Resurrecting the Hymn

 

Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. The gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to man that he should proclaim the Word of God through Music. – Martin Luther

I love to preach and teach God’s Word. I believe those who attend GCC enjoy learning the Truth of the Bible. But something else we enjoy is singing. Historically the church of Jesus Christ has declared the Truth of God through song. The Psalmist proclaims, Sing to the LORD, praise His name; proclaim His salvation from day to day.” (Ps 96:2). Singing is one of God’s proscribed ways of worshipping Him.

During the past few decades the Evangelical Church in the West has been in a war of worship. The Worship War has been the focus of many church splits and debates. The question comes down to will a church be contemporary or traditional. A contemporary church is usually defined as a church that sings modern worship songs while a traditional church typically sings hymns. This is an issue that has lead many churches to have multiple services to appeal to both contexts. It is argued that the traditional services are geared towards the older generations while the contemporary is focused on the younger.

Personally I listen to all types of music styles. I enjoy listening to Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, and others. However at GCC we sing traditional hymns out of hymnals. We don’t object to contemporary music or think it is of Satan (God forbid!). Rather within our context, we believe it is prudent to sing songs that have been handed down from generation to generation. We are living in the continuity of tradition, desiring to embrace the past, awakening our Baptist heritage, and being shaped by the steady flow of history that is bending towards Jesus.  I attended a church in the past where a hymn was sung occasionally. I was greatly disappointed. Unfortunately hymns get snubbed, as “the younger generation won’t attend a church that sings songs they don’t know.” Let me argue why I believe hymns are important in the life of the church:

Hymns Are Simple  

That’s the beauty of hymns; they are simple and easy to learn. They can be sung without music. They can be brought to life with a new arrangement. They can be recited in a hospital room. If the younger generation won’t come because they don’t know the songs, maybe we have the wrong evangelism method. It might be the case that we need to introduce the younger generation to the simplicity of the hymn. Once again I am not against particular style. Trust me, I enjoy good music. But if the style overrides the message, than I have an issue. While a guitar or drum solo in a worship song may sound good, I personally do not believe it is necessary. The simplicity of the hymn allows the worshipper to hear clearly the message contained.

Hymns Transcend Generations

The fact that we still sing hymns from centuries ago is a testimony of the sustaining power of the hymn. From each generation to the next, we pass these hymns down. Some stretch back to the Medieval period, through the Reformation, and to the present day. Just this past week one of our younger students in church was practicing “Amazing Grace”, a hymn published in 1779. It is a beautiful thing to behold when generations sing songs that pre-date them by decades and centuries. I believe the hymn is something to be conserved within the church and passed on to younger generations. Hymns have a way of moving us out of the “now” and into a long line of faithful saints.

Hymns Abound in Rich Theology

This is not to say that modern worship songs don’t – just listen to Tomlin, Mullins, or Sovereign Grace Music. The theology pours out of their songs. In the same way, the hymn contains bold and rich theology. Take for example Isaac Watts (my favorite hymn writer). His theology points us up to experience the glory of our God. William Cowper’s hymns provide a similar affect. Charles Wesley wrote powerful words. We sing hymns as a way to testify to the greatness of our God. I simply don’t understand why many churches have rejected these beautiful and bold theological statements. I assume it is the same reason many churches have rejected old creeds and confessions (they are old and dusty). This is not to say that ALL hymns contain sound words (there are a lot of unbiblical hymns). However, most conservative hymnals place theologically sound hymns in them.

Hymns Shape Our Minds and Affections

Since hymns are easy to learn through simplicity, they have the power to shape our minds. In a sense they are a means of catechesis. They teach us to think and feel Biblically. Since hymns are theologically, they direct us to reflect upon the truths in a profoundly simple way.

Hymns are Stories 

This is one of the major reasons I love hymns. Hymns are stories. Most modern worship songs are broken down into a typical format (intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro). But a hymn is typically arranged differently with a series of forward moving lines with a simple refrain (if the hymn even has this). These forward moving lines convey a story.

Take for example Amazing Grace by John Newton. Newton’s original lyrics contain a series of six stanzas:

Starting at conversion, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound…How precious did that grace appear, The hour I first believed!”

Moving to the present experience of, “Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come…”

Leading to a hope in God’s Word, “The Lord has promis’d good to me, His word my hope secures…”

And finally concluding with eschatology, “Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail…The earth shall soon dissolve like snow…Will be forever mine.” 

Hymns have a narrative movement. They tell a story that is to be embraced and lived in.

 

Common Objections

Objection 1: “Your church won’t grow if you sing hymns.”

My objection is clear: if music is the means of church growth, then we have an unbiblical method of evangelism. Nowhere do we see in Scripture that music style is a means of evangelism or church growth. At that point we have entered into pragmatism. But to be very honest, you’d be surprised by how many of the “younger generation” doesn’t actually care about the style of music. Thom Rainer states,

You will hear Millennials speak less and less about worship style. Their focus is on theologically rich music, authenticity, and quality that reflects adequate preparation in time and prayer. But they will walk away from congregations that are still fighting about style of music, hymnals or screen projections, or choirs or praise teams. Those are not essential issues to Millennials, and they don’t desire to waste their time hearing Christians fight about such matters.

Changing the style of music might bring in younger folks. But the reality is if the church is being the church (Biblical preaching, community outreach, loving one another) than the style won’t matter much.

Objection 2: “The younger generation doesn’t understand the hymns so why use them in worship.”

I get it – the whole “thee and thou” thing trips the younger folks up. But honestly, you really think that the younger generation is that ignorant? Why not use the hymns as a means of catechesis (something else we don’t do by the way)? Unlocking the “Old Hymns” brings to light the “Old Truths” of an “Old Book.” For centuries family worship was built on a Bible and a Hymnal.

Objection 3: “Hymns aren’t exciting! They are boring!”

I can understand the objection. When I was younger I remember singing the hymn “Revive Us Again” at the speed of a snail. Yes, indeed, it was boring. But again I think the objection has to do more with style than content. I think this refers back to the idea that hymns are simple. Thus simple equals boring. The idea is that you can’t “get excited” if you are singing Victory in Jesus. The desire to “feel” a certain way is understandable. Songs are intended to reach the affections. But believing that hymns can’t reach the affections is simply ignorant. We are not moved just by style of music but by the simple truth of the song. Truth reaches our affections.

Objection 4: “The hymns are for old people!”

Yes…and your point?

 

The Resurrection of the Hymn

I am personally praying for the resurrection of the hymn. I might be naïve or old fashioned (I’ll claim both) but I believe that the sustainability of old hymns is evidence of the powerful truths they contain. Hymns reach the affections, they stir the mind, and move the will. This article is not a rejection of modern contemporary music. On the other hand it is a declaration to embrace the songs of the past, songs that Christians before us sang as worship to God. Songs like “And Can it Be”

He left His Father’s throne above,

So free, so infinite His grace;

Emptied Himself of all but love,

And bled for Adam’s helpless race;

‘Tis mercy all, immense and free;

For, O my God, it found out me. – Charles Wesley

And truths like,

When I survey the wondrous cross

on which the Prince of glory died,

my richest gain I count but loss,

and pour contempt on all my pride. – Isaac Watts

Lyrical theology is a beautiful thing!