Notes on the Liturgy #11 – The Hymn & Hymns

This is part 11 of 22 in the series Notes on the Liturgy

(One of the goals of Brothers of John the Steadfast is to train the Brothers in good practice and theology. This article is one in a series that teaches about the liturgy.

These articles were initially intended to be put into bulletins or read during the service to educate the laity on the different parts of the service. They were therefore purposefully made short.

Notes on the Liturgy #11 — The Hymn & Hymns

The Hymn of the Day is a tradition that began in the early 18th century. The idea is that the hymn is chosen to reflect the theme of the sermon (Luther Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy). But let’s zoom out and look at a big picture issue — the use of hymns in general. The argument is made that hymns are boring or irrelevant, and we need to liven up the music in order to reach more people. If this is a valid argument, then it’s ironic that the winner of a popular television talent show won by singing mostly opera music (Neal Boyd on “America’s Got Talent”).

This is an important subject because in many churches classic hymns have been ousted for a diet of praise music. To give an analogy, this would be like a parent taking away a child’s bread, fruit, vegetables, meat and feeding him cake, ice cream, soda, and chips. Would any child complain? There is a place for cake and ice cream but not as the main meal! Many of these same congregations unwittingly admit this at times such as Christmas or funerals. Even some congregations that only use praise music throughout the year seem to realize that such music really isn’t appropriate all of the time, or you’d never hear traditional Christmas music in December or you’d hear praise music at a funeral service.

With this shift in what is sung in the church, there can also be a shift in the focus of the worshipers. A steady diet of praise music can work against the idea of “Divine Service.” In the Divine Service, we receive the service of God. We know He is present because He speaks to us with His Word, He feeds us with the Lord’s Supper, He washes us in Baptism. A church that relies on praise music can become emotion centered. I know God was working because I “felt” Him. Thus the worshipper’s attention is shifted away from the service of God in Word and Sacraments. Instead the worshipper’s attention is driven inward to subjective emotions.

Lutherans are not the only ones who are concerned about this. A well known evangelical pastor, John MacArthur, has written about the loss of classic hymns. He bemoans the fact that doctrinal content and the teaching function of hymns have been lost with the overuse of simple praise songs. Of classic hymns MacArthur writes, “They were written to teach and reinforce Biblical and doctrinal concepts…Those hymns aimed to praise God by proclaiming His truth in a way that enhanced the worshiper’s comprehension of the truth. They set a standard for worship that was cerebral as it was emotional. After all, the first and great commandment teaches us to love God with all our hearts, soul, and MIND (Matt 22:37).” Instead of thought, contemporary songs can become “vehicles of passion” with simple repetition designed to elicit an emotional response devoid of thought, intellect, doctrine. (MacArthur in Christian Research Journal vol 23 no 2). Lutheran hymns support Lutheran theology, one of the greatest disservices of praise music is not in the teaching of error. Rather, because it often comes from a non-Lutheran understanding, praise music is devoid of Sacramental theology. Empty calories!

Previous Notes on the Liturgy —
Introit, Psalm or Hymn
Kyrie and Gloria
Alleluia Verse and other responses
The Hymn and Hymns

You may find all these by looking at our Regular Column on the Explanation of the Divine Service category or by using the shortcut

These notes were originally written in 2001 by Pastor David Oberdieck and have been edited. Thanks to Pastor Mathey for improvements to this segment.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

Norm has been involved behind the scenes in many of the "go-to" websites for Lutherans going back many years.


Notes on the Liturgy #11 – The Hymn & Hymns — 3 Comments

  1. I’m fairly certain that the Hymn of the Day has roots that go further back into early Lutheranism than the early 18th century. I’ll have to check my sources, but my recollection is based on the fact that Bach’s cantatas were based on the various chorales associated with the various days of the church year. I also recall that the singing of chorales by the congregation began to replace the singing of a Gradual by the choir over the course of the 16th & 17th centuries, and so suspect that the kernlieder were generally established by the early 18th century. Indeed, by the 18th century pietism was was in full force and the liturgical customs of the Lutheran church had begun to decay by this time.

    I think it is also best to say they are chosen to “magnify the readings of the day” rather than “reflect the theme of the sermon”. Pastors can often go in different directions with thematic preaching, and the hymn writers really have no way of knowing how closely they will hew to the text. Sometimes there are different accents that readily present themselves as well. True, the Hymn of the Day will be an ideal accompaniment to a sermon that is exegetical or narrative, but that is for the obvious reason that both would then be directly corresponding to the same Word of God, so it makes most sense just to say it that way in the beginning: the hymn is based on the appointed readings of the day.

    This way if one notices a disconnect between the sermon and the Hymn of the Day, one will more readily see that this is because of decisions made by the preacher – not because any sort of deficiency on the part of the hymn writer!

  2. Many times my wife and I have commented on how disappointed we have been in attending a praise worship service and not singing any hymns that we know and love. It is as though we have not been completely fed.

    I personally find no sense of the sacred in praise music. Instead, I feel like I’m being entertained. Most usually, a praise worship service doesn’t follow the liturgy. Whole pieces of the liturgy will be absent.

    I think praise music is fun and useful in a non-formal, no-worship setting. A sing along, a get together for a bible study or some setting of informal social nature. Not in the Divine Service.

    The teaching power of the traditional hymns is immense. It is my experience that over the years I have seen new things in these hymns and, as times in life change and we experience new trials or new joys or just grow older and wiser we receive new wine in these hymns. It is an apalling disaster not to have these hymns sung and celebrated as part of a Divine Service as it will leave a huge hole in our worship life.

    Being able to sing these hymns in the context of our lifelong worship experience is essential to a sense of unity in our faith and practice. For me, I am given the gift of the hymns amplifying the Lessons, the Gospel, the Sermon and, through this, Christ brings wholeness to us and comfort, awe in the power and wisdom of our God.

    Let us all preserve these hymns and practice them with our whole heart.

  3. Seriously? You believe that songs of the 15th and 16th century brings seriousness to the Divine Service…..and Praise songs would bring in emotion centered service? I think it sad that you have set-up a straw man for argument sake. You have poor validation. You don’t think emotion should be part of the worship? Please see Psalms 100…… BRING A JOYFUL NOISE UNTO THE LORD !!! Sounds like emotion to me !!!

    Old Martin Luther would probably prefer the songs of today if he had lived in this century and not back then. Why didn’t he choose songs of the 9th and 10th century?

    Consider Psalms 9. Here’s a wonderful song!! Full of emotion !!! Praise songs today are full of emotion, too!

    Please, don’t think that you will lose the following of the flock by allowing the singing of happy and joyous songs! By making these strict rules that people have a hard time following…… Lutherans have a hard enough time singing in church in the 1st place, why make it harder by having us try to sing songs we’ve never heard of or understand? Seems that an old priestly sect during Christ’s time that had more rules than what the people could ever possibly follow was referenced in the Bible. Jesus had a couple of words for them.

    Bring a joyful heart and joyful noise unto the Lord !!!

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