Sing to the Lord a New Song: hymns from around the world

Why is music so important to us?  Why is it that the introduction of a new hymn or liturgy can create such a dramatic battle within a church?  One reason is that music speaks to our heart; the songs we grow up singing are the songs that we remember throughout our lives.  Long after a sermon or a scripture reading has been forgotten, we remember melodies and lyrics.  They help us learn and they shape our faith in deep and sometimes unacknowledged ways.  Music for worship should always be carefully chosen.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recently produced a new hymnal, “Evangelical Lutheran Worship,” replacing the old Lutheran Book of Worship.  Now, this is a fairly common happening; Lutheran hymnals seem to have a shelf life of between twenty and thirty years, before they need to be updated.  Lyrics are “modernized,” new liturgies written to match new styles of worship, new hymns added and old rarely-used ones removed.  It’s always a controversial process.

In this new book, however, there’s a far greater percentage of what might be called “multi-cultural hymns,” that is, hymns written around the world by a wide variety of Christians.  Hymns from Africa, from Asia, from Latin America, hymns written by Native Americans, by African Americans, old Gospel favorites–a far cry from previous hymnbooks, in which only hymns from the Lutheran heartlands (i.e. northern Europe and certain parts of North America) were included.  Now, there are still plenty of those classics in the new book; the editors of the ELW have taken the stance that it’s more important to have everything–a smorgasbord of worship and praise–than it is to have a manageable number of liturgies and hymns.  Each congregation can then pick and choose which hymns and liturgies that suit it.  And from what I’ve seen, churches are mainly sticking to the old favorites they already knew, or ones similar in style and theme to old classics.

So why bother with all the “multicultural” hymns?  Why include them in a hymnal that’s already overstuffed?  The most common answer that I’ve heard is that if we want to be a multicultural church–one that is welcoming of people from different cultural backgrounds–we need to have music that they recognize, that makes them feel welcomed.  But however practical an answer that might be, it misses a deeper theological point: music is a powerful tool for shaping our theology and our relationship with God and our community.  So, theologically, why include those hymns?

It’s important to include those hymns–and to use them!–because God is great, not only greater than we know but greater than we can know.  God is wonderful beyond the limits of our knowledge or imagination.  God is a god of all places and times, not just those which are most familiar to us.  We have seen and experienced how God works in our own lives, and the lives of our forefathers and foremothers; the hymns and songs and liturgies we regularly use reflect that.  But just as God works in Europe and North America, so too God works in Africa and Asia and South America.  Christians in those places have lives that are very different from ours, and see the world differently than we do.  Yet the one God who created all things and all people, who redeems us, who draws us together into one body in Christ, is with them just as he is with us.  And they put their experience of God into their songs and hymns just as we do into ours.

If we only sing the hymns we are familiar with and comfortable with, we limit our understanding and experience of the ways God works in the world.  It becomes easier to forget that God speaks in many languages.

By singing these “multicultural” hymns, by adding them to our rich musical heritage, we become more connected to the Body of Christ around the world.

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