By Adriane Dorr
When it comes to the Church’s song, “Vivid imagery and fresh language can help the worshiper see a truth about God in a new way,” noted the Rev. Dr. Stephen Starke, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church, Bay City, Mich., and author of Lutheran Service Book hymns such as “The Tree of Life” and “We Praise You and Acknowledge You, O God.”
Thirty LCMS Lutherans, Starke included, recently spent several days creating and discussing that same imagery and language at “The Sung Confession: Lutheran Hymnwriting in the 21st Century,” the first LCMS-sponsored conference of its kind.
Held at the Toddhall Retreat and Conference Center in Columbia, Ill., Jan. 27-29, the event provided a venue where both published and up-and-coming hymnwriters could “connect, critique, read and write together,” explained LCMS Director of Worship Rev. William Weedon.
“Hymns are the sung confession of the Church,” Starke reminded attendees, “teachers of God’s people, the book of doctrine for the laity.” In fact, long known as “the singing church,” the LCMS has a history of faithful, poetic hymnody that purposefully wed text and tune to point the worshiper to Christ. “A solid hymn text can be a candle in the midst of spiritual darkness,” Starke told the attendees. “True hymn texts that will endure help worshipers see Christ and all that He has done.”
The conference schedule was built around the Church’s prayers of the day (Matins, Responsive Prayer, Evening Prayer and Compline) but also provided time for reflection, study, collaboration and singing.
Dr. Joseph Herl, associate professor of music at Concordia University, Nebraska, Seward, delivered a conference presentation on “What Works and What Doesn’t: Lessons from the Hymnal,” while Starke offered thoughts on “One Perspective on the Craft of Writing a Hymn Text.” Others discussed topics including “Nuts and Bolts of Hymn Construction,” “The Art and Science of Translation” and more.
Several conference participants shared comments about hymnwriting.
Attendee Rebekah Curtis of Worden, Ill., is new to hymn writing but explains the enduring need for it: “The Church is a living thing, and hymnody is something that naturally springs from the people of God,” she said. “The perspective of humanity is always pulled in different directions, and Lutheran hymnody reflects the way in which the Church confesses in spite of it.”
Andrew Jones of Frankfurt, Germany, wrote his first hymn a few years ago while studying at Concordia University, St. Paul, Minn. “Hymnody is often countercultural,” he said. “But so is Christianity. I think for that reason it’s important to continue writing Christ-centered, Gospel-focused hymns.”
The Rev. Burnell Eckardt, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Kewanee, Ill., and editor of Gottesdienst: The Journal of Lutheran Liturgy, also noted the importance of faithful hymnody in the face of the culture. “We are the voice of the bride of Christ, so we shouldn’t be holding to the whims of the latest political correctness,” he offered. “It’s incumbent on the hymnwriters of the Church to recognize [paganism] and not cave in in the slightest way. We need both gentle and forceful ways of saying, ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord.'”
Participating in the conference required hymn writing prior to arrival. On hearing of the conference, 200 interested LCMS members submitted original hymns. After the names and locations of the authors were made anonymous, a five-member committee reviewed the hymns and then chose what they deemed the 30 best texts. Those authors were then asked to participate.
The submissions, as well as those written at the conference, have already resulted in “a pile of hymns that we can begin working with for future projects,” Weedon said.
During their free time at the conference, attendees worked alongside other writers, critiquing and discussing their work while singing and writing tunes to their texts. Watching this creativity ought to be a source of joy to the Church, says Weedon. “Hymnody expresses the faith of the people. It’s the way that the past comes forward,” he explained.
“This morning in chapel we sang Psalm 145 that says, ‘One generation shall declare Your wondrous works to the next.’ How does that happen? Through hymnody!” Weedon shared. “Ancient hymnody speaks to this generation, but ancient hymnody along with this generation get to speak to the next.”
Papers and presentations offered at the conference will be available this spring. Search for “Unwrapping the Gifts” on Facebook to learn more about the Church’s gifts of liturgy and hymnody.
Adriane Dorr is managing editor of The Lutheran Witness.
Posted Feb. 1, 2013.