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Wednesday, August 25, 2010 

How Should Hymnody Be Judged? A Simple Guide

I was having a “friendly discussion” with a friend of mine concerning what goes on during worship on a Sunday morning recently on Facebook. After much back and forth about the Divine Service versus praise and worship as a mere preference (it’s not a matter of personal preference for confessional Lutherans but that is a whole other can of worms and another post to be written for a later discussion…) I was asked who, in my ever so humble opinion, should test the hymnody. Should that responsibility fall to the pastor or maybe it should be the music minister. I was also asked how my church handles a situation where “the called staff find a song acceptable and you personally do not, how does your church handle that?”

The first thing that I think would be helpful is to establish a standard so that we remove our personal preferences from the equation. I may like the old Greek and Latin hymnody (I’m referring to the style of hymns and not the Latin or Greek language) but just because I like a certain era’s hymns doesn’t mean that anyone else will. By setting up some guidelines the thorny issue of a hymn’s aesthetic value as a personal preference will be greatly diminished.

A few years ago I posted a simple list which I thought was an excellent guide as to how we can evaluate hymnody so that the matter of personal preference or subjectivity could be pushed to the back burner and a more objective standard could be set forth as a means to judge what we sing on a Sunday morning:

1) Is the Crucified and Risen Christ Jesus the indispensable center of the hymn?
2) Does the hymn clearly proclaim Christ’s vicarious satisfaction as the sinner’s salvation?
3) Is the hymn grounded on a clear, Scriptural text?
4) Does the hymn point us clearly to the Church’s ministry of word and Sacrament as the place where we surely receive Christ’s gifts?
5) Does the hymn make clear that it is entirely Christ’s work alone that saves us without works, responses, or proper feelings of our own?
6) Does the hymn make clear that the faith which alone justifies is not a human work, but a free gift given by God’s choosing of us (not our choosing of Him), in Christ Jesus, through Word and Sacrament?
7) If the hymn speaks of the Christians response to Christ’s gifts, does it make clear that it is what Christ does for us and not what we do for Him that is the center of the Church’s life and mission? Does it make clear that sanctification is as much by faith alone as is justification?
8) Has the hymn been properly tested and tried by the Lutheran Church?
9) Does the hymn inspire in us a hunger and thirst for the things of Christ Jesus and His Kingdom that is coming?
10) Does the hymn drive you clearly, unerringly to the sound doctrine of Christ Jesus rather than merely let you free associate it’s words with sound teaching?
11) Does the tune bear repeated singing? That is, could you sing it twenty times in a row and not feel sick to your stomach?
12) Is it a hymn that the congregation knows or can sing with some choir support?

If we used the criteria listed above to apply a modicum of discernment for what we sing on a Sunday morning, we would have far fewer disagreements on theological matters than currently plague our beloved synod. Why do I say that? It’s simple: because we would singing our one clear confession of faith and with one clear voice and not with as many confessions as there are voices as there are personal preferences.

And, so ya’ll don’t think I’m just picking on the music led by your praise bands and such, this criteria works just fine with choirs leading our sung confession as well! Don’t think that just because a congregation employs a choir that they are immune to singing goofy songs that should never be sung within the walls of a Lutheran sanctuary. The fact of the matter is that there are plenty of consultant provided guides being used in Lutheran circles that recommend that we use pop culture songs to make the unchurched seeker more comfortable in the name of evangelism. I know we paid some consultants a good penny or two for evangelism advice but chances are that if the song was popular on top 40 radio it ain’t gonna pass even one of the criteria listed above and doesn't need to sung from the balcony by our choirs or the pews by the congregations. The same thing goes for last week’s top ten list over at K-Love which takes vapid and adds a dash of the eww that’s kinda creepy factor with songs that seem to favor effeminate or romantic language that is more appropriate with ones spouse than the risen Christ! Nope, nonsense like that fails our simple evaluation big time and is best left off the rotation of regular hymns.

As to the question of who should test the hymns, the pastor with the input of a layperson with some theological training on staff or who has volunteered to run the music program works nicely. It’s important that both the pastor and the congregation work together in picking hymns to be sung within the Divine Service. The laity should rely on the pastor’s theological knowledge to ensure that no errors are present in the hymns and that the hymn is appropriate or a particular Sunday’s pericope as well as hold that pastor to account should he err (and he will err from time to time as he is a poor miserable sinner like the rest of us) and choose hymns that do not meet the a standard we all should hope for. It should never be an either or situation that has the pastor or laity subservient to the other as we are all slaves to Christ.

