He offers some tongue-in-cheek though solid advice.

I always try to sing one Lord's Supper hymn, given that it is the Lord's Supper. LSB offers a fine variety. I use the fine LSB guide to add a hymn that reflects the lectionary for the day. And I reserve the middle hymn for a bit of "ear candy" or what I like to call my "money hymn."

Let's face it. There are those hymns that people love no matter how much you wrinkle your pastoral brow over them, so why not tuck them in a harmless place in the liturgy while everyone is wandering up and down the aisle? Where else can you put them? Hymn of the Day? Closing hymn? Toss them a little ear candy now and then during the distribution and you can sing all the stanzas of "Salvation Unto Us Has Come" without so much as a peep of protest.

The Rev. BT Ball said...

Brother Cwirla-
is there really a harmless place in the liturgy for weak "sugary" hymns? I don't think so.

Many men new to the office have had feet held to the fire attempting to introduce evangelical lutheran hymnody in their parishes, and as you know these guys haven't all been Ft. Wayne graduates! But, let's leave them out of this.

After many years of careful, faithful instruction, does there not come a time when we say no to the stuff that not only wrinkles our pastoral brows, but also does not deliver the goods of Lutheranism?

(I am snapping my fingers now) Hell is hot, time is short, lousy hymns should go there.

Ben Ball

Pr. H. R. said...

Down here, not quite on the buckle of the Bible belt (where Fr. Juhl spent some time. . . ) I feel almost sinfully proud to have moved the congregation to hymnody solely from LSB. In a lot of places that a HUGE step. I still get some flack for it from some corners (Where did "Songs We Like to Sing" go, Pastor?)- and I'm just now starting to make headway with the choir on only selecting pieces from CPH. . .Slow headway.

It may have to wait 'til the next guy, several decades from now, God willing, after my natural death at a ripe old age while railing against various and sundry in the pulpit, to weed out the weaker hymns included in LSB that the congregation loves.

In the meantime, my practice is pert-near identical to Cwirla's. The Hymn of the Day is sacrosanct, the closing hymn is a "hymn of the month" sort of thing to help teach them a new Lutheran hymn, and one distribution song is always a congregational favorite (which tend to be a mix between weaker and stronger hymns), the rest are guided by the selections of Dr. Hymn on his helpful blog.

FWIW. . .


WM Cwirla said...

is there really a harmless place in the liturgy for weak "sugary" hymns? I don't think so.

Who said anything about weak and sugary? Let's face it, every hymnal, including stodgy old TLH is loaded with ear candy. What a Friend We Have in Jesus. Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus. I'm But a Stranger Here. Beautiful Savior.

My standing rule: As long as it's in the hymnal, we'll sing it. Yeah, even LSB #930 for which I got flack at the Amen-Irvine conference. We'll even do Amazing Grace, so long as we use the Cwirla 5th stanza:

All thanks to Christ, whose death in love
Grace to the world revealed,
By water and the Word, His Body and Blood,
His grace to me is sealed.

A little context can fix many weak hymns. "Jesus Thy Blood and Righteousness" was not originally about the Lord's Supper, but it sure makes good sense there.

I think it's also helpful to know the favorite hymns of your big givers, especially around budget time. At one time, I entertained the thought of auctioning off distribution hymns as a fund raiser for the youth group, but my organist wasn't in favor of it.

WM Cwirla said...

I'm just now starting to make headway with the choir on only selecting pieces from CPH.

I think the choir and music people need more latitude than CPH only. There's lots of good stuff out of GIA and Morningstar. We wouldn't want to miss out on Richard Proulx, John Ferguson, or some of Henry Gerike's work. CPH is good, much better than Augsburg-Fortress, but they don't hold a monopoly on liturgical music by any stretch.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

I'm just now starting to make headway with the choir on only selecting pieces from CPH.

Excellent policy, in my opinion.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Pr. Cwirla, yes, the reports of your move into contemporary worship reached all the way back to St. Louis: singing LSB 930. What next? A rock band in the chancel?

WM Cwirla said...

Pr. Cwirla, yes, the reports of your move into contemporary worship reached all the way back to St. Louis: singing LSB 930. What next? A rock band in the chancel?

With bongos, wood blocks, and heaven knows what else. I got some right-wing nastygrams for that one. Just a bit of a disclaimer: It was a choir piece cooked up by the choir director and organist; I had nothing to do with it. I also know better than to interfere with musicians so long as they are sticking to the hymnal.

