A Commentary on Hymns

A Commentary on Hymns

Hymns are great.  However…

I believe that one of the issues with hymns is the fact that the style of musical accompaniment has become foreign to our modern ears; especially to those who might not have grown up in the church.  We are accustomed to hearing music that is accompanied by chords – either played by a piano, or the guitar, or some other polyphonic instrument and whose beat is carried by a percussion or rhythmic instrument.  Yes, we can separate our church music from the other music that we listen to; but perhaps there is a different way (not necessarily a better way) while still keeping the lyrics and the melody (singability) as high priority.

It’s my understanding that hymns are not usually accompanied by chords but are accompanied by a grouping of notes (usually four notes) for each note in the melody line.  These four notes correspond with the SATB notes typically used in a four-part harmony.  This is a pleasing sound if used in a four-part harmony but most congregations that use hymns do not sing in this style so the accompanying music tends to sound “stilted” and rhythmically rigid because every note in the melody line will have a different “chord” associated with it, that really isn’t even a chord in the traditional sense.  This is also the reason why most hymns do not lend themselves to a chorded accompaniment and if a guitarist (for example) tries to change chords at each note change in the melody, then again the music sounds choppy, stilted and anything but fluidic; which is the goal of most music.   Hymns do sound great when played on the organ and sung by a well seasoned group of Lutherans.

The bottom line is that most hymns in use today are abundantly sound lyrically but musically foreign – at least to some and especially the unchurched.  I am not trying to trash hymns, in fact my goal is the opposite.  I love hymns – especially their lyrics and the stories behind their creation, but I want worshipers to sing them with the same zeal, vigor and passion as young people sing contemporary music.  I know, I know, there are many who do sing hymns with zeal and incredible confidence but please understand that I am talking about the unchurched, or those young in faith who might not be as enthusiastic over hymns as us long-time pew dwellers (self included).  Like most, I have a heart for reaching out to the unchurched.  Are we not to break down any potentially unnecessary barriers for them?  With hymns, there exists this issue which I’ve tried my best to describe but it is difficult to verbalize.  Actually, many traditional churches that are intent on using hymns have tried to rewrite them into modern arrangements or to use complex MIDI accompaniment with a myriad of instruments to jazz up the accompaniment and sometimes these are done with great success and other times its simply best to leave well enough alone.

Unless you are fortunate enough to be served by musicians of the caliber of either Koine’ or the Branches Band; I do not know the answer to this dilemma or how we in the traditional denominations are to respond.  I know that in our Synod, the new Hymnal Supplement has made a huge step toward finding hymns that aren’t written in this older format.  These new hymns however, frustrate the choirs that try to sing them in an SATB format because they weren’t written that way, but they do sound more modern if played as intended.

I once invited an unchurched young man to worship during one of our blended worship services.  He enjoyed it very much and returned for more.  The following weeks were traditional services.  He returned two or three times then stopped coming.  I asked why and the response I got was “What happened? – this music is for old people!”  I cringed, I responded (and I do know the proper responses – I’ve been in my denomination for over 30 years), I reasoned, I instructed, I prayed – all to no apparent avail.  At least not as far as I could see.  Several years later I ran into this young man.  He is now attending a contemporary church in a different denomination as a result of this experience.  Should I be happy?  Did the Holy Spirit do His work with the seed that I planted?  I may never know but this experience continues to haunt me.

Perhaps someone else reading these words might have some other ideas to help us to retain these musical gems that our ancestors have been singing for centuries and that have brought them such great comfort.  I do fear that our traditional churches will be facing some hard times when the current older generation of hymn-lovers move on to their heavenly homes, not to mention the fact that talented organists are getting hard to find.

Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me!

Maybe it’s just me.  Anyone?  Ideas?  Comments?

In the meantime, there are a lot of heroic efforts ongoing to save and revive hymns.  These resources have all been mentioned in the past at this website and are recommended to help keep hymns alive:

Sources of Chorded Hymns:
https://connect.wels.net/AOM/ps/worship/Musicians/Forms/AllItems.aspx?RootFolder=%2FAOM%2Fps%2Fworship%2FMusicians%2FGuitar%2FHymns         (Note: Requires registration on wels.net CONNECT)

Sources of Modernized Hymns:

http://hymncharts.com/  (Arrangments for purchase)
http://gettymusic.com/  (Arrangements for purchase)

Sources of Sound Contemporary Song Recommendations:

Ideas to Revive Hymns:

Hymnal Supplement Review:

CW Hymnal Scripture References:

Two bands mentioned in this post that do a fine job of modernizing hymns:

4 thoughts on “A Commentary on Hymns”

  1. Wow, thank you. I’ve been following the blog for a while, but this post has articulately described the dilemma facing many congregations in the U.S. However, the question remains, should we abandon the SATB style to “sound like the world” or remain true to antiquated musical styling? Thank you again for the though provoking post.


    1. “Are we not to break down any potentially unnecessary barriers for them?” I know from experience that “antiquated musical styling” is definitely one of those barriers in our churches today. Yes, many of us are comfortable with this musical styling (I am one of those “talented” WELS organists), but I don’t think Jesus’ purpose in His church is for us to remain comfortable. His purpose is for our churches to reach people with the Gospel and share the beautiful message of salvation with them. So we step outside our comfort zones and take down the barriers that exist. It’s not easy for those of us trained in the old musical styles, but it’s very fulfilling to serve God’s people in new ways that bring glory to Him!


  2. I always find your articles interesting and germane to this topic of music in the Lutheran church. Let me reiterate that I hardly know where to find middle C on the keyboard but that doesn’t preclude me from commenting on a subject that is so volatile in our churches.

    Few people seem to be able to carry on a rational discussion of hymns and music in our “circles.”. But let me discuss three aspects involving this broad subject.

    FIRST, I love pipe organs! Their majesty is beyond question. But it seems that our circles don’t seem to need anything more than two keyboards populated with maybe a total of eight ranks of pipes and, heaven forbid, a volume pedal (if provided). Even if they can afford a larger organ.

    SECONDLY, we don’t seem to train our MLC organists to be anything beyond dutifully operating “inside the box.” There is so much organ literature out there that I would love to be an organist because I would probably spend all my time playing it.

    THIRDLY, and this may be anathema but our Christian brothers and sisters in other Christian traditions have many hymns that praise our Lord. Change the words if need be. They speak to the soul. For example, are you familiar with “I Would Rather Have Jesus Than Silver or Gold” or “Blessed Assurance (Jesus is Mine)”? I heard this played once in our congregation with a guitar and a soloist years ago and I still have strong remembrances!

    Now, I’m very fortunate because my wife meets all three criteria mentioned above. She can improvise when needed, supplements CW hymns with her own thoughts, and adds to the overall spiritual conduct of the service. And I love it when she modulates before the last stanza of a hymn.

    I appreciate your efforts in this area. I know sometimes that it’s like a voice in the wilderness but it is a worthwhile effort because ultimately our collective goal is to introduce our friends to Jesus! And may His name be praised!

    Ray Miller


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