I hope that answers your questions.

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You know, before I became a Lutheran I had no idea why churches compiled hymnals: "Baptist" hymnals, "Methodist" hymnals, etc. Especially since I was used to hymnals with no orders of service in them, and quite a mash-up of songs. I thought, they're just songs any Christian could sing. Why stick a denominational label on the book?

Now I realize that songs in church are meant to TEACH, that it's important that we're not lax about this, that setting communicates something too, and that there is such a thing as songs and hymns that are vague at teaching at best and outright heretical at worst.

There are clunkers in every hymnal, but it makes sense to me now why you would use a book that has passed doctrinal review in your church body, rather than have each individual (or church) sorting through a list of songs they've come up with themselves. Churches that are autonomous (like the Baptists or nondenominational groups) are far more likely to do things like dispense with hymnals, because each church is a law unto itself. Yet another reason that a group that calls itself a "synod" should stick with the hymnal. Otherwise, we also become just a bunch of autonomous churches, and the teaching in our midst suffers mightily when that's the case.


I put together a similar guide a few years ago. Check it out:


It was a friendly conversation other than my poor use of the words nitch and preference. I always thought that LCMS is presbytery in it's set up rather than episcopal, correct? Meaning it's a bottom up hierarchy rather than top down? What I do see and think is sad is churches fighting over which hymnal is best or whether or not pastor should be allowed to write his own liturgy and that was what I was so poorly trying to get at.

This is a great list -- granted I'd disagree with 11) Does the tune bear repeated singing? That is, could you sing it twenty times in a row and not feel sick to your stomach? because then we're back to personal preference and feelings. ;-D There are songs in the hymnals that I can't sing but that doesn't mean they are bad. And there are songs I could sing all day that would make you vomit I'm sure. LOL

What really prompted my multitude of questions came from experience. Our last church had it in their constitution that they would use page 5 and 15 of the redbook twice a month. Well, they got a new pastor and he liked the blue hymnal and -- that didn't go well. I think they worked it out finally, but it took a few years.

Our once a month "praise" service is DS with different music and a team that plays and leads the songs -- You'd hate it but it works in our church. We keep early service straight DS1 out of the burgundy hymnal for people who cant' stand the songs in late service. Ahd we only do it once a month. Our music minister chooses what music we sing every week and tries to tie it to the message for the week. I'm thinking he meets your criteria minus 11 most of the time.

Great thoughts Frank. Thanks!

Deana, sorry it took me so long to respond but I’ve had more work this month than I’ve had in years.

Concerning your disagreement with number 11, I’m not talking about how difficult the hymn is to sing. I’m talking about things like repeating nauseating choruses so many times that the band has run out of chords to go up. I once sang the chorus “There's no God like Jehovah” from Days Of Elijah over 75 times and the band had to stop twice to start over twice because the “worship leader” felt moved by some spirit to have us repeat the line like a group of desert mystics until we felt the spirit as well (those were her reasons and not my suppositions) while visiting an evangelical friend’s congregation.

I don’t see what you do with people fighting about which hymnal is better. What I see is that there are a large group of folks (as well as official LCMS evangelism and outreach websites!) who feel that the Divine Service is a hindrance to the Church’s mission and think that it is better to worship in a manner that is no different than reformed congregation in Americanized Christianity and by doing so adopt their errant theology in the process either by accident or design.

Kelly, the first thing I noticed when I returned to the church was that the hymns my congregation sang seemed to be contradicting my own theology and I was right!

C'mon Frank, when you're in the middle of "Days of Elijah" and you're starting to get bored, you just stick in a KEY CHANGE! That's, like, rule #1 of worship leader school. If that doesn't work, try 2 key changes! Get the Holy Spirit moving.

Some days, I just can't believe what I spent years of my life doing...

Kelly, I’ve only had the chance to enjoy singing "Days of Elijah" twice (once in an evangelical congregation and once in a LCMS congregation modeling its worship service after a local megachurch) and neither time did the praise band leader move up two chords. I guess I’m just missing out!

Oh, you've never had the Spirit move you until you've heard an eternally-modulating "Days of Elijah."

Okay, I'm not sure I've literally heard it move up two keys. But I've known lots of other songs to do that!

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  • From The Haut South
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