Actually, our congregation breaks out LSB #930 (with a modicum of percussive instruments) every three or so years after the Daniel reading at the Easter Vigil. Other years we do this Song of the Three Young Men from the Apocrypha (which McCain almost added to study Bible!) to somewhat more solemn chant or plainsong settings, though I have always appreciated the playfulness of #930. It fits the over the top divine nose-thumbing of the Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednigo narrarative.

Liturgy and hymnody, though anchored in the received tradition, should always have a contemporary edge to it, otherwise we are simply running a liturgical museum. I've always admired the 17th century for the cutting edge quality of its hymnody and liturgy. Those boys paved some new ground during the 30 Years War and it aftermath. I'm afraid that fear drives a great deal of our conservativism especially when it comes to hymnody.

The Rev. BT Ball said...

Pr. Cwirla-
OK I substituted sugary for ear candy. Yes, there are lousy hymns in the hymns books currently used in the synod, but I wouldn't mind for you to expand a bit more on your standing rule:

"As long as it's in the hymnal, we'll sing it."

I wonder about this rule. How about LSB 964?

While LSB 964 may be stirring and beautiful, it is also Christless and Churchless, written for the observance of Abraham Lincoln's birthday. It was in the news a few weeks ago.


I suggest that there are hymns that should not be sung in Lutheran parishes, even if they are in synodical hymnals, or have been through "doctrinal review" such as the upcoming 100 praise songs.

B. Ball

WM Cwirla said...

I wonder about this rule. How about LSB 964?

Yeah, that one's a stinker, no doubt about it. Not really "ear candy," though. Horrible admixture of the two kingdoms. As I recall, the "Nation and National Songs" sections isn't exactly the strongest in any of our hymnals. I think it's supposed to be for school use, but I would use it in a Lutheran school, either.

My chief concern is the creation of a "canon within the canon," wherein we "use" LSB but only DS 3 and 24 hymns from the Reformation period, or whatever we deem worthy for our lips to sing. I would say, in general and with great pastoral discretion, anything in the hymnal is fair game. The exceptions should be few and the reasons clear. I think those reasons should also be passed along to the synod for the sake of all.

Just to be clear, and for the sake of our gentle readers who may lack a sense of the ironic not to mention a sense of humor, I do endorse and practice what the original post sets forth. Hymns should be chosen with respect to feast day, season, and lectionary. I think it's helpful to learn a solid core of Lutheran hymns (what our old Lutherans called "Kernliedern") for catechetical purposes. And yes, I have no problem with giving Grandma a chance to belt out "How Great Thou Art" or the kids to sing "The Lamb, The Lamb" once or twice a year. I think a lot of the pastoral nose-wrinkling is more a matter of taste than anything else.

BTW, the LSB hymn selection guide published by CPH is a good tool and helps maintain a nice breadth of hymnody based on the lectionary texts. I use it all the time.

Mention was made of the 100 "praise songs" recently published by the CoW. I make a distinction here. These were not seen by all the churches and approved by synod in convention, as were the hymns of LSB. That they were "doctrinally approved" is somewhat comforting, but certainly not the last word. I'm willing to look at them, but with much greater scrutiny.

Anyway, my purpose for writing as I have is to keep all of us from building our cathedrals out of the hymnic specks in our brothers' eyes. Plenty of logs in our own to deal with.

WM Cwirla said...

One more little note, lest there be any misunderstanding:

I've managed, by the grace of God, to preach and preside at the place where I was ordained 16 years ago (this Saturday). I have a congregation that embraces old and new hymns with joy, that uses all the liturgical orders of LSB confidently, that loves vestments and even the occasional whiff of incense. We are known in our district as that weird congregation that sings loud and loves the liturgy.

It wasn't that way when I arrived 16 years ago this Saturday. And I've managed to do it without long meetings, tiresome tirades, or getting run out on a rail by an angry voters assembly. The key, I believe, is pastoral, fatherly common sense - strong, loving, wise discernment. Let them enjoy some of their favorites from the hymnal once and a while. They're the baptized children of God, not the heathen world. Be fatherly (without necessarily embracing the title), not dictatorial. Let the kids have a little fun. Worship is fun, in a holy way.

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

I'm with Ben Ball on this one. A good physician gives people the best medicine, the medicine that they need.

Mason said...

