It looks like the Baptists are starting to get it. We’ve known this for centuries – literally. So why do so many Lutherans seem so eager to abandon our wealth of hymnody in favor of vapid praise ditties? And if lex orandi, lex credendi is true, what does this move confess about what many Lutherans (and Lutheran congregations) believe and teach?
Combining simple language, theological substance and poetic richness “is a challenging task,” said Tim Sharp, executive director of the Oklahoma City-based American Choral Directors Association, the national professional association of choral conductors and others in the choral music industry. “Hymns were meant to pack theology into a tight, memorable suitcase that Christians could take with them.”
Sharp, a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., is struck by an irony.
“The great hymnists of the 19th century were always sort of apologetic about hymnody, because a hymn is one of the simplest musical compositions that exists,” he said.
“Actually, when you look at the profound nature of the text and the meters you realize it’s a complicated thing to write a good one, but they were always saying it was simple, was easily accessible to a congregation and the text was memorable in the way that the mind tracks it.
“It’s kind of scary that in the following century we had to get even more simple in praise-and-worship choruses.”
Worshipers want more than simplistic words, Sharp said, noting recent surveys indicate Americans are becoming more literate, not less. But worshipers still long for spiritual depth.
“I think congregations are more engaged than some composers assume,” he said. “I’m seeing in people a hunger for thought-provoking text work. A mantra doesn’t seem to be satisfying them.”
Hayes warns against music that undercuts the words.
“You really want to avoid an ‘entertainment’ quality, because if it goes too far with jazzy rhythms — and I’ve done this myself — then it gets in the way of connecting people with God,” he said. “The music overwhelms the text.
“That’s not to say that there aren’t times when you want to feel [in music] the full force of God’s majesty. But the style, groove, vibe — whatever you want to call it — can’t supersede what the words say. That kind of music doesn’t instruct.”
One way to test it? “Set those lyrics in strophic [stanza] form and accompany them with a pipe organ, and see what impact they have.”
Just for fun, download a recording of 900-some teenagers singing HYMNS at the recent Sola conference in Grand Rapids.