Criteria For Selecting Hymns

How do we choose music for worship? I'd wager that decisions like these are made in a fairly haphazard manner. The vagaries of the modern "worship music scene" combine with the capricious skillset and interest of the praise band to create a pretty fluid and careless catalog of materials.

This was not always so!

Consider these points from Lutheran Worship: History and Practice (CPH, 1993). The chapter I'm reading discusses the rather strict criteria they established for selecting hymns for their (then) new hymnal.

  1. A quote from Luther D. Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy (Muhlenberg Press, 1959):
In addition to having a high and holy objective, worship must be pure in content and form. And there is no greater impurity than heresy. Impure doctrine may be taught in sermons, in phrases in the liturgy or the hymnal and even by improper ceremonial and decoration. Because of this, the historic liturgical churches have seen to it that in the preparation of their liturgies and hymnals able scholars have weighed every sentence, studied every phrase, and considered the finest points of capitalization and punctuation in the effort to secure not only all possible literary grace but a clear and consistent expression of doctrinal truth as well.
  1. Some excerpts from the book's lengthy (there are ~50 in all) Criteria for Selection of Hymns:
  • The hymn tunes should not suggest what is foreign to the text.
  • The melodic line and the tessitura should be convenient for congregational use and in a key which best serves the spirit of the hymn.
  • The rhythm should serve and not dominate; it should not suggest what is unrelated to Christian worship.
  • Emotion should be under control and not suggest sentimentalism.
  • Hymn tunes may be beautiful but not "pretty"; their beauty is not an end to itself.
  • Since the hymnal is intended chiefly for corporate worship, its hymn tunes should be virile and masculine rather than suave and catchy.

...plenty to talk about here!

I do not bring these points up to denigrate or point out errors in people's choice of music. I do, however, believe that in the last thirty years we've lost our ability to make evaluative judgements such as these.

Whether willingly (in the name of "musical/polical correctness") or unwillingly (as our ears have gradually, but inexorably been worn down by 24/7 commercial music), nobody seems to talk about these kind of points anymore. The "taste makers" in worship are no longer the trained theologians and musicians of yore; they have been replaced by Nashville songwriters, producers, and studio musicians.

Who is willing, in 2012, to carefully evaluate every punctuation mark and capital letter in the ephemeral body of work that comprises the CCM songbook? What trained theologian or musician evaluates what gets sung/played on Sunday?

Who is willing, in 2012 to discard a tune because it lacks virility or suggests something other than Christian worship?

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