Writing Hymnkus—Haiku Poetry Set to Music—for Christian Worship
Your congregation can make worship the work of the people when you use their words in worship. The hymnku form—haiku poetry set to music—works for in-person, hybrid, and online worship and can involve many ages.
Creating a short-form congregational song called a hymnku can help churches promote full, conscious, and active participation in worship. A hymnku is simply a haiku poem set to music. Haiku, an ancient Japanese poetry form, has three lines. The first and third lines have five syllables, and the middle line has seven syllables. The lines don't have to rhyme, and most children learn to write haikus in school—which means it's easy for individuals or groups of any age to write haiku.
In the last few generations, Christians have experimented with haiku as an aid to worship and devotion. A March 15, 1963, Time article featured James Tetsuzo Takeda, an Episcopal priest in Japan who wrote Christian haiku to meditate on the mysteries of the Christian year. If you search online for "Christian haiku," you'll find lots of examples of prayers, devotionals, and tongue-in-cheek Bible summaries.
On August 15, 2007, Pascal Fricke, a German guitarist, posted a brief YouTube video (2:50) called "Haiku as Song." The lyrics are a series of seventeen-syllable poemlets by Aleisha Russell. The video combines haiku, ukulele, voices, and images.
Since the mid-2010s, people connected with The Hymn Society have started setting Christian haiku to simple 5..-7..-5 meter hymn tunes. They've found that writing, sharing, and singing hymnkus is an easy way to help more people participate in worship and congregational life. You can do the same in your faith community.
Adam M. L. Tice, now text editor for congregational song at GIA Publications, experimented with writing hymnkus with Sunday school youth, college and master's level students, and in a Hymn Society workshop. He wrote about the process in "Hymnku: An Exercise in Short-form Congregational Song" for The Hymn, the journal of The Hymn Society.
Suzanne L. Vinson learned about hymnkus from Adam Tice. Vinson is associate pastor for congregational life at Grace Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. She, Tice, and Deborah Carlton Loftis hosted hymnku creation sessions during Grace Baptist's 2018 and 2020 Vital Worship Grants. Loftis, a Grace Baptist member and former executive director of The Hymn Society, also gives hymnku workshops in other churches. Tice and Vinson suggest these steps to incorporate hymnkus into worship and congregational life:
Teach a hymnku tune by ear till people can hum it on their own.
Few hymns are written in 5.7.5. meter, so you might go with HYMNKU 5.7.5., by Sally Ann Morris, or SOLARIUM 5.7.5, by Ivan R. Martin. Tice says that GIA will eventually publish both tunes, but for now Morris and Martin have given permission to use them.
Sally Ann Morris is a guest artist, clinician, composer, and conductor in churches nationwide and at national conferences. She is also musician-in-residence at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Vinson says, "Sally Ann's HYMNKU 2 has a slightly minor sound that gives depth to words. It works really well in a service of lament, such as with 'Why Is This So Hard?', which Grace Baptist members wrote together. Our pianist/organist Theresa Steward created a 5.7.5. tune, SOLACE, that's good for brighter, more upbeat texts. Her tune paired well with 'God Is Always Here' as our call to communion."
Ivan R. Martin, a bookbinder in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, is actively involved in his Mennonite community’s music. He teaches fundamentals, sight reading, singing, and introductory hymnology, has led congregational singing in worship for nearly twenty-five years, and has been composing hymn tunes since 2008. Although Tice’s hymnku article includes a draft Martin wrote for a Hymn Society workshop, he prefers his final version of SOLARIUM 5.7.5., available in PDF and MIDI file formats.
Point out syllable stresses.
As you may remember from English classes, poetry is often composed of rhythmic "feet." The trochaic form uses feet of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable (DUM da), as in "I love apples."
The iambic form follows the opposite pattern: an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (da DUM), as in "The bird has flown away." Note whether your chosen tune is trochaic or iambic (or another form). This will help you choose words that match the tune's rhythm and meter.
Suggest a theme for the hymnku.
Vinson usually suggests a scriptural passage, a lectionary reading, or a theme such as hope, peace, lament, or joy. She often asks questions like "How do you think of God?" or "How do you express sorrow?"
"We've often written hymnkus in intergenerational settings,” she adds. “Younger minds can provide surprising insight on a sermon theme or lectionary reading.”
People could also write hymnkus for a specific part of worship. In this short video, Mark Owen Davis, minister of music at First Presbyterian Church in Kingsport, Tennessee, shares examples of hymnkus written by church members for the Kyrie part of the prayer of confession and as a response to the assurance of pardon.
Decide whether you'll have people write as individuals, in pairs, or in small groups.
While Tice and Davis have invited individuals to write hymnku texts, Vinson says that group settings work especially well for writing hymnkus. Groups can be small or large; in a church workshop, Sunday School class, or small group; in-person or over Zoom. Tice led a group hymnku session at Grace Baptist Church.
"It helps to write with others so you can build together,” Vinson explains. “We often write out suggested first lines on a bulletin board or whiteboard. We sing each line to the given tune. Then we ask which lines, words, or phrases speak to everyone. When all agree on the first line, then we build the second line." This step could also be done within Zoom's chat feature.
Choose how or whether to use a hymnku in worship.
Grace Baptist Church has used many congregation-written hymnkus in worship. Vinson estimates that her congregation has sung hymnkus two to four times a year since 2018.
Ivan R. Martin, who composed SOLARIUM 5.7.5., has used his hymnku tune at various singing events. "The reaction among the singers was always interesting,” he says. “Some connected with it immediately and loved it, while others were less enthusiastic. I think the brevity of the text had some singers questioning if it really fits their assumptions about what makes a hymn. Though I have no doubt that it could be valuable, I have never collaborated with others in writing more hymnkus. And I haven't used them in worship.”
Be sure to archive your hymnku uses.
Because Grace Baptist’s staff plans worship cooperatively, Vinson says, "we help each other remember the congregation-written resources we have. We do this in two ways. We have a Google Doc for storing all hymnkus in one place. We don't, however, have notes on who wrote each hymnku because most were written collaboratively. We also store the hymnkus in a Google Doc folder with all the scanned poetry, literature, hymns, and congregation-written material (hymnkus, song and psalm paraphrases) that we've used in worship.”