A Lutheran Hymnal for Kenya

by Prof. Richard C. Resch

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Kenya (ELCK) has never had its own hymnal. This rapidly growing church of 700 congregations has been singing throughout its short history (1948) from a variety of hand-me-down song books produced by and representing the beliefs of other church bodies. Presiding Bishop of Kenya, Dr. Walter Obare, knew that such singing was not the way to build a strong church that understood how Lutherans interpret God’s Word.

Like Luther, he believed that people learn from what they sing and, therefore, what they sing has to be theologically correct. He also knew that a Lutheran hymnal would help establish unity of doctrine and practice while shaping an identity for this young church.

Realizing the need—and realizing also that resources in Kenya are limited—Bishop Obare decided to ask the LCMS for help in developing Kenya’s first Lutheran hymnal.

“The ELCK was founded in 1948 out of the lay revival movement from Sweden. This has come with rich understanding of the faith but also great challenges of the right order the church should follow in worship,” Obare noted.

Meeting with then President Dean O. Wenthe in November 2008 on the Concordia Theological Seminary campus in Fort Wayne, Ind., Obare presented his vision for this exciting project: “We need a good Lutheran hymnal with a Kenyan (African) touch.” Wenthe responded by establishing the “Kenya Hymnbook Project Fund” as part of the seminary’s International Studies Office and by encouraging six CTS faculty members who had significant roles in producing Lutheran Service Book to lend their expertise to this important, new work.

With this encouragement and support in place, Bishop Obare called a meeting to establish the ELCK Hymnal Commission on Feb. 2, 2009, which was held at Matongo Lutheran Theological College, Kenya. On that day, the Kenyan Hymnal Commission was established with four Kenyans and CTS graduate Deaconess Sandra Rhein, whose deaconess internship would be to work full-time on this project.

The commission would have an advisory board made up of one Kenyan and three CTS faculty members with experience in producing a hymnal. I will always remember being present at that February meeting as we planned with great excitement what such a resource could be and the possible impact it could have on the Lutheran Church in Kenya.

I am happy to report that most of what we planned on that day is coming to fruition, and the hymnal is scheduled to be released in February 2012.

The hymnal’s contents

The language will be Swahili. It will be called Ibada Takatifu (Divine Service) and will have approximately 350 pages with services for Holy Communion, Matins, Vespers, and Daily Prayer; Rites for Baptism, Funeral, Marriage, and Confirmation; Luther’s Small Catechism and the three-year lectionary. Twenty-two pointed Psalms will be included as well as three Psalm tones commonly used now in Kenyan worship practice.

Ibada Takatifu will include 185 hymns, ranging from biblical texts to hymns of our time from Kenya and from around the world. Thirty hymns have been translated into Swahili specifically for this hymnal by a team of Tanzanian clergy musicians (e.g., “Dear Christians One and All Rejoice” and “The Tree of Life”). Bishop Obare specifically asked for the kind of hymn that would allow his growing flock of Kenyans to sing the daily riches of the baptismal life.

Consistency of practice

In February, I went to Kenya to meet with the Tanzanian translation team, to show 70 Kenyan pastors what their new hymnal would be like and to conduct a workshop for pastors and church musicians at the cathedral church in Nairobi, to help prepare them for their new book. Everywhere I went I found hungry, eager students, both clergy and laity, for a hymnal that would be theirs.

They liked that the liturgy will remain as they know it and will now be musically notated, bringing a consistency of practice throughout their church. They liked that there will be three Psalm tones that they already know with 22 of their beloved Psalms. They like that there will be hymns they know, as well as some new hymns from their tradition and others.

I found that they loved learning new hymns such as “God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It.” It helps that men in Kenya love to sing as much, maybe even more, than women and children. So when someone starts singing in a room, it is not long before everyone joins in with an ease and enjoyment that is beautiful to behold. There certainly was great energy when they sang the words, Nabtizwa wa Kristo! which is, “I am baptized into Christ!”

An act of mercy

From the beginning, the biggest challenge in the hymnal project has been financial. Even though every step has been done in the most cost efficient way possible, there still are expenses for translations, travel, copyrights, design and page layout. Of course, the largest expense initially will be a first run printing of 20,000 copies, but we pray there will be many printings to come with significant added costs to the project.

The cost per book will be about $4; however, for this to be within reach of Kenyan Lutherans, each book will have to be underwritten so that an individual or a parish could purchase a copy for the equivalent of $1. In a country where the majority of the population struggles to feed and clothe their families, this expense presents a serious challenge.

A hymnal would be a profound act of mercy for the Kenyan Lutheran Church. “The upcoming Ibada Takatifu (The Divine Service) hymnal is a milestone in helping the ELCK to be seen as united in her worship service,” said Obare, “a church that is biblically, confessionally and practically united in faith and order.”

ELCK Facts

  • The ELCK has about 100,000 members, 122 pastors and 66 deaconesses.
  • The church has been in altar and pulpit fellowship with the LCMS since 2004.
  • It was founded by Swedish missionaries in 1948.
  • It is an indigenous, confessional Lutheran church body.
  •  A gift of $100 would underwrite approximately 34 hymnals.

For more information on the Kenyan Lutheran Hymnal Project, go to www.ctsfw.edu/kenyahymnalproject or call 260-452-2199.

On the Web: To read Deaconess Rhein’s updates on the hymnal, go to kenyanhymnal.blogspot.com

About the Author: Prof. Richard C. Resch is associate professor of pastoral ministry and missions at Concordia Theological Seminary.

August 2011

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