Should We Keep Harping on Hymns?

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Today, I am continuing my series on Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. In particular, I want to explore the use of “hymns” in our worship services and ask the question: are they still a valid musical expression for the church today?

The emergence of hymns was very much a product of the Reformation. Luther understood the importance of music as a means of instilling and preserving doctrine. He decided that songs should be written in the German language and commissioned poets and musicians to do so. He wanted the songs to faithfully communicate God’s Word. Luther also wrote a lot of hymns himself.

Lamar Boschman describes the characteristics of those hymns:

The songs were ‘doctrine heavy’ in content because the paradigm in this culture focused on principle and purpose. They wanted to remove mysticism and focus on the doctrines of the Christian faith. That caused many of the songs to have a horizontal focus; their purpose was to testify, reason and proclaim principle. It was in essence ‘singing the sermon’.

The Reformation was very much a thinking revolution.

The post-modern church however is experiential in orientation, but that doesn’t mean it is devoid of the Word. Perhaps one could say that the post-modern church is marrying the “word and the spirit”.

I found this once when I was doing some research but can’t remember where I got it from. It is a statement published in 1723 against the use of hymns. Here’s what the author said about hymns:

  1. It is too new, like an unknown language.
  2. It is not as melodious as the more established style.
  3. There are so many songs that it is impossible to learn them all.
  4. It creates disturbances and causes people to act in an indecent and disorderly manner.
  5. It places too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than on godly lyrics.
  6. The lyrics are often worldly, even blasphemous.
  7. It is not needed, since preceding generations have gone to heaven without it.
  8. It monopolises the Christian’s time and encourages them to stay out late.
  9. These new musicians are young upstarts, and some of them lewd and loose persons.

It is ironic how some of these arguments are still being employed in the church today. Such as the new songs “aren’t as melodious” as the hymns; “there’s too much emphasis on instrumental music”; “the lyrics are too worldly”, “the musicians don’t cut their hair and wear skinny jeans”. Sounds familiar?

And yet, the Bible commands us to “sing to the Lord a new song.” That means that what was sung yesterday (the old song) may not necessarily be what we should continue to sing today.

Psalm 102:25-27 says this:

In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
Like clothing you will change them
and they will be discarded.
But you remain the same,
and your years will never end.

God never changes. His Word remains forever. But He is always bringing renewal. Methods and expressions of unchanging truth need to evolve with the times.

What was relevant about the hymns in Luther’s days may no longer be relevant today. What was parochial and relatable in those days may no longer parochial and relatable today.

So what has the modern worship movement achieved? I think we can safely say that the songs are less horizontally-focussed and more vertically-focussed. Worship is definitely more about our engagement with God’s spirit in exalting Him rather than in exhorting man. And just like hymns were relevant to their contemporaries, we can say that the modern worship movement has kept up with the times and in some cases, ran ahead of the times too.

That is not to say that hymn singing should be shelved forever. There are some definite benefits of singing hymns. The songs of the church have become so diversified that what one congregation might be familiar with would be completely foreign to another congregation. Hymns on the other hand become a common ground when churches of different backgrounds gather together. Nostalgia is another benefit. Nostalgia is good if it is the trigger towards a person turning their attention to God in worship. And of course the emphasis on doctrine is good too.

But when someone says that we should do more hymns, we are ignoring that new songs can have the same benefits. For example, it is a massive overgeneralisation to say that current songs don’t have the same theological emphasis as the hymns. In fact, many do. Matt Redman’s songs are a good example. Many books in the Christian bookstores today have been written using modern worship songs as their inspiration.

Inasmuch as there are a lot of good elements in new worship songs, there are also a lot of good elements in hymns. Similarly, there are bad elements in worship songs, and there are bad element in hymns. But the modern worship song has an a priori claim to being culturally relevant today which a lot of hymns don’t.

Don’t get me wrong: I can happily worship and be touched by the words and melody of “Amazing Grace”. I love that rising swell of praise whenever the congregation lift their voices together to “How Great Thou Art”. But “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is beyond me. The words and concepts are hard to grasp. Instead of instilling theology, my mind starts to wander (as it is prone to do!). And I ask questions like “what’s an Ebenezer anyway? Is that like the Dickensian Mr Scrooge?”

So after all of this, I return to the question at the beginning of this post: should we be singing hymns in our worship services? The answer is “yes, if you want to”. That’s right: if you like them and want to do them, why not? Don’t be so religious. At the same time, don’t be so religious by thinking that hymns are better than modern worship songs. The key actually is not in the style of song, but by far the more important question should be: how do we help our congregations worship? As worship leaders we must diligently filter songs to ensure that as much as possible, they capture all the good and leave out all the bad, be they hymns or modern worship songs. We should also keep on the cutting edge so that the congregation doesn’t just linger on the old, but has a healthy diet of new songs which are constantly being written. And keeping in mind that one day, some of the songs of today will (hopefully) become as ancient and enduring as some of the hymns themselves.

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