by Rev. Alan Kornacki, Jr.
Open your hymnal to your favorite hymn and read it carefully. Look at the bottom of the page to see who wrote it and when they wrote it. Now dare to imagine that you could write something that would compare to what Martin Luther wrote 500 years ago or St. Patrick wrote 1,600 years ago. Dare to imagine that you could write something that could stand the test of time, of correct biblical doctrine, and the fickle whims of sinners who would rather hear the newest Katy Perry song. Intimidating, isn’t it?
It certainly was for me. I didn’t start writing hymns until I was nearly 35 years old, even though I’d been writing poems about ordinary stuff—sad musings about love and heartache—since I was 13. But I was afraid to write about Jesus or faith or anything related to my life in Christ. Comparing myself to writers like Martin Luther and Paul Gerhardt and St. Ambrose was terrifying. Even the hymns I didn’t enjoy seemed like they were beyond anything I could imagine myself writing. But now I’ve written a number of hymns. Some are awful. Some may have potential. Are they as good as anything that’s already in the hymnal? I don’t know. I’ll leave that for others to decide.
Why Write Hymns?
The point of writing new hymns is not to be compared with those who go before you. The point of writing new hymns is to praise God in Christ, to thank Him for His many gifts to you in and through Jesus, to teach the Christian faith, and to continue the song of the church confessing her faith for generations to come. If you look in your hymnal, you will see hymns God has used to teach and forgive His people for nearly 2,000 years, and, believe it or not, you will see hymns that were written even in the last twenty years. Every generation of the Church has contributed something to the church’s song.
Now, by the grace of God, it’s your turn. The writing of hymns is not just for stodgy old men and women. If you know how to use a pen, if you know the Word of God, then you, too, can write hymns. Christ died to forgive your sins. Our God has given you faith in Christ through the waters of Holy Baptism. He has shaped and continues to mold that faith through the instruction you received at home from your parents, in Sunday School, in Catechism class, and in the preaching of the Word that you receive in the Divine Service. Jesus feeds that faith with His own body and blood. He has given you your mind. These are the gifts from which flow your writing to His glory and the building up of your brothers and sisters in Christ.
It helps if you read a lot. Reading and studying the Bible, the Catechism, and the hymnal help you to write things that are faithful to the Word of God. That’s important. After all, the way the Church prays and sings shows what we believe. Studying hymns and poetry— Robert Frost, Shakespeare, even the better top-40 radio songs—helps you to write more powerful words. It’s also beneficial if you sing a lot of hymns, so you have a feel for how the song of the Church sounds. And it helps to write a lot. Don’t be afraid to admit that what you’ve written might not be God’s gift to the Church, but even your worst efforts in writing hymns are a blessing to you as you study the Word and allow it to shape your own words. No time you spend in the Word can be a waste, for the Word of God is never powerless.
Go For It!
There’s a lot that goes into writing a good hymn, and a lot more that goes into writing great hymns. That being said, God led someone to write “God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It,” “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones,” and other familiar hymns, or else we couldn’t sing them. Such hymns are a gift of God to you. So are the gifts of faith, of intelligence, of writing, and these are qualities that the Holy Spirit can use in you to contribute to the song of the Church. The Order of Matins begins with the words, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” So get to writing! Our God will guide your mind and your pen (or keyboard or touch screen) to words which will glorify Him and teach the Church. Who knows? You might even write a hymn that Higher Things decides to use for a conference someday. And if not, Jesus will still use His Word in you to feed your faith.
Rev. Alan Kornacki is pastor of St. Peter Lutheran Church in Campbell Hill, Illinois. He has written over 40 hymns, 3 novels, and hundreds of sermons. You can read some of the things he writes at http://pastoralkorn.blogspot.com