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.

Service plans

Service planning is one of those tasks which, though not completely enjoyable, must be done. When I was on vicarage, almost thirty years ago, we (the pastor and I) would give the organist our hymns by the Wednesday preceding a Sunday service. Though it worked for that congregation, it really didn’t give anyone a chance to think through the way that one Sunday is related to the next.

Once back from vicarage, during my fourth year at the seminary, Dr. Donald Deffner assigned us the task of doing a full year of sermon texts, titles, and themes. I expanded this to include the hymns, readings, and service information. With the exception of 1997, which was lost during a move from one database manager to another, I’ve got the service plans going back to 1992.

When planning services, I start with the place within the liturgical or church year. The first half of the year — Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Pre-Lent, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday — are pretty straight forward. After all, each of these divisions have a well known theme. In Advent we look for the coming Christ, and in Epiphany He is revealed. The twelve days of Christmas are about His birth and the effect that birth has for faithful Christians (there are three martyr days directly after Christmas Day), while Lent is about Christ’s suffering and death.

But what about that long season from Trinity Sunday through the Sunday of the Fulfillment? Dr. Luther Reed, in his book on the liturgy, identifies four major themes during this half of the church year.

The first theme is the “Call to the Kingdom of Grace” during which we discover the marks of the Church, her confession of faith, and the use of the Means of Grace. The second is “The Righteousness of the Kingdom” which focuses on Christian living. The third is “Aspects of the New Life of Righteousness.” Here the readings focus on Christian perseverance in the face of difficulty, and Christian warfare as we deal with the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. Finally, the church looks at the end times, which brings us back to Advent.

With the overall context of the Sunday, we look to the theme of the readings for a given Sunday. More often than not, the Introit and Collect for the Sunday also build on the theme of the readings. Only as we find that emphasis can we begin to determine the theme for the sermon. The hymns also reflect that theme so to give one coherent message.

As for the hymns, there are many good hymns in each of the Lutheran hymnals available to us, The Lutheran Hymnal, Lutheran Worship, and Lutheran Service Book. Unlike some pastors, I do not draw hymns from outside sources. If the congregation has chosen to use the Lutheran Service Book, the hymns come from that hymnal. Though there are many good hymns outside of the hymnal, I hesitate to bring them into the service because that can open the door for music of lesser theological quality.

My goal is to provide the organist and altar guild with the service plans for at least eight weeks in advance, typically covering a complete liturgical season (or more). This gives them a chance to plan for service music, paraments, and the like.

So, that is service planning in a nutshell.