Sometimes I get the vibe that Lutherans are dissatisfied with their own devotion and piety, as if it were too narrow or restricting. It makes me think of a phenomenon I’ve seen in our hymnals in several places – the pasted in hymns. If you walk into one of our Missouri Synod congregations, take an old TLH off the shelf in the church office, you very likely may see a few extra hymns pasted into the covers. I think of the “other” songbooks which church publishing houses have produced over the decades. I suppose the reasons for producing these are many, but it makes me wonder. Why do we need all these extras? Are we so dissatisfied with our hymnals? Are they restricting us that much?
It is a perennial concern that traditional hymnal worship does not reach the youth, and therefore we need contemporary worship which keeps on the cutting edge of the Christian music industry. We have the freedom to do other things, it is said. In a day when technology affords us other options, like projecting music on a screen, the hymnal is seen as a relic of yesteryear. Its potential is so limited, conventional wisdom would say, and so we need to make use of the latest technology in order to make and keep more disciples in our churches.
The traditional Lutheran hymn is also the target of similar criticisms. The hymns are too long, people say. I’ve heard it said that the old German Lutheran hymns have “beautiful words, but awful tunes.” When a convicted Lutheran stands up and expresses appreciation for his own musical heritage, he is quickly shot down. “Lutherans don’t have a monopoly on good hymns,” it is said. In an age of tolerance and political correctness, Lutherans have very little room to enjoy what is theirs. They are quickly told to appreciate the broad spectrum of hymnody and worship offered by each and every Christian tradition.
However, I often wonder. What kind of diversity in hymnody and worship do we really find in our churches? In my albeit limited experience, I find very little. If you were to take a poll of the favorite hymns in Missouri Synod parishes, what would you find? I’m not sure it would be the splendid diversity which we seem to long for. I think you would find that How Great Thou Art, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Amazing Grace, Beautiful Savior, Lift High the Cross, A Mighty Fortress, along with a few others, would be the overwhelmingly predictable answers. Don’t get me wrong. There is good to find in many popular hymns. The point is, I am not certain we are really achieving the diversity and novelty which we’ve long sought after.
The truth is that the old Lutheran hymns do not restrict our devotion. Instead, the hymns of the Lutheran Reformation broaden our devotion. At least this is what my wife and I find in our family. One good practice we’ve gotten into is that we will sing the hymn of the day from the previous Sunday every evening before we put our children to bed. This is always a sturdy Lutheran hymn. This has been a very rewarding experience. Even having grown up in a Lutheran home, worshiping three years in a seminary chapel, and serving in the parish for eight years, I find that I am still learning these hymns. Every time we sing them, they share new insights, bring new comfort, and become imprinted deeper on my heart. I still have a long way to go in learning their words, their depth, and their Gospel comfort, yet I am enjoying the process. When it comes to my devotional life, I could not ask for more. A Bible, Small Catechism, and a decent Lutheran hymnal – it’s all the average Lutheran family needs for a truly fulfilling devotional life.
As for the common criticism that our hymns are too hard, I think that is, for the most part, an unfair criticism. Myself, I have marginal musical talent. I played in the band and sang in the choir of my rural high school back in the day. I never progressed beyond that level, and even there I only had marginal success. I have no problem singing the old Lutheran hymns. If Lutheran hymns are truly too hard to sing, that is an indictment more on our churches and our society’s educational systems than it is on the men who wrote these hymns and composed the tunes. You can sing these hymns. If you need help, your pastor can coach you and provide you with good alternatives if need be.
So if you are serious about wanting to broaden your devotion, to learn more about Jesus and what he did for you every day, don’t go church hopping. Don’t find a different worship service. Don’t buy the rhetoric that the worship in our churches is too narrow or restricted. Pick up your hymnal. Our hymnals offer us a diversity which in fact very few people have tapped into. Find especially the hymns of Martin Luther, Paul Gerhardt, Erdmann Neumeister, and Thomas Kingo. Learn what the words say. Sing the hymn of the day of the previous Sunday with your family every night. Enjoy your Lutheran heritage, and know that it will help and encourage you as you take up your cross and follow Jesus every day.