The Tragedy of Modern Protestant Hymnody

The Tragedy of Modern Protestant Hymnody November 20, 2020

I’ve always said that it’s important to keep writing new hymns. I still believe this. But I’m increasingly dismayed at what is being thrown our way.

On the one hand, we have radio music from the contemporary “worship” industry being reproduced by house cover bands every Sunday. The songs are largely terrible in textual/poetic quality and theological content, and are written in a musical style that is incompatible with liturgy. Pop music is created to sell records; those who create it are pandering to the lowest common denominator so that people feel good feelings and buy their products. Pop music in worship is exploitative, as it is meant to capture people’s emotions and pass them off as authentic spiritual connection. It teaches that worship isn’t about discipline of prayer, but to feel happy, jesusy feelings while consuming a performance. These songs do not honor the historical ethos of Christian liturgy, and since they are written to be recorded by a soloist, they don’t lend themselves to congregational singing.

Even if someone did write decent poetry with rich theology, it would still be compromised its popular musical vehicle. This even happens when we see hymns “modernized” by artists like Chris Tomlin. The result isn’t really a hymn, it’s just another pop song that happens to use old words.

On the other hand, there are other hymns being written, largely in mainline Protestant circles, that are essentially nothing but coercive pieces of sociopolitical commentary. If they have any real theological content, it is usually drawn superficially from the “red letters” of the gospels, or relies mostly on nuggets of incarnational theology, ignoring a classical understanding of the redemptive themes of atonement. Thoughtless platitudes remind us to be good people because Jesus was a good person. Pass.

(Side note: if the word “legislation” appears in a so-called “hymn,” it’s probably not appropriate for Christian worship.)

Crack open a recent mainline hymnal and you’ll see a lot of this lukewarm stuff. Add in the Christian music from other cultures (which is generally fine), the Catholic boomer songs we’ve inexplicably adopted (Catholics don’t even like that crap anymore), and the music of the Taizé and Iona communities (meh, whatevs), a lot of great, theologically sound hymns to sturdy dignified tunes have been supplanted. The people in the pews are largely unaware of this, and they go their way thinking “How Great Thou Art” and “Here I Am, Lord” are the pinnacle of traditional Christian hymnody.

There are a few exceptions to this – a few – but they generally don’t compare with the poetic beauty of the hymns written before the middle of the 20th century.

Neither of these choices should be acceptable.

We need hymns that burn the character of God into our hearts and minds. We need hymns that are actually about the truth of the gospel; while we were dead in our sins, unable to save ourselves, God stepped in and gave us Jesus. We need hymns that do not ignore the depravity of the human condition, and point to our hope in Christ. And we need hymns that are actually hymns, not vapid radio songs written for mass consumption. Hymns written by people who actually understand the history of Christian worship.

That’s why I’ve increasingly found myself eschewing anything new in favor of the riches of older strains of hymnody. I’ll gladly make exceptions when new hymns appear that are beautiful and theologically rich in their own right. Until then, I’ll just stick with the jewels we’ve inherited from the past generations. Heck, some of them have fallen so far out of our collective memory, they might seem new all over again!

Beyond our hymnody, we need to separate ourselves further from the understanding of music as worship. One of the ways to do this might be returning to singing the liturgy. We Protestants would do well to relearn how to sing the Mass, or at least whatever fragments of it remain in our worship books. Bring back chanting priests and pastors. Get rid of the mindless chitchat and restore the solemn dignity of Christian worship. We need a fresh reminder of what congregational singing once was before we turned it into an all request hour. Then perhaps our hymnody would fall in line with our theology.

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