12 September 2007

Relatively "Mediocre" Hymns Again

A few weeks ago, I made the observation that Lutherans may have grown tired and bored with the glut of "mediocre" hymnody that has served as the mainstay of many conservative congregations for the past several generations. I suggested that many of these hymns lack significant substance or staying power, and thus, because they have been extensively overused (to the neglect of solid historic hymnody), people eventually began to hunger for something new and different.

In response to those comments, I was asked to provide a list of the sort of "mediocre" hymns I had in mind. It is with a certain reluctance, and with a fair amount of trepidation, that I have since been working to compile such a list, along with suggestions of alternative possibilities. Actually, it's been an interesting and instructive exercise for me, and it has contributed to several other thing that I am working on at the moment. Nevertheless, I know how passionate people are about their "old favorite" hymns (I'm no stranger to such passions, myself). Hymnody can make connections within us that may well defy objective logic, and who am I to pass judgment on somone else's beloved hymnody?

So, before I post my list of relatively "mediocre" hymns, I need to offer some clarifications and make some qualifications up front. First of all, I am using this term, "mediocre," in a less pejorative sense than it probably sounds. I'm chiefly thinking of hymns that are neither great nor terrible. They do have something to say and something to offer, but only not enough to warrant the frequency with which they have been used in the practice of many congregations.

Many of these hymns have been "favorites" of mine in the past, and there are any number of them that still hold some genuine appeal for me. I'm not trying to suggest that the hymns on this list are out of place or inappropriate, leastwise not across the board. The truth is, there are a few of these hymns that I would never choose to have my congregation sing, but most of them are hymns that I do use within my congregation from time to time, without compunction. It's only that I would maybe use the better of these hymns once or twice a year, or a couple times every few years, rather than ten or twelve times each year.

The list that I've put together of "mediocre" hymns covers a pretty broad spectrum. Some of these hymns are considerably better than others, and they differ in their respective strengths and weaknesses. In some cases, the text strikes me as thin, ambiguous, tenuous or questionable. In other cases, the text may be quite strong in its content, but lacking in poetry and eloquence. With other hymns, the problem is less in the text than with the music, which may be on the cheesy side, or else so trite and simplistic as to become tedious before too long. I've also included hymns in which the Law predominates and gets the last word, instead of the Gospel. The fact of the matter is that some of the hymns on the list are judgment calls on my part, and nine out of ten of my friends and colleagues might disagree with me in such cases. So be it. I'm offering my opinion, for what it's worth, and anyone else can take it or leave it.

I debated on how best to identify possible alternatives to the "mediocre" hymns I've listed. For this present context, I've simply indicated those suggestions parenthetically by way of their LSB numbers. In offering those options for consideration, I've generally stayed away from some of the most obvious hymns, which will presumably be used in any case. For example, I haven't suggested "A Mighty Fortress," "Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying," or "O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright," because they ought to be in regular "rotation" anyway. There are some exceptions to this general rule, but mostly I have tried to identify hymns that might otherwise be overlooked. The majority of these are from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but not exclusively so; I've included a number of more recent hymns, which, in my judgment, have some real potential to make a lasting impression. For the most part, I've offered alternatives from the corresponding section of the hymnal, and I've only deviated from that procedure where there seemed to be some compelling reason to do so. On that note, I should point out that I went easy on the Christmas hymns (which don't tend to be overused for most of the year, in any case), and I did not include any of the Easter hymns.

Finally, it needs to be stated that there are maybe as many other hymns in the Lutheran Service Book that I regard as weaker and otherwise worse than these relatively "mediocre" hymns. I wasn't attempting to compile a list of the most offensive hymns, but of those that have tended to be around for a long time already, which aren't all bad (and in some cases are decent), but which have not had the substance or strength to sustain the kind of use they've been given. And lest I leave the wrong impression, compiling this list has confirmed and clarified what I have said before: the vast majority of the hymns in the LSB are excellent.

