Rev. Dr. Thomas Winger on the Role of the Hymnal in Worship

As a musician, pastor, and liturgy committee member for Lutheran Service Book, Rev. Dr. Thomas Winger has a unique and informed perspective on how music functions in the liturgy. We recently interviewed him to learn about his new book, Lutheranism 101: Worship, and to hear his perspective on incorporating the hymnal into worship and daily prayer.

Tell us about yourself and where you currently serve.

I am married to Sara; we have two grown children. My wife and I met through studying music together in university. She is currently a piano teacher. My family is mostly in southern Ontario, Canada, but I was born and raised in England, where my father served as a Lutheran pastor. I served a German-English parish in Canada before moving back to England to teach at Westfield House. Since 2006, I’ve been a professor at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario. I also serve as seminary president. I teach mainly New Testament and liturgics.

What sparked your interest in learning more about the structure and form of worship in the Church?

I suppose it came firstly from just being an active Christian worshiper; an inquisitive mind wants to understand what’s going on! But it also came from being a musician. As a choir member and organist, I got involved with the nuts and bolts of the liturgy. And then, it was at the heart of being a pastor. Leading the weekly services is where you have the greatest contact with your flock. It’s important to make the best use of that time. I also served on the liturgy committee of the Lutheran Service Book project, so I had to do my homework.

In chapter four of Lutheranism 101: Worship, you talk about the story of the Divine Service, beginning with the Early Church and continuing to today. Why is it important that the Church has continued to support and preserve this order of service throughout the centuries?

We live in an age that can be kind of arrogant about its own achievements. It’s particularly true in North America that old things are viewed as inferior and obsolete. But as Christians, we know that our greatest treasures are some very old things, particularly the Holy Scriptures themselves. We can never do better than to hold onto the words of Jesus and His apostles and the gifts He gave to the Church. The historic liturgy is part of that treasure. It’s an inheritance from our wise forefathers in the faith. It grows more precious with age. And, as the references in LSB demonstrate, it’s 99 percent Scripture. We preserve the historic liturgy because the treasures of Christ are so well preserved and delivered in it: His Word, His Sacrament, His prayer, woven into a beautiful balance of gift and response. And then, standing on the shoulders of our fathers, we dare to add just a little bit and make it our own today, so it’s never a completely static artifact.

When talking about hymns and hymn selection, you point out that “the music of liturgy and hymns in LSB is in a distinct churchly form suited to an experience that is not of this world” (p. 140). Can you unpack that statement? How do you think congregations can use this distinct form as opportunities to teach worshipers about the Church’s role in the world?

There’s a common, mistaken idea that the old music of the Lutheran liturgy is simply classical music and that we need to update it to the music of our time. Now, it’s true that in past centuries the church was so dominant in Western society that the music of the church looked a lot like the music of society. But that’s (mostly) because the church influenced the world, not the other way around. If we’re constantly chasing after music that will be liked by our target audience in the world, we’ll probably fail, because everyone has their own tastes. The church’s music shouldn’t be borrowed from contemporary culture because the church isn’t of this world. The church has a culture of its own. And music can be a very powerful agent in helping worshipers experience what’s really going on in the liturgy, that we stand before the very throne of God by the intercession of Jesus Christ, who is truly present with us. And so the music of the liturgy can help draw us into heaven itself—not that we can know what the music of heaven is like, but we can at least use forms of music that don’t pull our minds back into the world.

The book also gives some recommendations and insights into using daily prayer services at home. Do you have any tips for pastors and church musicians as they seek to support laypeople who want to get into the routine of using the hymnal at home?

Unfortunately, we’re in an age where the use of books is becoming less familiar to people. It may help to start by keeping it simple. CPH offers laminated cards of the daily prayer services from the hymnal. These can be used around the dinner table with a Bible for readings and psalms. This is a much easier way to start than trying to use Matins or Vespers in their entirety. Laypeople can have difficulty using the daily lectionary from the hymnal, so it can help if the church uses the bulletin to provide readings week by week. I think the key is to emphasize the very simple outline of daily prayer: psalm, hymn, reading, prayer. Disciplines will stick if they’re not too ambitious. Hopefully this can be the first step toward using more resources from the hymnal itself. Teaching members to use these resources for home devotions should be a part of premarital counseling and home visitation. It’s a great job for elders to take on, and it gives them a template for their visiting. Sunday School can be a place to teach kids hymns that they’ll want to sing at home, and confirmation class can be the place to show them how to use the hymnal in more depth. My parish practice was to place confirmation class into the context of Vespers (with the lesson at the point of the sermon), even if we just did it in a classroom.

What’s one key takeaway you hope people will have after they read Lutheranism 101: Worship?

I think “real presence” is the insight I hope readers will take away from this study. I don’t just mean that they would believe more firmly that Christ’s body and blood are present in the Lord’s Supper. I hope they can move beyond the common notion that worship is something we offer up to a distant God who is up on His throne in heaven. Rather, our God is among us in the holy space that is created by preaching His Word and giving out His holy sacramental gifts. If we understand that Jesus Christ is truly present to teach us, forgive us, and carry our prayer and praise to the Father’s throne, I think we will approach the Divine Service with much greater reverence, awe, joy, and thankfulness.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Ongoing catechesis is so important to the Christian life. Many thanks to CPH and Scot Kinnaman for offering this wonderful series on basic teachings of the Christian faith from a Lutheran perspective. I hope this book will be a resource to Bible classes and individual readers, drawing them more deeply into the wonderful and mysterious gifts of God in the liturgy.

Look inside Lutheranism 101: Worship and download a free leader guide for using the resource at your church.

Explore Lutheranism 101: Worship

Picture of Peter Reske
Written by

Peter Reske

Peter C. Reske, senior editor of music/worship at Concordia Publishing House, holds degrees in English literature and historical musicology from Marquette University and The Pennsylvania State University. He was the editor of Lutheran Service Book and its attendant resources.

Subscribe to all CPH Blog topics (Worship, Read, Study, Teach, and Serve)