Fr. Cwirla,
Thank you for the sage advice. Even though I grimace from time to time, the people love their familiar hymns. The banal and mawkish hymns in the LSB are still better than the alternatives. Ideal? No. However we do have a common hymnal in the LSB (theoretical and naive, I know) and should allow flexibility and trust pastors to act with responsibility in their parish, especially since they are using an approved resource.

Heck, I wouldn't mind eliminating the hymnody altogether and stick with the ordinaries and propers of the Mass. Good luck with that one, eh?

WM Cwirla said...

A good physician also gives the medicine in a form the people can take, and has a larger concern for the overall health and well-being of his/her patients than simply in pouring medicine into them.

Or, like me, you look for another physician.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Father Cwirla's sage advice regarding "ear candy" was simply a more provocative way of describing what I suggested to begin with in my twelfth point. At least, that is how I interpret what he has said in this regard.

If "ear candy" means something that is used for no other reason than to tickle itching ears, that would fly in the face of St. Paul's pastoral admonition to preach the Word in season and out. But if it refers to the use of weaker hymns that are nevertheless dearly loved by the people of God, I think that can be done responsibly, with pastoral discretion, within a context of more consistently stronger hymns. "Weaker" does not necessarily mean false or heretical; there's never a time or place for the latter. Some hymns are weak enough so as to be distracting and misleading from the faith and confession of the Gospel, and I don't believe they should be used, either. But there are "weaker" hymns that are simply that: "weak," but not entirely devoid of a faithful confession of the Word of God. Where such hymns have found a place in the piety of the people through long usage, I do believe they ought to be used with careful consideration, as I said to begin with. It is neither simple nor advisable to extract those things from the faith of the people, as they have received it from their pastors in the past.

I disagree with Father Cwirla, however, on his aversion to a "canon within a canon." Every congregation has such a thing; it is really only a question of the particular criteria that are used to determine the parameters of it. The Lutheran Service Book, for example, has at least two or three times as many hymns in it than most congregations will use. And not all of its hymns are of equal merit. There are definitely "weaker" hymns included, to say it kindly, which aren't "old favorites." Why on earth would I teach those to my congregation? They should be quietly ignored and allowed to go the way of all flesh, so that the next hymnal can replace them with hymns of catechetical substance and greater integrity.

In my own pastoral practice, I've identified a basic core of sixty hymns, each of which I use between three and six times per year. I've also identified between 100 and 150 "catechetical hymns," which I use deliberately and consistently on a regular pattern over the course of the three-year lectionary cycle (often following the Hymn of the Day schedule). Even with six or seven hymns at each Divine Service, and 80+ Services to work with in the course of the year, the selection of other hymns needs to be done with careful discretion. We're not able to use all 600+ hymns in the LSB, nor would I want to.

As I've indicated elsewhere, there are maybe 100 hymns in the LSB that I would not willingly choose to have sung in my congregation. I've provided rationale for nine of those (on my own blog), but I'm not planning to spell out my reasons in the case of all 100. I'm more interested in advocating the regular usage of good hymns than pointing out the fatal flaws in the worst of the weaker hymns.

When it comes to these "Top 100" songs that the Commission on Worship has trumpeted in advance of telling anyone what they are, a good dose of cautious skepticism is in order. The criteria for evaluating such things ought to be clear and consistently theological, not a popularity poll or marketing evaluation. The notion that "doctrinal review" provides a sufficient screening process is unfortunate; because that review process looks only at what is included, whether it is doctrinally false or not; it does not consider what is missing, or what could be said more faithfully. Certainly, nothing should be permitted that contains false doctrine. But the lack of false doctrine does not, by itself, commend something for use in the Divine Service. It is just as likely to saying nothing at all, and what is the point or purpose of that? That's a kind of "ear candy" that does nothing but scratch the itching ears.

WM Cwirla said...

"Ear candy" was my delightfully provocative way of saying "a tune the people like to sing." By no means do I want to suggest that we simply acquiesce and give the kids what they want. A diet of cotton candy will kill them, though once and while it is a fun treat.

Pastors tend to be more concerned about texts; people are more concerned about tunes. When people say, "I don't like that hymn," it's rarely because the hymn failed the trinitarian, Christocentric, sacramental, incarnational, Law/Gospel litmus test. They just hated the tune and couldn't sing it. Communal singing is nearly dead in our culture, the church being the sole exception.