So, here is my list of relatively "mediocre" hymns that ought to be used with care and discretion, along with some possible alternatives indicated:

LSB 343 — Prepare the royal highway / (consider: 334)
LSB 348 — The King shall come when morning dawns / (consider: 336)
LSB 353 — Jesus came, the heav’ns adoring / (consider: 350)
LSB 354 — Arise, O Christian people / (consider: 355)

LSB 387 — Joy to the world / (consider: 378)

LSB 409 — Hail, O source of ev’ry blessing / (consider: 401)

LSB 425/426 — When I survey the wondrous cross / (consider: 421, 455)
LSB 427 — In the cross of Christ I glory / (consider: 430, 429)
LSB 431 — Not all the blood of beasts / (consider: 438, 450)
LSB 433 — Glory be to Jesus / (consider: 420, 454)
LSB 435 — Come to Calvary’s holy mountain / (consider: 440, 423)
LSB 436 — Go to dark Gethsemane / (consider: 451, 448)
LSB 437 — Alas! And did my Savior bleed / (consider: 453, 439)

LSB 496 — Holy Spirit, light divine / (consider: 500)

LSB 506 — Glory be to God the Father / (consider: 504, 947, 948)
LSB 507 — Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty / (consider: 940)

LSB 524 — How sweet the name of Jesus sounds / (consider: 554, 545)
LSB 525 — Crown Him with many crowns / (consider: 529, 534)
LSB 527 — O Savior, precious Savior / (consider: 533, 553)
LSB 528 — Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing / (consider: 544, 539)
LSB 537 — Beautiful Savior, King of creation / (consider: 548, 538)
LSB 549 — All hail the pow’r of Jesus’ name / (consider: 564, 540)

LSB 560 — Drawn to the cross, which Thou / (consider: 561, 562)
LSB 563 — Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness / (consider: 571, 572)
LSB 570 — Just as I am, without one plea / (consider: 568, 559)
LSB 575/576 — My hope is built on nothing less / (consider: 557, 741)

LSB 606 — I lay my sins on Jesus / (consider: 607, 608)

LSB 649 — Blest be the tie that binds / (consider: 639, 671)
LSB 651 — I love Your kingdom, Lord / (consider: 647, 659)

LSB 660 — Stand up, stand up for Jesus / (consider: 668, 666)
LSB 662 — Onward, Christian soldiers / (consider: 661, 658)
LSB 664 — Fight the good fight / (consider: 663, 655)

LSB 684 — Come unto Me, ye weary / (consider: 688)
LSB 687 — Thine forever, God of love / (consider: 689)
LSB 698 — May we Thy precepts, Lord, fulfill / (consider: 703)
LSB 699 — I heard the voice of Jesus say / (consider: 690)
LSB 700 — Love divine, all loves excelling / (consider: 683)
LSB 702 — My faith looks up to Thee / (consider: 694)
LSB 704 — Renew me, O eternal Light / (consider: 693)
LSB 707 — Oh, that the Lord would guide my ways / (consider: 696)

LSB 715 — Jesus, Savior, pilot me / (consider: 716, 743)
LSB 718 — Jesus, lead Thou on / (consider: 709, 730)
LSB 722 — Lord, take my hand and lead me / (consider: 737, 732)
LSB 728 — How firm a foundation, O saints / (consider: 713, 714)
LSB 729 — I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus / (consider: 708, 734)
LSB 733 — O God, our help in ages past / (consider: 724, 726)

LSB 748 — I’m but a stranger here / (consider: 754, 755)
LSB 761 — Rock of ages, cleft for me / (consider: 745, 756)
LSB 765 — God moves in a mysterious way / (consider: 758, 760)

LSB 770 — What a friend we have in Jesus / (consider: 773)
LSB 779 — Come, my soul, with ev’ry care / (consider: 768)

LSB 781 — We give Thee but Thine own / (consider: 851)
LSB 783/784 — Take my life and let it be / (consider: 685)
LSB 785 — We praise You, O God, our Redeemer / (consider: 792)

LSB 802 — Immortal, invisible, God only wise / (consider: 790)
LSB 804 — O worship the King / (consider: 794)
LSB 811 — Oh, that I had a thousand voices / (consider: 797)
LSB 812 — Come, let us join our cheerful songs / (consider: 810)
LSB 813 — Rejoice, O pilgrim throng / (consider: 819)
LSB 814 — O bless the Lord, my soul / (consider: 820)
LSB 816 — From all that dwell below the skies / (consider: 822)

LSB 826 — Hark, the voice of Jesus crying / (consider: 839)
LSB 832 — Jesus shall reign where’er the sun / (consider: 834)

LSB 850 — God of grace and God of glory / (consider: 842)
LSB 852 — O God of mercy, God of might / (consider: 845)

LSB 854 — Forth in Thy name, O Lord, I go / (consider: 853)

LSB 867 — Let children hear the mighty deeds / (consider: 865)

LSB 873 — Christ, whose glory fills the skies / (consider: 875)

LSB 892 — Come, ye thankful people, come / (consider: 895)

LSB 900 — Jesus! Name of wondrous love / (consider: 898)

