Modernized Hymns: Hymns, or Contemporary Songs with Old Words?

Modernized Hymns: Hymns, or Contemporary Songs with Old Words? July 5, 2016


When I was growing up in Baptistland, we used to have this guy come and lead the music for our youth summer camp. His name was Chris Tomlin. This was well before he had hit it big, of course. That kind of music, even as a teenager, didn’t set well with me, and I would frequently slip out the back door for extended bathroom breaks. I thought it was a legit excuse, considering the quality of the food this place served.

Anyway, after several days of playing the same songs over and over, Chris put down his guitar and went over to a piano that had been sitting unused at the side of the platform. He told us, “Now, please take out your hymnals as we sing hymn 223.” Of course, mass confusion ensued from our youth, who had grown up in church without ever opening one of those green dust-collectors hanging on the backs of the stadium-style seats, but I had been to just enough services at the little county church my grandparents attended to know the drill.

So I grabbed my hymnal, and began to sing the words of gospel hymnwriter, Charles Gabriel.

I stand amazed in the presence
Of Jesus the Nazarene,
And wonder how he could love me,
A sinner, condemned, unclean.

How marvelous! How wonderful!
And my song shall ever be:
How marvelous! How wonderful
Is my Savior’s love for me!

At this moment, something very strange happened. The piano stopped, and in came the whole band with this rock-style interlude. Chris shot up and ran to the solo mic in the middle of the stage, and started singing another stanza in these glib, high larynx vocals.

He took my sins and my sorrows,
He made them his very own…

After he was done, right before the ultra-hip camp pastor got up for another 45 minutes of high-energy, in-your-face preaching on how to be in love with Jesus, stay in school, and never, ever have sex, Chris said something about how it was cool to sing hymns sometimes, because, you know, those guys loved Jesus, too.

But were we actually singing hymns?

I didn’t think so then, and I don’t think so now.

Of course, Chris Tomlin and other commercial worship songwriters have led a trend in the industry in which hymns are turned into commercial recordings, and then find a place in churches that practice contemporary worship. We see this even more in December, when everyone wants to hear their favorite carols and Christmas songs. So, all the biggest recording artists cook up their own versions of these songs, and church cover worship bands offer up their best imitations.

I hear from a number of contemporary worship apologists who proudly tell me they sing lots of hymns in their services, but that they are “refreshed” or “reimagined” in a modern style.

I think there’s a problem here. Though singing good theology is important, the way we sing it is also vitally important. Of course, that’s in contrast to the prevailing message of contemporary worship that says it’s all about taste, and that musical style doesn’t matter.

But it does matter. It’s about meaning, not preference. And music always carries meaning.

Let me say this before I go on: I think singing good words is of great importance when it comes to music in the church. In that way, certainly any exposure to the best hymn texts is better than the modern bias of many contemporary worship settings.

Also, I should say that I believe we should always be looking for new hymns written in a timeless style that sing the story well.

Certainly, there are many ways to accompany congregational singing that highlights the meaning of the text and enhances the congregation’s ability to sing it. But an essential element of hymn singing for centuries, and with good biblical and theological reason, is that the congregation’s voice is primary.

Contemporary commercial music often robs the congregation of this place, giving the spotlight to a single performer or a small group, and reducing the congregation to subordinate, relatively unimportant role. While hymns were written for a congregation, contemporary songs are written for a soloist or ensemble.

With that in mind, here are a few indicators of whether you’re actually singing hymns, or if you’re really just singing contemporary songs with old words.

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