The radio program Composer’s Datebook regularly signs off with the phrase, “Reminding you that all music was once new.”
Sometimes it’s hard for us to imagine the time before “A Mighty Fortress” or “Amazing Grace.” Like a friend who has been with us as long as we can remember, these songs accompany us for a lifetime. At one point, however, “Amazing Grace” was new and unfamiliar. Not unlike a budding friendship, only quality time together allows us to call another a friend.
With Advent we begin a new church year. As you look ahead, it can be helpful to plan what hymns and songs you will introduce in your assembly between now and next Advent. Some congregations can handle ten or more new hymns; others may do better with five or six. Whatever the number, be intentional about which hymns you’d really like the congregation to learn. This may be the result of individual brainstorming or collaboration with other church staff and laity, or better yet, a combination of both.
What new hymns will you introduce? First, take stock of what the assembly knows. If you don’t have the practice of marking a hymnal with the date of when a hymn is sung, consider that. If you are new to an assembly, take a hymnal to someone who has been singing for years and find out what they know well, a little, or not at all. After all, it’s awkward to introduce someone only to find out they’ve been friends for years.
After surveying what is known, consider what you’d like them to learn. Reflect upon the faith these hymns and songs express and form in us as we sing together. What theological strains are missing from the body of hymnody that is well known? What eras or places around the globe? Does your assembly know any Asian hymnody, for example? What faith matters are particular to your community at this time?
Beyond the theological, consider practical leadership concerns. What would work well with your acoustics, space, and instrumentation? What are the skills of the musical leader(s)? For example, if you want to introduce a hymn that would work best on piano and you only have an organ, does the keyboardist have the necessary skills to make that adaptation? If you’d like to sing unaccompanied, do you have a singer with the skills for that kind of leadership?
When we encounter newness, we may readily embrace it or slowly warm up to it. You know your context best, but in most if not all situations, intentional planning will allow you to use all the resources at your disposal to make a successful introduction. If you are well prepared in your teaching, you will see results. (See Musicians Guide to Evangelical Lutheran Worship for help as well as the resource “Ten Tips for Introducing New Music” in Leading Worship Matters). The assembly is also helped by learning about the hymn or song. Who wrote it and when? Under what circumstances? Be sure your congregation has access to Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship for this important aspect of teaching. If you do not own a particular hymnal, Prelude Music Planner allows for licensed download of many hymns and songs from a variety of print resources.
Some of these new hymns may become favorites; some may not. Such is life among a community of diverse people. We can’t all have the same best friends. Yet together we are opened to new texts and tunes that will shape and share our faith in this new year, and in the years to come.