LSB 903 — This is the day the Lord has made / (consider: 906)
LSB 905 — Come, Thou almighty King / (consider: 908, 902)
LSB 907 — God Himself is present / (consider: 909)
LSB 915 — Today Your mercy calls us / (consider: 901)

LSB 917 — Savior, again to Thy dear name we raise / (consider: 617)
LSB 921 — On what has now been sown / (consider: 823)
LSB 924 — Lord, dismiss us with Your blessing / (consider: 919)


Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

No "Earth and All Stars"? :)

Thanks for the list, I'll have to look all these up.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

No doubt, any number of additions, subtractions, "corrections" and redactions could be argued ;-)

As far as I am aware, "Earth and All Stars" was relatively new to Lutherans with LBW & LW. My aim was to identify hymns that have been around (and overused) for the past several generations, so I didn't even consider "Earth and All Stars" for this purpose. In my opinion, it certainly does fit the same criteria of "mediocrity."

There, you made me say it, so even more people can hate me for picking on one of their personal favorites ;-) (I understand, really.) Hopefully, I won't be martyred for my opinion on hymns. On the other hand, if it can be understood that my approach to hymnody is driven by my passion for the Gospel, then it would not be inappropriate to suffer and die for that cause. Still, I'd rather not be put to death for it. And, anyway, singing "Earth and All Stars" (or any of these other "mediocre" hymns) would hardly be the same as denying Christ the Lord! It's mainly that we can do so much better.

I really believe that people would come to love the solid historic hymns of our Lutheran heritage, if only they were given more regular opportunity to sing them and learn them.

Cindy R. said...

Sure enough, there are a few on your list that I consider among my favorites. But in light of the fine “apology” you give for your list, it’s hard to take any offense. It strikes me that my old favorites often hold that position for nostalgic reasons more than intrinsic quality. I can still picture myself sitting in the church where I grew up, hearing and learning many of these hymns.

I find some of the more simplistic hymns to be useful at home with children. My oldest child is four and is learning to use the hymnal as he learns to read. He likes “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and I believe he actually understands quite a bit of what it says. There may be other hymns that are more profound or more poetic, but that would put them entirely over his head.

My son is pleased when we sing a hymn he knows in church. Of course, congregational worship should be targeted toward the adults, not four-year-olds. While I want to see my old favorites sung on occasion, I agree with Rev. Stuckwisch that lesser hymns should not be overused when better selections are available.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Dear Cindy,

Thank you for your candid and friendly remarks. I appreciate that you took no offense at my words, and I am pleased that my good intentions were evident to you. "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" was one of my personal favorites as a young boy, around your son's age, so I can easily understand his enjoyment of it.

I agree with you that it is exciting for young children to sing hymns they already know in church with the congregation. For this reason, also, it seems a very good thing for some of the meatier hymns to be learned through regular use in both the home and the church. It is often the case that children grow to love best such hymns that may be more difficult to learn at first. One example is Luther's "Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old," which is often cited by children as one of their favorites.

In any case, you have correctly perceived that my point is not to suggest that the "mediocre" hymns on my list should never be sung; only that they should be used selectively, with care and deliberation.

Of course, there are some of the simpler hymns which may be used in the home with children more often than they would be appropriately sung in the Divine Service.

My thanks again for your comments, and God's blessings to your family.

Karin said...

I must say that one of the most incredible things that happens with my little kiddos is when I hear my four year old singing "Thy Strong Word" with gusto while playing with duplos on the floor. Ok, he hums most of it but knows the Alleluia part. Then while casually walking through the yard my nine year old is also singing a less than mediocre hymn as he does his chores.....and then.....my now tall boy with the new found voice is singing loudly out in the yard as well. It is the more 'challenging' hymns that they love and want to learn. This is not a criticism either of "what a friend" but just a sharing of the possibilities for our children to latch onto and love challenging, gospel filled, wonderful hymns.

Michael G said...

Dr. Stuckwisch wrote:
LSB 892 — Come, ye thankful people, come / (consider: 892)

Oops, a typo. Which alternative do you suggest?

Thanks for your list!

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for catching my typo, Michael. My suggested alternative to LSB 892 should have been LSB 895, "Now Thank We All Our God," often called the German Te Deum. We sang it this morning, actually.

I've made the correction on the original post, as well.

Presbytera said...

My husband and I were preparing a list of hymns for our upcoming hymn sing. The theme for this hymn sing will be the church year. As imagined, we have too many chorales so we sought to make it shorter by replacing A Lamb goes Uncomplaining Forth with a shorter Lenten hymn. It was then that we noticed the mediocracy of the shorter Lenten hymns in TLH. I was not surprised at all by the list you have given.