I grew up in a church that used hymnals, and only hymnals, during Sunday morning worship. Of course, that was pretty typical, as my sons used to say, “back when dinosaurs ruled the earth.”
Well, maybe we “dinosaurs” knew a thing or two. I recently ran across a blog post that noted how much we inadvertently lost when we traded hymnals for newly-composed music projected onto a screen.
On his website, Toronto blogger Tim Challies notes that only a few decades ago, nearly every church had a goodly supply of hymnals; they were the best way to provide each worshiper with copies of all the songs they were to sing on a given Sunday. But today, many churches project the words of songs up on a screen—not just hymns, but songs of all types.
What’s lost, Challies writes , is the sense that the church “had an established collection of songs”– something well-worn hymnals suggested. Hymnals also communicated the idea that each song, before its inclusion, had been carefully vetted regarding its quality and its message. “After all,” Challies writes, “great songs are not written every day and their worth is proven only over time .”
This meant new hymns were “chosen carefully and added to new editions of the hymnal only occasionally”–about every ten or fifteen years, Challis writes.
Not so today. Now, congregations are asked to sing all sorts of newly-written songs, many of which, to put it charitably, are not likely to stand up to the test of time. Some songs are composed by enthusiastic musicians who often have little understanding of the theological messages hymns ought to convey .
The loss—or downgrading–of traditional hymns means we now have the ability to add new songs to the service willy-nilly. The result: We “have far fewer of [the great hymns of the faith] fixed in our minds and hearts,” Challies observes.
And when was the last time your church harmonized its songs? Hymnals contain music for both melody and harmonies. But “the loss of the hymnal and the rise of the worship band has reduced our ability to harmonize, and, in that way, to sing to the fullest of our abilities,” Challies argues. The result? “We have lost the ability to sing skillfully. We “compensate for our poorly-sung songs by cranking up the volume of the musical accompaniment.”
In short, we sing mediocre songs enthusiastically, but badly, assuming we can be heard at all over the drums. Some years ago, when searching for a new church home, I immediately eliminated any church whose website noted the presence of a “worship band.” And “Christian rock,” if we must have it, should be confined to Youth Group meetings—preferably as far from the sanctuary as possible.
Of course, not all new music is bad, and not all 300-year- old hymns are worth singing today. What we need to do is find a way to determine what music, old or new, is appropriate for worship and praise .
Professor Donald Williams of Toccoa Falls College has some advice on this matter. In an article in Touchstone, titled “Durable Hymns,” Williams writes that we should examine the music of the past to “learn the criteria by which to discern what is worthy in the present.”
Like Challies, Williams appreciates the judgement of the centuries—music and words that have endured because they are great. In order to determine what is good in modern music, he says, “We must know those marks of excellence that made the best of the past stand out and survive so long.” These marks of excellence derive “from biblical teaching about the nature of worship.” They come “from an understanding of the nature of music and how it can support those biblical goals.” Among them: biblical truth and theological profundity.
Consider the lyrics of a hymn by Charles Wesley :
“’Tis mystery all: th’ Immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.”
These verses help us obey God’s command to love Him with our minds as well as our hearts. By contrast, too many contemporary songs are “so simplistic and repetitive that theological reflection never has a chance to get started,” Williams notes.
Among the worst, “You Never Let Go,” especially the chorus, which we are meant to endlessly repeat :
“Oh no, You never let go
Through the calm and through the storm
Oh no, You never let go
In every high and every low
Oh no, You never let go,
Lord You never let go of me.”
I get it! God doesn’t let go. Not. Ever .
Another sign of musical excellence is poetic richness, Williams notes. He points to “the simple but evocative word like “wretch” in Amazing Grace, and “the use of questions in What Child Is This? to capture the wonder of the Incarnation. By contrast, he asks, “How many ‘praise and worship’ texts would be worth reading simply as devotional poetry without the music?”
Very few, I’m afraid.
And while poor quality hymns of the past have been weeded out, in some churches today, nobody seems to be weeding out contemporary music—especially music composed by church members. Why? Perhaps because the congregation can no longer discern good music from bad. Or if they can, they keep quiet, because nobody wants to hurt the feelings of the person who wrote it.
Musical beauty is also a sign of excellence in church music. There are, Williams writes, “certain contours, structures, and cadences that make for a singable melody and certain harmonic felicities that can make that melody more memorable or even haunting.” He points to “Be Thou My Vision” and “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” as good examples of such beauty. By contrast, many praise choruses “seem to ignore all the rules of good composition, giving us not well-shaped melodies but just one note after another.”
The good news—if your church music committee embraces the kind of music that makes you want to cover your ears –is that we can sing hymns at home. Make hymn memory part of your daily devotions. Buy or bring home a hymnbook (especially if they’re simply gathering dust at your church), choose a dozen favorites, and commit to learning all the verses of each hymn over the space of a year. Tape a copy of the hymn you’re trying to memorize to the refrigerator or on your desk. If you’re out and about, bring the words up on your smart phone (as long as you’re not driving!) and memorize another line or two. My favorites: “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” “Guide Me O, Thou Great Jehovah,” and Charles Wesley’s magnificent “And Can It Be That I Should Gain.”
I’ve been memorizing hymns for several years, and I’ve noticed that if I start singing, my husband, working within hearing distance in our home, will often join in. When I’m stressed, I sing to God. And when I’m trying to comfort a crying baby, I rock and sing hymn after hymn until it falls asleep.
Much as I hate to admit it—because I love the old hymns– there are SOME contemporary worship songs that are of good quality. (You’ll want to check out Warren Cole Smith’s interview with composer and musician Keith Getty about Getty’s music and his passion to renew congregational singing)
But before churches give up the great hymns of the faith, or cut down on them to make room for songs written last week, we need to think carefully about what we might be losing: Music that teaches us to worship God with our minds; music that celebrates His great gift of salvation while joyously nourishing our souls.
Or, as Charles Wesley put it:
“No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him, is mine!
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown through Christ, my own.”
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