The Divine Service may begin with a "Hymn of Invocation" (Lutheran Worship, p. 178, rubric 1). The opening hymn is not a "warm-up” or a way for us to "put us in the mood" for worship. It is an earnest prayer that all that we say and do be "in the Name" of our Triune God, that is, according to His bidding, mandate, and promise. Worship must first be the Lord's service to us before it can be our service to Him.
Hymns are corporate confessions of faith and praise to God and also the proclamation of God's people to one another. In our hymnody, we say back to God and to each other what He has said to us. This imposes certain constraints as to what is sung by the gathered people of God.
Hymns are not selected on the basis of taste, style or the personal preferences of the pastor. Like the sermon themes and the prayers, the hymns follow the appointed readings for the Sunday and the general season of the church year. Easter hymns are sung during Easter; Christmas hymns during Christmas; Advent hymns during Advent. Several tools are available to help in the selection of the hymns for each day. The altar book of Lutheran Worship provides a Scripture index for all the hymns in Lutheran Worship, linking each hymn text to the particular text of Holy Scripture. In addition, we at Holy Trinity use a worship planning guide called Proclaim, which gives suggested hymns and choir pieces that harmonize well with the readings and the general theme of each Sunday.
Hymns are selected principally for their words. We are a people of the Word. The text comes first; tunes come second. While music is an important tool, it must always be the minister of the text and not the master.
The text must be orthodox in content. The word "orthodoxy” means, " right praise." Not all praise is right praise, and not all hymns are orthodox. What we say and sing each and every Sunday is what we believe most deeply. That is why St. Paul exhorts young Pastor Timothy to stick to the "pattern of sound words" (2 Tim. 1:13). A hymn text must be Scriptural, that is, not merely quite the Bible but accurately reflect the heart of Holy Scripture, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins.
C.F.W. Walther, the first president and leading theologian of the Missouri Synod in the last century, noted rightly that it is a frightful confusion of the Law and the Gospel to portray the Christian life in terms that do not apply to all Christians in the same way at all times. For example, some people are naturally more emotional than others. Therefore, emotions cannot be used to describe the Christian life. Private prayers and personal confessions, however edifying and inspiring, cannot be the basis for church hymnody. For this reason, many hymn texts are altered to make them fit for corporate worship. (Note the letters "alt." next to the name of the text author for most of the hymns of Lutheran Worship.) Some hymns, especially of the "Gospel" or "praise" variety, cannot be adequately altered without severe damage to the original poetry and intent.
Hymn tunes are also very important. Music is a very powerful vehicle to transmit words and beliefs. Recall the labor songs of the 30's, the protest songs of the 60's, or the angry sounds of urban rap in the 90's. Text and tune always work as a team. Not all texts and tunes work well together. Try and imagine the Words of Institution sung to "Blowing in the Wind” or to rap. While that might momentarily draw our attention, our attention would be on the setting and not the words.
Certain tunes are forever joined to particular texts - A Mighty Fortress, Silent Night, Beautiful Savior. Simply hearing these melodies will immediately evoke the words. To force new texts into such familiar tunes as these would be to force new wine into old wine skins. Other tunes, however, are closely linked with the kind of texts that render them inappropriate. For example, many people who lived in Germany during WW II have a difficult time singing” Glorious Things of You Are Spoken" (Lutheran Worship #294) because the tune, Austria, was the German national anthem at the time of the Third Reich.
What was easy to sing in the 16th century may not be as accessible to us in the 20th century. With the deplorable decline of the musical arts in the schools, the task of teaching hymnody will become increasingly difficult for the church. That's why we place so much emphasis in our school on singing in chapel and on piano lessons. In a small way, we are investing in the church’s future musicians lest we impoverish the next generation of orthodox worship and hymnody.
Hymnody, like fine wine, good cigars and the opera, will always be an acquired taste. The world is of no help to us, because the world does not know how to worship God (Jn. 4:24; 14:17). We first learn to love the ancient hymns for their sound words. Then we learn to love their tunes because they are different from what we are continually bombarded with in our everyday lives. Learning hymns requires practice and patience. Those who have the gift of music might make it their goal to learn one or two unfamiliar hymns each month. Those who have the gift of voice can serve the congregation in the choir, whose purpose is to support the singing of the congregation in the Liturgy.
We are heirs of a rich tradition that goes back to the early centuries of Christianity. We gladly receive the best of what came before us. We add to it our very best and entrust it to the generations that will follow after us in the faith. We are not the first Christians, and should the Lord should delay in His coming, we will not be the last. The hymns of our church reflect this historic depth and continuity of the evangelical catholic faith "once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).