Not that long ago, hymn-singing was an inextricable part of corporate worship in essentially every Christian faith tradition. Fast forward a few decades to 2015, and vibrant hymn-singing is all but lost in most evangelical circles, and has a diminished presence in desperate mainline denominations. And make no mistake, our churches, people, and faith are all the poorer for it. There are many reasons to not neglect the long, ongoing tradition of hymnody in our churches. Here are just a few of them.
1. Hymns teach theology. This must be the first reason. Biblical scholar Gordon Fee says, “Show me a church’s songs, and I’ll show you their theology.” And if that’s true, we should be horrified at the sorts of things we’ve let ourselves get away with singing. Hymn-singing continues the didactic function of corporate worship by adding a new dimension to the beautiful truth of the Christian story. If the songs we sing don’t inform, enrich, or edify our faith and mission, they simply aren’t worth singing. Bad worship begets bad theology. Bad theology begets a weak church. If we are what we sing, we should begin with the wealth of hymnody that has endured.
2. Hymns allow for a more authentic response of emotional expression. There is a real dearth of emotional expression in the evangelical church, save for overly intimate descriptions of how Jesus makes us feel something vaguely positive. So much of what I’ve seen from contemporary worship simply seems inauthentic, flippant, and a bit dismissive, especially in response to the ugly, horrific realities we find in this world. But the best hymns of the past and present allow for a more honest, more natural, more human response to the stark terror happening around us at home and abroad. And during the darkest (and happiest) times of my life, I feel my faith is all the better for having the great hymns of faith in my head, heart, and mouth, because they gave me a heightened language for articulating the good news of Christ’s gospel in response to the crap going here in tension of the already-not yet.
3. Hymns display a social consciousness. An awareness of others is conspicuously missing from the self-aggrandizing penchant of modern corporate worship. But the idea that our faith should radically impact the way we relate to the world around us has long been a part of the hymn tradition through the likes of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Fanny Crosby. And through the pens of recent hymn-writers, such as Fred Pratt Green, Brian Wren, and Ruth Duck, we’ve seen a renewed focus on singing this important part of our faith.
4. Hymns were written for congregational singing. Here’s where it tends to get especially sticky. As I’ve written before, commercial worship songs are written in a style borrowed from the recorded tradition. Thus, they are written for individuals and small groups to perform, not for a congregation to sing together. This presents a bunch of issues that are prohibitive of unified congregational singing. The congregation is forced to try to follow the performer’s ad libbing whims in all aspects of melody, rhythm, and tempo. Often, they are singing in a range that might fit the performer’s, but is too large or extreme for the general.
Hymns, on the other hand, are self-contained pieces that begin and end with the poetry. The harmony is dictated by the four-part vocal arrangement, making the songs ideal for hearty and robust large-group participation. And since the music is notated, the melody and rhythm are standardized for unified singing free from the self-indulgence of the vocal performers.
5. The hymn tradition readily accepts new contributions. The advent of the contemporary service has polarized old versus new, but that shouldn’t be the case. The single most toxic thing to traditional worship is the tendency to become a self-indulgent celebration of sentimentality, an old-time gospel hour for those of a certain age. But hymnody is a diverse and unbiased collection, adopting the best offerings of every generation into its ranks (even the occasional commercial worship song), as long as they are written for congregational singing.
6. Hymns naturally lend themselves to liturgical use. Contemporary songs are often used in “worship sets” (I like to call them “worship wave pools), extended periods of music featuring songs melded together, perhaps topically linked, but often without any eye toward theology or liturgical function. Hymns more easily fit into the pattern of historical Christian worship, giving the congregation the chance to gather together, proclaim the Word of the Lord, give thanks for God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, and to be sent out into Christian service. In this way, hymns become the work of the people, instead of the people’s entertainment.
7. You can do Beer and Hymns!
8. Hymns remind us that we don’t worship to attract unbelievers. Hymns don’t mimic popular style in word or music. They are distinctively different songs with a distinctively different vocabulary for a distinctively different covenant people. I love the way former United Methodist Bishop and Duke Professor Will Willimon describes this peculiar sound to a questioning student.
“Well you’ll notice that you won’t hear any of this kind of music on MTV. This is different kind of music. You had to get up, get dressed, and come down here at an inconvenient hour of the day to hear music like this. Check out the Ten Commandments. It says that thing about ‘honor your father and your mother.’ This is our attempt to do that in a small way. To be a Christian is to find yourself moving to a different rhythm, a different beat.”
9. Hymns unite generations of Christian people. With all the technological connections at our fingertips, it’s ironic that we live in a society in which we are horribly disconnected from basic human interaction. When we sing hymns in our churches, we are uniting with those around us in a fantastically corporate, sensory experience. When we sing hymns of the past, we are sharing in faith with those who have gone before us.
The modern church tends to behave as if the crucifixion happened sometime in the mid-90s, as if Tom Brokaw interrupted a first-season Friends episode to break the news. Both of these extremes are toxic. All worship is historic because it recalls the creative and redemptive acts of God. All worship is contemporary, because we’re doing it now. All worship is future, because it foretells the coming resurrection, when the curse will be broken and all will be set aright.
Until then, we come together as God’s people, singing, speaking, preaching, and praying the old, old story, so that we might be remade further into Christ’s likeness. Hymn-singing auto-corrects the blind spots in our modern faith understandings. By allowing the witness of previous generations into our worship, we are presented with a more complete picture of what it means to be a person of faith in our own time. And along with new hymns of our own creation, we pass on the faith of the saints who’ve gone before to our children and children’s children.
For too long now, hymn-singing has been left as just another cold dessert choice in the worship cafeteria. Just for those of “a certain age.” Just for those who “desire more tradition in their worship experience.” It’s time those days were over. It’s time to teach our churches how to sing hymns once again. Before it’s too late, and the rich tradition is gone for good.