You might notice I said “‘hymns’ are better than contemporary worship songs.” Not “old hymns.” Or “classic hymns.” Just “hymns.” There are a couple reasons for this.
First, there are good hymns still being written, though they are overshadowed in popularity by the dreck put forth by the so-called “worship industry.” So some hymns aren’t old, and there are brand new hymns being written as I write this.
Second, most of the time when people talk about “old” or “classic” hymns, I’ve noticed they are often talking about gospel hymns and songs that peaked in popularity between the late-19th and mid-20th centuries. While hymns like “Blessed Assurance'” and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” are in fact old compared to the songs of the modern worship machine, they are centuries younger than the bulk of traditional hymnody.
I’m not delusional. I know that the number of hymn-singing churches is shrinking these days. And while I’m not going to deny that this is happening, I am going to continue talking about all the reasons I think this trend is so very tragic. Here are just a few of them.
1. We Should Honor Our History of Faith
I’ve often said that the contemporary church tends to worship as if Tom Brokaw had broken the events of Christ’s passion as they happened. But to be a Christian means that we are part of a deeper, ancient story. In worship, we retell that story through an ancient, disciplined liturgy. We sing old songs and pray old prayers and bathe ourselves in the witness of the saints who have come before. And in doing so, the centuries that separate us from the events of the salvation history seem to collapse upon themselves, and we find ourselves a part of something transcendent and divine.
To cut the church off from their sacred lineage can only create a narcissistic and self-referential church that doesn’t really care who it is. Worshiping in a contemporary vacuum is literally suffocating the church in a self-interested, masturbatory pursuit.
2. Hymns Are Usually Written By the Right People
The best of hymnody was written by theologians, pastors, poets, and scholars. Contemporary worship songs are written by marketable people who can write marketable songs. Most of these well-meaning folks have dubious credentials at best, and their work demonstrates this. Take a look at the theology and poetry in the nearest hymnal, and then check out the most popular worship songs. There’s no real comparison.
3. Hymns Aren’t “Popular”
Certainly the popularity of traditional hymnody has been waning for decades, but I mean something more specific. Hymns aren’t written in a popular idiom that is marketable and profitable. They are written in a simple style that doesn’t need to conform to any popular entertainment genre. The result is something more lasting, less derivative, and isn’t bound by industry standards. Exclusive allegiance to contemporary worship allows the church’s worship to be hijacked by the worship industry, which is first and foremost a money-making enterprise.
4. Hymnody Has Been Examined and Vetted
Are all hymns better than all contemporary worship songs? No, of course not. There has been some real crap written throughout the centuries. But for the most part, the body of hymnody we have today has been carefully examined and vetted, evaluated and scrutinized by generations of pastors, scholars, hymnal committees, and congregants. It is a rich, vast, broad, and varied collection in which churches and worshipers can be confident. As the ages roll, hymnody continues to adopt the very best of each generation into its ranks, retaining what is good, faithful, and solid, and letting the dross fall away.
Likewise, rejecting the body of Christian hymnody and relying only upon what is new and marketable is not only foolish, but is patently arrogant.
5. Hymns Are For Congregations
Hymns are a written tradition, contemporary songs are a commercially-recorded enterprise. This is important because recorded music is inherently non-congregational. It is fundamentally a piece to showcase an individual or small group. While that might be fine in any other setting, it’s not worship.
6. Singing Our Faith Is Worship
I’ve often heard the argument that hymns are too wordy, too academic, too dense to lend themselves to worship. For instance, here is a Facebook comment I recently received on one of my posts.
“One of my complaints with the pre-worship music era is that the songs of that generation give TOO MUCH info – they are like musical sermons leaving no room to “ponder anew what the Almighty can do.” We are too busy trying to figure out what an ebenezer is! When the Jesus Movement hit, it brought with it simple songs of worship TO God – I remember – I was there – I am old. And for a couple of decades we had songs in churches that transcended information-based music… there was deep, personal meaning to the songs for those singing and, dare I say, worshiping. At the same time I do completely agree that “Christian music” has very sadly become a type of faux worship and today we have far too many “worship stars” – it sickens me, to be honest. But that doesn’t mean ALL the repetition is to be dismissed. My encouragement is for ALL of us to take a moment and allow the Holy Spirit to bathe over us AS we sing “Shout to the Lord” 3, 4, 5 or even 6 times.” – Dan M.
There is some truth here, especially with the mention of the heavenly liturgy and the oft-maligned repetition of contemporary worship. Repetition can be good or bad, meaningful or inane. And he’s also right that the Jesus Movement was natural response to vast paucity in 20th-century ecclesial life. Those are good topics for a later discussion. But the problem with Dan’s comment is his implicit acceptance of the idea that worship is more about me doing something for God, or expressing my good feelings toward God, and less about God forming and molding me through scriptural and theological truth.
Boiled down, this argument is saying that “Hymns make me think so hard that I can’t worship.” The words and the truths and the poetry keep me from feeling the all the worship-y things. But while emotions aren’t in and of themselves bad or foreign to worship, they are not a litmus test, an indicator, or even a reliable sign that worship has taken place.
Yes, to sing a hymn requires a deeper level of effort and engagement. Therein is the discipline of corporate worship. Yes, liturgy is a discipline that asks much of us. It doesn’t only confront us with the drama of the Christian story, but demands that we play a part. And in those moments of discipline, effort, and personal engagement, in the hassle of contextually deciphering words we don’t know and concepts we don’t yet grasp, we don’t merely learn what the word “ebenezer” means, but we learn to give thanks for the God who has graciously brought wanderers like us to this place.
7. Because Words Mean Stuff
Who cares about the words?
Many a pastor, worship leader, or aspiring worshiper has asked me that through the years.
The answer for me is easy. I don’t know, but you should.
Liturgy is about truthful and disciplined prayer. It relies on words for a reason. It relies on elegant, eloquent, and refined language so that we get the Christian story right. And as the truths present in the elevated language, repeated carefully and often, take root in us, we become the church we need to be. Through our careful, disciplined prayer, we become God’s prayer for the world. The bulk of Christian hymnody is written with this endeavor in mind, and it acknowledges the gravity of Christian worship. It carries the substance needed to nurture and nourish a church that can rise to the task. The same simply cannot be said of the latest and greatest jesusy hits, no matter how well they sell.
My critics would predictably respond with accusations of worship warring and discord sowing. I reject those swiftly and completely. This isn’t about feeding the worship wars, it’s about transcending them. Congregational song was never meant to be a popularity contest.
Frankly, we’ve wasted enough time on the contemporary worship experiment. It has starved the church and triggered a crazy obsession with copying mainstream entertainment culture. A rejection of pop-worship and a return to historic Christian liturgy is sorely needed if the church is going to fulfill its purpose in the world around us. In that way, it’s not just better to sing hymns, it’s vitally important that we do so.
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