WELS Hymnal Project

God's Love: Our Song Forever (Part 5)

The following article appeared in the November edition of Forward in Christ. It is is the fifth article in a nine-part series on hymns and their use in our churches.

A man walked into a Target store demanding to speak with the manager. He wasn’t happy. In his hand he clutched an ad that had recently arrived at his mailbox. It was full of pictures of smiling babies and included coupons maternity clothes, cribs, and newborn onesies. “My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school! Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”

The store manager apologized profusely. A few days later, he called the man to apologize again. This time, however, the man owed the manager the apology. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out she’s due in August.”

How did Target know that the young girl was pregnant before her dad did? For that matter, why is the ad delivered to your mailbox different from the one delivered to your neighbor’s? It’s simple. Data from every purchase a person makes at Target is added to his or her customer profile. Target is able to use that profile to predict what the customer is most likely to purchase, not just in the present but even in the future. They then tailor their advertising to that customer accordingly.

I hope that little story doesn’t dissuade you from shopping at Target (or upset anyone who works there!). Rather than this sort of thing being unique to Target, it is just one of many examples of targeted marketing. Companies don’t just advertise to customers in general. They advertise specific things to specific people. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Companies don’t need every customer to buy the same thing. They just want every customer to buy something.

Compare your relationship with a big box retailer to your relationship to Christ’s Church. When it comes to the Church, you are not the customer of a company. Rather, you are a member of a body (see Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, for example). Christians have an important relationship not only to Christ but also to other Christians. In the Church, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, even dead and alive, are joined as one.

Celebrating unity in our worship

One of the primary places where this wonderful unity can be seen is in public worship. Christian Worship: Manual puts it this way: “At public worship believers of all ages, shapes and sizes join to offer God their mutual response of faith.”

In the church in Corinth we find a New Testament example of public worship dividing the body of Christ rather than uniting it. In response, Paul wrote, “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (1 Corinthians 14:26, NIV).

The church is a body. Public worship celebrates that. And yet, consumerism is the air we breathe. As a result, it’s easy to bring with us the assumptions of our consumer-driven culture as we seek carry out our mission as churches. The same kind of targeted marketing practiced by Target can easily drive our decisions about worship. It might sound something like this: “In order to (insert any number of noble goals), we need more (insert any number of different types of hymns).”

The noble goals being pursued could include: articulation of the truth, preservation of Lutheran heritage, retention of the youth, or connection with the lost. The types of hymns we think will help us accomplish those goals could include: new hymns or old hymns, hymns with fresh, upbeat tunes or hymns with sturdy, time-tested tunes, hymns that come out of our primarily Western European roots or hymns that come from cultures around the globe, hymns that have distinctly Lutheran origins or hymns from broader Christianity, hymns that are chock-full of doctrine or hymns that are chock-full of emotion.

Since the start of the hymnal project, the concern people have expressed most often is whether or not a specific type of hymn will have adequate representation in the hymnal. But perhaps the fact that the Church is a body of which Christians are members (rather than a company of which we are customers) leads us to approach the issue from a different perspective.

As stated in last month’s article, our top priority is to publish hymns that are “centered in Christ” and “in harmony with the scriptural faith as confessed in the Lutheran Book of Concord” (from the adopted list of criteria for hymns). If the Church really is a body of members that spans centuries, continents, and cultures, then an appropriate corresponding variety in our hymnody will sort of take care of itself.

Capitalizing on unity in our mission

But what about those noble goals that I mentioned above? One can certainly argue that specific types of hymns can help (or hinder) a specific facet of our mission as churches. However, none of those noble goals can be accomplished by hymnody alone. Every facet of our mission as Christians takes diligent, ongoing work. A specific type of hymn is not the silver bullet for any of them.

And so whatever might be gained by the predominant use of a specific type of hymn in service to a specific goal, we must also consider what stands to be lost. If different demographic groups in the Church have a body of hymnody tailored specifically to whatever characteristics define them, we lose the visible display of the unity that is so important to the body of Christ.

In fact, the case can be made that displays of unity serve every facet of our mission as well as anything else. Unity is one of the things that makes the Christian Church distinct and identifies it to the world as something divine. On the night before he died, Jesus prayed to his Father that all believers “may be one as we are one - I in them and you in me - so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22,23, NIV).

A proper approach to variety in our hymnody will assuredly mean that none of us has a set of hymns that is exactly what suits us best at all times. Instead, it means that all of us will have something far better.

A Body of Hymnody for the Body of Christ

Pastor Kurt Eggert, the project director for Christian Worship, wrote: The Lutheran church is ecumenical in its selection of hymns and other worship materials. Whatever is scripturally sound and true, poetically and musically worthy, and edifying for the faith of worshipers may be drawn on for use in our hymnal. For this principle we can thank Luther himself.”

So how much variety is there in our current body of hymnody? Christian Worship contains 340 hymns from various English sources and 283 translations: German, 208; Latin, 36; Danish, 18; Norwegian, 8; Swedish, 5, Greek, 2; Italian, 2; French, Czech, Bohemian, and Welsh, 1 each. Anyone familiar with Christian Worship: Supplement knows that it (intentionally) expanded that variety even more. How our synod’s next hymnal will compare remains to be seen. But the goal - providing a body of hymnody that serves the whole body of Christ - remains the same.

We invite your feedback as we work on finalizing which of the more than 700 hymns from Christian Worship and Christian Worship: Supplement will be included in the new hymnal. Every month we will post a segment of our current hymn list, indicating which hymns are slated to be kept and which are slated to be cut. You can view the monthly list and, if you want, choose up to 10 hymns from the cut list that you would like to see kept in the new hymnal.

View Cut Hymns List

About Jonathan Bauer

Rev. Jonathan Bauer is a member of the Executive Committee and has served on the Communications Committee for the WELS Hymnal Project. He serves as pastor of Good News Lutheran Church in Mount Horeb, WI. He is a member of the Institute for Worship and Outreach and has been a presenter for Schools of Worship Enrichment and at the WELS National Worship Conference.


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