By Rev’d Christopher Esget, Senior Pastor, Immanuel Lutheran Church
Recently I made an off-the-cuff remark about a particular hymn: "I know I'm not supposed to like [this hymn], but I do." That led a parishioner to ask me what I meant by that. What makes a hymn bad, or good?
There is a subjective answer; some texts or tunes just resonate with us, or annoy us. At that level there is no bad or good, it's just a taste or style preference.
At another level, though, there are objective qualities to a hymn that we can analyze. Detailing all of those would require a long essay, or even book. But here are some of the things I look for:
Faithful to Scripture
If a text is ambiguous – or worse, teaches something false, that's a problem. On the other hand, if the text helps us understand a truth of Scripture better, that's one good reason to sing it.
An example that comes to mind is the Advent hymn Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending. The second line in the original reads, "Once for favored sinners slain." This suggests that the death of Jesus was only for some people (the favored sinners), and not for all. That's false doctrine. So we can't sing it - unless we alter the text. The version in Lutheran Service Book changes it to "Once for every sinner slain." That accords with the Biblical truth that Jesus died for all sinners, not just some.
Another important factor is whether a hymn text is discernibly Christian. One of my favorite hymns as a child was Praise to the Lord, the Almighty. It's a stirring tune, and has numerous Biblical allusions. However, one of my pastors once pointed out to me that Jesus is nowhere mentioned in the hymn. Not one reference! Once you really look at it, it's a hymn of praise to a very generic god, and could be sung by many different religions.
Whenever I point this out (and I really am making an effort to not always be "that guy"), faithful Lutherans are incredulous. "What? I love that hymn!" That's because, if you've been taught the Catechism, your mind automatically supplies the larger theological context. Realizing this, I won't forbid it to be sung; but if I'm selecting the hymns, there's almost always going to be something that is going to be better "food" for the people I'm serving. I'm looking for a hymn that will teach, encourage, and comfort us with the Gospel of Jesus.
How difficult (or easy) will a particular hymn be for this particular group of people to sing? Our incredible congregation can handle "I Bind unto Myself Today," but I know congregations that have never, ever sung it because it is simply too difficult.
Special services, like a wedding, need to consider who will attend. The best hymn for an occasion might not be the strongest one, but one that people will join in singing.
Pairing of Tune and Text
Depending on their mode and rhythm (among other factors), certain tunes may not pair well with a text. For example, the hymn Thy Strong Word (tune EBENEZER) has the same meter as Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted (tune O MEIN JESU, ICH MUSS STERBEN). Both have the meter 87 87 D (the meter is the number of syllables per line). It works musically, but the different tunes do not reflect the character, or mood, of the other text. This is why it's funny to sing Amazing Grace to the tune of Gilligan's Island - it's just so wrong!
These are some of the factors I look at when selecting hymns for a service, along with whether a particular hymn is appropriate for the theme of the Sunday or festival.