Rick and I come from two different perspectives here, but we can find a happy place of agreement. I agree that 600 hymns is too many, and that some filtering needs to be done. In our congregation, we probably use less than 1/3 of the hymns available in LSB on a regular basis.

My congregation probably would benefit by a closer walk with the Lutheran "Kernliedern" and chorales, provided I can keep the folks coming to church. Other congregations would benefit by broadening their hymnic horizons a bit, if for no other reason than to remind all of us that the Reformation made it out of Germany and the 16th c. I especially worry about youth who have become hymnic snobs at far too early an age and refuse to sing a hymn that does not meet their (ie their pastor's) standards of purity.

That's kind of where my "as long as it's in the hymnal" rule kicks in. I think it's sufficient (satis est) that we agree to use our common hymnal and not condemn or criticize one another or get that constipated "pastoral" look over another's choice of hymnody. I think our recent Higher Things "Amen" conferences exhibited a refreshing breadth and variety of hymnody - from Reformation rouzers to modern melodies, where everyone certainly had an opinion, and even Rick and I could agree.

Now that's pretty cool.

The Rev. BT Ball said...

Fr. Stuckwisch wrote-

"It is neither simple nor advisable to extract those things from the faith of the people, as they have received it from their pastors in the past."

The difficulty pastors face it seems, is not extracting received weak hymns (ear candy) from pious faithful folks for reasons of pastoral care, and at the same time not passing along these weak hymns to the next generation by their use in the Divine Service.

I'm interested in how the brethren think this can be pulled off.

How will we ever be able to extract these hymns in a future hymnbook if they continue to be used, even infrequently?

I do think it is appropriate for us to say, "here are the hymns in the books received that we won't sing and here is why", both to the people we serve and to brother pastors. You don't have to be a jerk to do this, and Rick's 12 points help us in this effort.

B. Ball

WM Cwirla said...

"I'm interested in how the brethren think this can be pulled off. "

An analogy from my days in the chemistry lab: It's easier to deal with pollution by dilution than by filtration. A lot cheaper too.

The way this can be "pulled off," if one is actually trying to "pull something off" on the church, is to add some new hymnody that meets all the criteria for "strong" hymns and allow them to become the people's "primary theology" or lex orandi over time. So long as the "weak hymns" shape people's primary theology, you will never get them to voluntarily set them aside. Don't overlook the strong nostalgia factor that often goes with the weaker hymns. These are the snickerdoodle cookies of people's piety.

LSB has brought some vigorous new texts into the hymnal mix from Steve Starke and Chad Bird. It wasn't quite as strong with new tunes, however.

I'm working with some of our local composer/musicians in southern CA to look at the traditional catechetical hymns to see if these can be recast into a contemporary musical idiom. I have no idea how this will work, but we need to stimulate creativity once again among Lutherans, who used to be at the forefront. Now we either ape the Contempogelicals or run musical museums and mausoleums.

Steven A. Hein said...

Bill, here is an example of just what you are seeking to do - take old sound texts and put them to some contemporary settings. These folks have committed to the project of putting the chief parts of Luther's Small Catechism, to popular idioms of music to teach children to memorize. Here is a link to their available CD on the the First Chief Part, Ten Commanments and their meanings using the text from the Triglot. You can listen to what they did with the 4th Commandment. They are currently working on the Creed.


Check it out.

WM Cwirla said...

The 4th Commandment to country music. Wow!

I wish I'd known about this a month or so ago. We would have asked for permission to use these as bumper music for The God Whisperers (godwhisperers.com) when we whispered about the commandments.

Do you have anything on the Creed or the Our Father we can use? We'll give you advertising.

Steven A. Hein said...

Only the 10 Commandments are available at this time. The production of the three articles and their meanings in the Creed are the current project still in the making.

BTW, each of the commandments is done in a different musical idiom - from Jewish folk to old Rock n Roll. And it is children - mostly teenagers who are composing, performing, and produced the musical catechism. Bach would love it!

Rev. Jacob Sutton said...

"Bach would love it!"

May I ask, how do we know that? The quotes we have from Bach are things like, "I desire to produce a well-regulated church music." Why would Bach "love" going outside of the church's style or received tradition of music to rock/pop/country/jewish in order to set the catechism - to somehow make it memorable or appealing to children? Would not the music in this case become what is remembered and what drives the text? Would Bach not compose music that simply supports the text in a singable way - or would he not humbly defer to Dr. Luther's hymns? I imagine we have that answer - he never composed freely for the catechism his own music, to my knowledge, that was not based on Luther's tunes.

