Thoughts about Old School Christian Hymns and Songs

Thoughts about Old School Christian Hymns and Songs April 28, 2015

I don’t usually use this blog to reminisce or talk about my personal experiences or memories, but for some reason I feel led to do that today. “I feel led to…” comes from my Pentecostal background. I was raised in what we called “the Full Gospel” from birth until seminary. I reluctantly resigned from my spiritual “home” almost immediately after graduating from seminary at age 26. I felt spiritually adrift for a long time. Occasionally I experience what the Germans call Sehnsucht–a vague feeling of homelessness and longing for something left behind and missed. When I examine myself for what it is exactly that the Sehnsucht feeling aims at I realize it is the music of my Pentecostal childhood and youth. Much of that music was not unique to us; much of it was borrowed from other traditions. The hymnbook our church used was Nazarene. I still have it and often use it for devotions.

Many of the songs we sang were about heaven; I miss singing hymns and gospel songs about heaven. “Won’t it be wonderful there? Having no burdens to bear?” I miss singing songs about Christ’s redeeming work for and in me. “Since I have been redeemed…I will glory in my Savior’s name.” I miss singing songs about Jesus as someone I/we can go to for comfort in times of “trouble.” “Earthly friends may prove untrue…but Jesus never fails.”

I’ve heard all the criticisms of those songs of my youth and I accept that some of them are valid. Many of them focused on “Jesus and me” Christian spirituality (individualistic). But why did we sing them then? The churches I grew up in were composed almost exclusively of poor or lower middle class people whose lives were hard. Many of them struggled with rebellious children, domestic abuse, uncertain job situations, illness, alcoholism and social marginalization. The songs we sang offered them great comfort and hope. Sure, many of the songs were “otherworldly,” but many of those people didn’t have a lot to look forward to or enjoy in this life.

On the upbeat side, many of our songs were expressions of the “joy of serving Jesus” and the tremendous peace a Christian can have in spite of life circumstances and challenges. “I have found a sweet peace that I never had known and a joy this world could not afford.” Many of the songs we sang were enthusiastic and joyful: “In my heart there rings a melody…a melody of love.” Occasionally a particularly joyful song about Jesus’ love and the Holy Spirit’s power would cause our worship leader (we then called him “song leader”) to dance or even run a little. Especially on Sunday evenings the congregation clapped to some songs; I still can’t sing them or hear them sung (on my ipod) without wanting to clap–which is dangerous because I’m usually listening to them in the car! An example of one that just must be accompanied by joyous clapping is “I’ve anchored in Jesus, the storms of life I’ll brave.”

As a child, of course, I grew up learning Sunday School songs such as the familiar “Jesus loves me, this I know” and the less familiar “Jesus loves the little children” and the even less familiar (I think) “The devil is a sly old fox….” Some were just silly. But to this day I can’t hear “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands” without thinking of “If you’re saved and you know it clap your hands…stomp your feet, etc.” Then came teen years and “camp choruses.” Our church incorporated many of these songs we learned at summer “youth camp” into Sunday evening worship: “I just keep trusting my Lord as I go along…” Back then “contemporary Christian music” meant songs by John W. Peterson! Others were “Christian silly songs” used only in “youth group” meetings: “Stand up and tell it if you love my Jesus!”

I confess it. I’m old school when it comes to hymns and gospel songs. The songs were easy to sing (in contrast to much CCM of today that are written for performance, not congregational singing) and had profound emotional appeal (even if many of them lacked theological profundity). Many mornings I wake up with an old gospel song in my mind that I have not heard or sung for fifty years. A recent example is: “Christ our redeemer died on the cross; died for the sinner, paid all his due.” Many of the songs required explanation–especially to new and young Christians. My father, our pastor, would stop and explain the words in songs like that–teaching the background story in the Bible and the typology being used.

Call me sentimental, nostalgic, old school…whatever. But I miss some of the themes of those old songs in the modern hymns and contemporary Christian music. The one exception that comes immediately to mind are songs by Townend and Getty. I love to sing “In Christ Alone” and “Holy Spirit, Living Breath of God.”

A couple years ago I was invited to speak at a large Pentecostal church. I spoke both Sunday morning and Sunday evening. The sanctuary was packed both services. I was disappointed at the singing on Sunday evening; it was all contemporary choruses led by a worship band. I didn’t know any of the songs and found them difficult to sing. I looked around and noticed that many people were not singing; they were just watching and listening to the worship band. This was true especially of the “older people” (over fifty). When I was introduced and had the pulpit and microphone I asked the pianist to come back to the piano and invited the congregation to open their hymnals (which hadn’t been used before this) and sing with me “I would love to tell you what I think of Jesus since I found in him a friend so strong and true….” All the over fifty crowd sang the old song with passion. I could sense gratefulness as they sang an old familiar hymn that’s so easy to sing.

Well, that’s enough of my walk down memory lane. I hope someone out there was somehow touched by these reminiscences. Now I’ll get out my ipod and put in my ear buds and drive to work singing along with George Beverly Shea “How can I be lonely when I’ve Jesus only to be my companion and unfailing guide?….”

Browse Our Archives