LEAven Blog


Using Hymns to Teach the Faith and other Subjects

Part I – The Hymn Talk

Teaching the Faith through the Hymnal

 The hymnal is a substantial resource for teaching the faith. It contains Luther’s Small Catechism, the Creeds of the Church, most of the Psalms, prayers for every occasion, a wealth of scriptural content found in the hymns and liturgies, and music that serves to amplify the meaning of the texts. Moreover, hymns are based on Bible passages and Bible stories.[1] Likewise, the stories behind the hymns are fascinating and give insight into why the hymns were written and what circumstances led to their composition. Here’s one way to make hymns come alive for your students.

The Hymn Talk

 Model a hymn talk for your students and then have students give a hymn talk to their classmates as part of religion class. Here’s how to prepare one:

  1. Select one of your favorite hymns that’s appropriate for your students.[2] Read it thoroughly and look for any vocabulary or literary allusions that may be unfamiliar or puzzling. Define difficult words, phrases, or poetic allusions.
  2. Go to one or more of the resources listed below. There are many more, but these two are informative and very easy to use: https://hymnary.org/; http://www.hymntime.com/tch/ (aka the Cyber Hymnal). On both of these sites, type in the hymn title and you will find lots of information about the people who write and compose hymns, as well as information about the hymn’s history. The same is true for Wikipedia.[3]
  3. Here are a few print resources. You may find some of them in your pastor’s library.
  4. Osbeck, Kenneth W. (1982) 101 Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications.
  5. Precht, Fred L. (1992) Lutheran Worship Hymnal Companion. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House
  6. Westerhoff, Paul. (2010) Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Augsburg Fortress.
  7. Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns – 2 Volume Set (2,624 pages). Edited by Joseph Herl, Peter C. Reske & Jon D. Vieker. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (2019).[4]
  • After gathering the information about the hymn, present the “story behind the hymn” along with any new vocabulary and other information you’ve discovered.
  • For younger students, do a hymn talk at least once a month.
  • For middle and high school students: Model a hymn talk; then assign a hymn talk to students and have them present it once a week for as many weeks as there are students in your class. When that round is finished, do it again. If students don’t have a favorite, you can help them select one. If you lack for volunteers, perhaps you can select the hymns you’d like them to present and have them pick them at random out of a hat.
  • When the hymn talk is over, sing the hymn!

Long Term Benefits

 You will find that hymn talks will lead your students into virtually every subject in the curriculum. Most important will be the study of how the Gospel is presented through poetry and music that will stay with your students as long as they live. If you want to see one of the best hymn talks ever given, go to the following YouTube site to find the story behind the hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul” as presented by Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame. Here’s the site: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReApJymYSiw (16 min. 40 sec.).[5]

 God’s blessings as you and your students share a greater understanding of the Gospel through the gifts given through the great hymns of the Church.

Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Psalm 95:1

Next time:

The Hymn of the Month and how to use hymns to teach other subjects in the curriculum…

[1] Find the small italicized notations at the bottom of each page of the hymnal. They contain Bible references to the hymn, the names of who wrote and translated the hymns, the meter and tune name (IN ALL CAPS) and other information.

[2] This is especially important for younger students (K-3) because of their smaller vocabulary and because long and more complex hymns will be difficult for them to understand. Hymns such as “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb” need to be explained simply to younger students. The allusion to the Lamb, expressions such as “glad at heart,” etc. need to be explained so that they understand what the hymn/poem means. Then the story “behind the hymn” can be presented as well. See: https://second.wiki/wiki/henriette_maria_luise_von_hayn for information on the author of “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb.” I think you’ll be surprised at what you find about her.

[3] Many online resources will also have pictures of the authors/composers of the hymns that can be projected for the class to see.

[4] This print reference tool is excellent, but very expensive.

[5] The video was recorded at the Mormon Tabernacle with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I share this not endorse any theological views of Mormonism. I share it only as example of how the story behind a hymn can give us greater insight as to why a hymn was written, and how it can be a means through which we can sing it the Spirit and understanding as well (1 Corinthians 14:15). The story behind the hymn presented is accurate, detailed, and of high quality. “It Is Well with My Soul” is found in the Lutheran Service Book, page 763.

Dr. Jeffrey E. Burkart, former Associate Dean of the College of Vocation and Ministry and Coordinator of Lutheran Teacher Education, now serves in retirement as Emeritus Professor of Education and Artist in Residence at Concordia University, St. Paul, MN. He is a nationally known teacher, author, speaker, dramatist, poet and musician. Dr. Burkart has over 200 publications including 12 books, numerous professional journal articles, book reviews, chancel dramas, Christian musicals, hymns, poems, CD recordings, films and videos.

Before coming to Concordia, St. Paul, he taught in LC-MS elementary, junior high, and secondary schools in Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. He and his wife, Martha, have three grown sons (Jonathan, David and Andrew) who all are proud graduates of King of Kings Lutheran School and Concordia Academy, Roseville, MN.

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