In the Christian tradition of Church Music that I've studied, the Scriptural text is supported, and is proclaimed and confessed by the music that carries it. It is never supplanted by the music.

It's why one COULD sing "Thy Strong Word" to the tune of "What A Friend We Have In Jesus" or vice/versa. But you don't because the tune would be supplanting the text. The power of free association is just too great. That's why Luther, when he originally tried to set "From Heaven Above" to a local folk tune used at Advent Wreath ceremonies, soon discovered that no one cared about his new text because they loved that old folk song so much. So he wrote a whole new tune for it - the one we use today - and wrote in the margin, "don't use the local pop song, dummy." (to paraphrase)

Is anyone concerned that if you set the catechism or other Scripture texts to music that is free-associated with other genres and other purposes, then the text has a great chance of being obscured? I am. Do we HAVE to use Luther's tunes for his catechism? I do not suppose so. But I do suppose that I ought not be able to hear Mel Tillis or Brittney Spears or The Fiddler on the Roof coming out of my catechism either! Those messages are quite different than "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord..." or "You shall not commit adultery..."

Is this not the very thing we argue against with the use of "pop music" in the Divine Service in general - that other styles of music are associated with other messages and other texts which run contrary to the gospel, even IF one has set a purely orthodox Christ-centered text to the "pop music"?

[Which by the way, I have not seen evidence of yet to date, because those styles of music do not easily support such texts with such full bodied messages...]

So why is catechetical instruction any different than the Divine Service? Why is it okay for the catechumens to be exposed to such an idea when learning the catechism, but it is not okay (I am assuming we would agree) for the Divine Service? Did anyone else ever have to endure the infamous "Chicago Folk Service" liturgy? Where the Agnus Dei sounded like a Broadway show tune right out of Westside Story? Sorry - the focus became the association with Broadway and chorus line dancers, and our joking around about it, rather than on the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

We are now off track of "selecting hymns" but not by much. Music is not neutral. It says something all by itself. I think this is what everyone is getting at in this blog-line.

WM Cwirla said...

So he wrote a whole new tune for it - the one we use today - and wrote in the margin, "don't use the local pop song, dummy." (to paraphrase)

Yup, there's the point. Luther wrote a new tune for it, and very much within the musical idiom of his day. (No, I didn't say "bar tunes" so don't pin that misunderstanding on me!)

No one is here suggesting that we plug venerable sacred texts into recycled tunes. It's bad enough we have a hymn set to the former Nazi national anthem. I challenge modern musicians to do as Lutherans before us, and interpret the text in a ministerial way with their music. I think it's possible. We certainly could use some "new tunes."

[Which by the way, I have not seen evidence of yet to date, because those styles of music do not easily support such texts with such full bodied messages...]

Interesting argument from silence. I find the argument interesting, though objectively unprovable, that certain instruments or styles of music are incompatible with sacred text.

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

Pr. Cwirla,

I respect your desire for new tunes, and I enjoy many of Stephen Starke's new texts. If I had a congregation like yours that could sing well, and didn't mind learning new tunes, then I would be right on board with you. As it happens, the 80-year-olds in one of my congregations can barely sing the TLH liturgy that they have been singing since childhood. They don't really like to sing, and we don't have a choir. New tunes are not what I am looking for. I wish Stephen Starke would not have set his great texts to so many new tunes, because we will doubtfully ever be able to use them. My other congregation is a little more flexible, but even they do not learn music easily. I taught them Chad Bird's "Infant Priest" hymn (which, by the way, was set to an older tune), by basically singing it for communion every sunday for several weeks on end. But that was no Starke melody. In spite of their lack of love for "Salvation Unto Us Has Come" because they say it is not singable, I use it frequently anyway, because I also have kids and a wife in my congregation, and I am just as much their pastor as I am the pastor of everyone else. I do it for their sake, because I want these hymns to become, as you say, part of my family's primary theology.

WM Cwirla said...

Speaking of the Chicago Folk Mass, Luther's Deutsche Messe (1526) would appear to be quite a radical innovation. Metrical paraphrases of the ordinaries of the Mass in a hymnnic setting! Wow!

I find it interesting that the same people who hold their noses at LSB DS 4 will do DS 5 or some version of it, usually around Reformation time, I guess because it comes from Luther, which somehow makes it cool.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

May I suggest another option?

