Academic journal article The Hymn

Streams of Song: An Overview of Congregational Song in the Twenty-First Century

Academic journal article The Hymn

Streams of Song: An Overview of Congregational Song in the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt

Are hymns relevant to Christians today? Albert van den Heuvel of the World Council of Churches reflected on the problem of finding relevant hymns in a preface written for a collection of new material in 1966:

There was a minister in a European country not very long ago, who told his congregation on a Sunday morning that they would only sing one hymn: "What we should like to sing about," he said, "is not in the hymnal; what is in the hymnal about our subject is obsolete or heretical. So let us be silent and listen to the organ."

This little story is, of course, irritating. I can already hear lots of people say: but there are beautiful hymns in our hymnal! Our fathers have sung them for many centuries! We have learned them from our mothers! What is wrong with Ambrosius' hymns, Luther's hymns, the Psalms, the Wesleyan treasury, and all the others? The man in our story would have shrugged his shoulders, I am afraid. His point is not that there are not good hymns, but that there are very few which support his preaching and that of his generation. I am with him on this. There are many things in the life of the denominations which are frustrating, but few are so difficult to live with as this one. Choosing the hymns for Sunday morning worship is an ever-recurring low ebb in my ministry.1

The concerns raised by the European minister and echoed by van den Heuvel suggest that it may be time to see what has happened in the people's song since the Second Vatican Council. In the more than forty years that have followed this quotation, their concerns have been answered many times over by an abundant outpouring of congregational songs. Indeed, the mid1960s signaled the beginning of an explosion of congregational song around the world. It is only now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, that scholars are in a position to begin to understand the diversity and wealth of congregational music available to the church since these years of liturgical reform - a diversity and wealth of hymnody unprecedented in Christian history.

Why must Christians sing? Albert van den Heuvel proposed the following reason:

It is the hymns, repeated over and over again, which form the container of much of our faith. They are probably in our age the only confessional documents which we learn by heart. As such, they have taken the place of our catechisms. . . . There is ample literature about the great formative influence of the hymns of a tradition on its members. Tell me what you sing, and I'll tell you who you are!2

This essay examines the smorgasbord of congregational song that has emerged since the time of van den Heuvel's observation with the hope that congregations will be more intentional about their diet of singing and broaden their tastes.

In the historic dialogue between lex credendi (law of believing) and lex orandi (law of praying), there is ample precedent for saying not only that belief and prayer are related, but that sung prayer shapes belief.3 The words we sing and the rituals we practice in Christian worship provide pedagogical foundations for belief. Erik Routley noted that "when a congregation sings [a hymn], they are not far from saying, 'We think this. This is our own idea.'"4 Argentinean church musician Pablo Sosa affirmed this premise in perhaps even stronger terms: "The doctrines of the church do not become faith until they are sung."5

Van den Heuvel, Routley, and Sosa, all involved in the ecumenical movement in the 1960s and 1970s, could not have predicted the explosion of congregational song in the world-wide Christian church that has followed in the years since they articulated the significance of hymn singing in the formation of faith - an explosion characterized by such quantity and diversity that it challenges earlier parochial conceptions of quality. The focus of this article is on the breadth of congregational singing in the church during the final decades of the twentieth century beginning with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). …

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