Last week we looked a bit at the church year and the context of service planning. As I was working on the sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity, I kept humming the tune for the hymn of the day. Yes, it was an ear worm.

This got me to thinking as I struggled with the theme, “No one can serve two masters,” from Luke 16:13. Finally I discarded the sermon draft and decided to tackle this from the perspective of the hymn of the day (a.k.a. sermon hymn).

“What is the World to Me?” — Lutheran Service Book 730 — says pretty much everything I wanted to say for the sermon. It doesn’t speak of word and sacrament, the means by which we come to faith and are sustained in our faith, but it does talk of the results of that faith. Trust in God.

So how do we choose hymns for a given service? As noted, the context is most important. Although it might be theologically appropriate to sing “Silent Night” at the Easter Sunrise service, the context is all wrong. There are suggested hymn of the day lists in the materials provided for the Lutheran Service Book, and various authors made suggestions for our older hymnals. Normally these suggestions are very good and fit the context of the day. Some are historical, such as “Wake! Awake! For Night is Flying” on the last Sunday of the Church Year. Others are traditional, such as singing “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” on Easter.

I look first at the theology, does the hymn truly and clearly speak about Christ Jesus and salvation by God’s grace for His sake? Not all hymns can be “Salvation Unto Us Has Come,” but there are a lot of solid hymns. I especially like “Lord Jesus Christ, You Have Prepared” as the distribution hymn for the Lord’s Supper because it teaches solid Lutheran theology about this most important sacrament. You can find other examples as well.

If the words work well, then I look at both the number of stanzas and the music. If we can’t sing the hymn, even if the congregation has practiced it (“Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old” comes to mind here), I won’t use it. If it is a lengthy hymn like “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice,” or “Ye Sons and Daughters of the King,” which we use on the first Sunday after Easter, I may split the hymn into three parts, one for opening, one for the sermon, and one for closing.

Last, but not least, is it a favorite? If I can shoehorn “Jerusalem the Golden” for the Sunday closest to Sally’s birthday, I will do so. Hymns are not the “American Top 40” which is heard from coast to coast, but a tool for focusing our attention to the theme of the day or to teach doctrine. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a favorite or two.

Much of the music found in contemporary worship, actually much of the music written in the 1800s in England as well, places the focus on us rather than Christ. Some times our congregation will use such a hymn, but it must be balanced with hymns teaching solid theology.

Certain hymns, such as “In the Garden” are not in our Lutheran hymnals for good reasons. Fortunately my standard is to stick with the hymnal, so I can easily reject requests for such music.

Finally, theologians did not stop writing good hymns in 1545. We have a number of writers and composers working diligently today on hymns worthy of use in the Divine Service. Some are in the current hymnal, some still need to be discovered. If the hymn should be used in the service and it is not yet in our hymnal, it can be used as a solo or choir selection (oh for a choir!) during the offertory.

So that is hymn selection in a nutshell.