Phil Magness produced the entire Small Catechism set to music and CPH offers it now as a complete recording, on a CD, and a songbook to go along with music and chording.

We'll have images and samples up in a bit.

But you can read about it here:

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

No, Bill, it's not that the DS from Luther is cool, it makes the person doing it cool, along with the boots.

WM Cwirla said...

This thread has been revealing and has made me think. What would be considered the current Kernliedern today, that is, the set of hymns that are distinctively and definitively "Lutheran"? I would like to see this group develop such a list and could easily see making one per Sunday a kind of "semi-ordinary" so that these could be learned deeply. (See how broad my thinking is in these matters?)

To start things off:

1. A Mighty Fortress
2. All Glory Be to God on High
3. Salvation Unto Us Has Come
4. O Lord, We Praise Thee

Rev. Jacob Sutton said...

On the DS4 and DS5, Pastor Cwirla:
I agree with your sentiments. There is no reason to not use either one. Why? Because they are within our received tradition. They have added some of the best of our efforts today (4) or at Luther's time (5) within that church music tradition, that our tunes are sturdy and help confess the text and do not get in the way and become the story themselves.

Rev. Jacob Sutton said...

On arguing from silence about pop songs:

I think we can argue from "silence" because if we simply evaluate all the songs out there commonly used by pop music churches, what is confessed is rarely Christ and almost never Christ crucified for sinners and certainly never Christ crucified for sinners and now given to you in the Means of Grace.
Why? Because the way those songs are musically - a chorus, a short phrase of a verse, a chorus (one line repeated 3 times), a bridge, a short phrase of a verse, a chorus, a chorus, a chorus - There simply isn't room for a poetic statement of the Gospel in its fullness.

There is a deafening silence from "contemporary pop music". They don't have the Gospel in its fullness.

At one of our Texas District pastor's gatherings, actually for us newbies last year, I arrived in time for the last "praise song" led by district gurus on guitars. You know what - it had a decent, Christocentric, Gospel oriented message. You know what - it was not a pop song. IT WAS A HYMN (not the BEST hymn, mind you) and it really was free composed to be led by guitars. The melody did not make sense, and was not singable by a group of people. Frankly, with a bit of tune-up of the text and set to a sturdy, more singable tune, it would have been serviceable. BTW - none of the young pastors present were really singing this, it was the district gurus leading it and the DCE's present....

So my argument is on pop music - it doesn't do the job. And when pop oriented people try to do the job, my theory is, they end up writing hymns.

It seems for some, the issue is not really hymns vs. pop songs. It's that they really seem to want to get away from using the hymnal, from the organ, from anything that says "traditional churchly." So they want things led by guitars, etc. I say, our whole Synod can use whatever instruments they want to lead the singing - but use the agreed upon hymnals and liturgies. Quit making stuff up and changing from week to week, quit borrowing stuff from theologies opposed to Scriptures and the Lutheran confessions.

Rev. Jacob Sutton said...

On new tunes for our Church:

I too would love to see new tunes within that "ministerial use" or what I am calling our received musical tradition. I think there certainly are many efforts across many areas of Christendom, and I think our Church did a good job of finding and bringing forward the best and proven of those in LSB. I am sure there will be more that we are blessed with in years to come.

WM Cwirla said...

There is a deafening silence from "contemporary pop music". They don't have the Gospel in its fullness.

That's a failure of content, not of form. Listen to the Praetorius Mass for Christmas Morning (Gabrielli Consort). The choir sings the stanzas, congregation sings the refrain. Example: Freuet Euch, Ihr Christen (LSB #897). The strength of the 17th c. hymnody was verse/refrain with the liturgical chorus doing the heavy lifting.

I will grant this much: Many, if not most, musical forms (pop, rock, folk, rap, etc) do not lend well to corporate singing, which is what I suspect the actual problem is. These are forms intended to be heard passively. A hymn is intended to be sung actively and corporately. This has nothing whatsoever to do with some inherent "ability" of a musical form to carry a text. Popular music is very difficult to sing corporately, primarily because it is based on charts and improvisation. You may be able to quietly "sing along" but you can't fully join in because you're not quite sure where the lead singer is going to go. And putting words up on a screen doesn't help.

Contemporary composers for church music have a challenge to face today, in that our culture does not engage in communal singing as do other cultures. We may "sing along" but we do so as individuals, not in a communal sense. The failure of contemporary songs in the church is the failure to address this point. That's why most contemporary worship stuff is really "Christian entertainment" and not really worship.

I think a return to the 17th c. pattern of the liturgical choir and congregational refrain may be a partial solution. Here the praise band is the wrong prescription but the diagnosis may be on target. Chant is particularly good for non-musical, corporate singing. Our through-composed liturgies are, on the whole, very difficult and less than satisfying. And by and large, our hymns are too difficult for the non-musician. We need to do some hard work.

By the way, for a very reverent, ministerial and contemporary approach to liturgical text using guitar and voice in a gentle folk modality, I commend the work of Br. John Michael Talbot.

Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...


1. A Mighty Fortress
5. Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word, Papist and Turk edition. ;)

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

The comments and conversation on this thread have been great. I'm appreciative of the input and the rigorous discussion.

Brother Cwirla, I believe that you are largely correct concerning the significance of the tunes when it comes to the "old favorites," or the "ear candy," or whatever term one wants to use. Not to suggest that Christian laity are oblivious to or unconcerned with the texts, but their strong emotional response and attachment to certain hymns is in large part connected to the tune. My observation has been, however, that such things are conditioned as much by familiarity as by inherent quality. People tend to appreciate and resonate to the particular things they have come to know well, and to the "genres" of music they have come to know well through exposure to numerous other examples of those genres. Hence, I have found that the little children at Emmaus, who don't have decades of exposure to Watts and Wesley, tend to prefer (enthusiastically) the chorales and the sturdier tunes of similar ilk from more recent composers.

This goes toward answering Brother Ball's question, as well. I think we need to be patient, and simply do the hard work of introducing, teaching and using the better hymnody (whatever its provenance), and allow that usage, over time, to instill appreciation for it. We serve the older people of God by using, with careful consideration, the hymns that are important to their faith and piety; but we do so with discretion while at the same time being deliberate about the regular use of stronger hymns. It has become obvious, not only to me but to others (who often comment), that the children of the congregation sing those stronger hymns with joyful vigor. And by the nature of the case, they not only resonate with the tune, but they take note of and revel in the text, as well; because that is part of the strength and appeal of the classic Lutheran chorale.

As far as the relationship of text and tune are concerned, I find myself in agreement with Brother Sutton on this point. I recognize that a text can be accompanied by almost any sort of tune, and that any sort of music can "carry" a text; but I don't agree that the job is done with equal proficiency or benefit. I love rock 'n' roll, but it's generally not about the text; other qualities drive it and define it. It may carry a text, but the music dominates the text more than it serves and supports the text. I had a buddy in college who wrote a decent heavy metal tune, and then sang the list of ingredients from a box of cereal to that tune; the music came first, and the music was what "mattered." The rhythmic chorale, through-composed music and liturgical chant are musical forms that serve and support the text without overpowering it or calling attention away from it. Surely there could be other forms of music that would serve and support the text in a similar way, but I don't agree that every form of music does so.

The quest for a current Lutheran Kernlieder is one that is near and dear to my heart. It is something that I have spent a good deal of time working on over the past several years. I've posted the results of my efforts on my own blog (on 12 August 2007):


I identified those hymns on the basis of various historic precedents, but also by surveying a broad range of folks: pastors and laity, musicians and non-musicians, adults, youth and children. I was aiming to discover those hymns that work especially well in confessing the Word of God and the Christian faith in ways that are most helpful and memorable to the people of God who sing them.

For those who might not want to check out the whole list (of 60), here are the top four-and-twenty (the top two tiers out of four):

First Tier (at least six times per year):

Savior of the Nations, Come (LSB 332)
O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright (LSB 395)
A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth (LSB 438)
Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying (LSB 516)
Salvation unto Us Has Come (LSB 555)
Dear Christians, One and All (LSB 556)
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (LSB 656)
Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart (LSB 708)

Second Tier (at least five times per year):

Of the Father’s Love Begotten (LSB 384)
To Jordan Came the Christ (LSB 406)
My Song Is Love Unknown (LSB 430)
Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s (LSB 458)
Triune God, Be Thou Our Stay (LSB 505)
O Love, How Deep (LSB 544)
Lord Jesus Christ, with Us Abide (LSB 585)
O Lord, We Praise Thee (LSB 617)
At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing (LSB 633)
Lord, Keep Us Steadfast (LSB 655)
Lord of Our Life (LSB 659)
Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me (LSB 683)
I Walk in Danger All the Way (LSB 716)
To God the Holy Spirit Let Us Pray (LSB 768)
Praise the Almighty (LSB 797)
May God Bestow on Us His Grace (LSB 823)

WM Cwirla said...

This is a fine list (you surprised me with your diversity, Rick!), and a worthwhile approach, somewhat akin to my own approach but from the opposite perspective.

I like the idea that certain hymns should be repeated many times in a year in order to learn them deeply. The Kernliedern, so to speak. This also gets away from the "topical" approach to hymnody and lectional, which like topical anesthetics, only go skin deep. I believe that the Hymn of the Day should reflect the Gospel reading; but the rest can be fine-tuned to the needs of the parish, both in terms of pedagogy and, yes, even in terms of the occasional ear candy (from the hymnal!).

WM Cwirla said...

I think the hymn list from the recent Higher Things "Amen" conferences reflects the kind of principles that Rick is articulating here.

A Mighty Fortress (LSB 656)
O Love, How Deep (LSB 544)
Our Paschal Lamb That Sets Us Free (LSB 473)
The Church’s One Foundation (LSB 644)
Our Father Who From Heaven Above (LSB 766)
Christ is Made the Sure Foundation (LSB 909)
Abide with Me (LSB 878)
Father Most Holy (LSB 504)
The Gifts Christ Freely Gives (LSB 602)
We All Believe in One True God (LSB 954)
Praise the One Who Breaks the Darkness (LSB 849)
Lord Jesus Christ, With Us Abide (LSB 585)
Once in the Blest Baptismal Waters (LSB 598)
All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night (LSB 883)
Alleluia, Let Praises Ring (LSB 822)
Christ Be My Leader (LSB 861)
Lord, to You I Make Confession (LSB 608)
Jesus Sinners Doth Receive (LSB 609)
Thy Strong Word (LSB 578)
Who Are You Who Walk in Sorrow (LSB 476)
Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart (LSB 708)
At the Lamb’s HIgh Feast We Sing (LSB 633)
Our Paschal Lamb That Sets Us Free (LSB 473)
Christ, Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands (LSB 458)
O Lord, We Praise Thee (LSB 617)
Thine the Amen, Thine the Praise (LSB 680)
God Loved the World So That He Gave (LSB 571)
May God Bestow on Us Grace (LSB 823)
Crown Him With Many Crowns (LSB 525)
Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending (LSB 336)
My Soul Rejoices (LSB 933)
Eternal Father, Strong to Save (LSB 717)

Phillip Magness said...

Very good criteria, Pastor. May I use this over at Fine Tuning (the Liturgy Solutions blog)? I would credit you and add a link here, of course.

I can just add a link otherwise, but I thought I'd try to get a fresh discussion on this over there.

Phil Magness

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for you kind words, Phil. You're welcome to post my criteria for hymn selection on your "Fine Tuning" blog. Send me the address for that, as well, so I can check it out for myself.

Phillip Magness said...

Thanks, Rick,

You can get to Fine Tuning via liturgysolutions.com
or directly via

I'll plan on introducing your criteria in an upcoming post!

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for your comments and reflections, Brother Cwirla. I'm finally getting back to this thread after being away for my son's wedding. I would agree that the hymnody for the Higher Things conference fit nicely the criteria and approach that I advocate for the selection of hymns in the parish. Of course, since you and I were heavily involved in choosing hymns for the conference, it's not too surprising that we're pleased with the results. Nevertheless, I think that one can look at the list of those hymns and objectively evaluate them as meeting a solid set of criteria. I was glad of the example we were able to provide in that way.

Regarding the LSB Kernlieder that I developed, I appreciate your observation that it has some breadth as well as depth to it. As I mentioned, I was deliberate about taking into account, not only historical precedent, but also the input of numerous others: young and old, pastors and laity, musicians and non-musicians. There are elements and aspects of hymnody that are not otherwise easily measured. So I was aiming to determine which hymns were both rich in content and compelling in their impact upon those who sing them. It has been particularly instructive for me to discover those hymns that commend themselves so powerfully to children. Often, those are not the simple little ditties that many associate with children, but the grand chorales that many might otherwise set aside as "too difficult." The older adults in my congregation, for example, have taken note of the fervor with which the young children sing the Luther hymns and Latin hymns and others of such ilk.

Interestingly, I have found that the young children gravitate, not only to the strong tunes, but also to the poetic texts and their clear confessions of the Gospel.