I always enjoy the surprised and befuddled look on people’s faces when they learn that I prefer hymns over contemporary-modern worship music and choruses. Perhaps they are surprised because I am still somewhat young. Perhaps it is because I used to have long hair and play in a hard-rock Christian band. Perhaps it is because I play guitar when I lead worship and sing many modern songs. Whatever the reason, they usually don’t believe me and I have to convince them that my preference is for hymns.
Now, let me make clear that I do not have disdain for contemporary worship choruses and I think many of them are beautiful, inspired, and are a great aid to our worship of God. I am very thankful for them. Last night at our church we enjoyed a night of worship and Communion. Thirteen songs were performed; one of those thirteen was a hymn and it was performed in such a way that it didn’t really sound like a hymn. And yet, I truly worshiped and was thankful for the evening. So this is not a “modern worship songs are evil” post. After all, at their inception, hymns were the “modern worship music” of the day.
Having said that, here are some reasons why hymns matter for today. I am speaking in generalities here. There are, of course, exceptions.
Hymns provide a richer, stronger, deeper theological message than do most modern choruses. This is significant for many reasons, but the most profound is that church folks do not walk out the doors of the church on a Sunday morning singing the sermon (at least they don’t mine!). They sing the songs they just heard in worship. Songs stick with people. So do their words. Unfortunately (well, not really, but I will use that word anyway), hymns do not provide the same level of emotional and sentimental response that many modern day songs offer with their often dimmed-lit situational worship experience. It is hard not to tear up and become moved when you are singing to a beautiful array of instruments the chorus “dance with me”. Notice the lyrics to “Dance With Me” alongside “In Christ Alone” which is a modern day hymn.
Dance With Me
I wanna be romanced by the King of the Ages
I don’t want to sing of a passion I’ve never known
I want to get lost in the beauty of Jesus
To dance through the night around Your throne.
In Christ Alone
In Christ alone who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless babe
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones He came to save
There is certainly nothing wrong with the “Dance to Me” lyrics, and I have used a modern day worship song that actually says “Jesus.” These lyrics are powerful to sing and create a stirring in our heart, but what kind of stirring? In four lines of “Dance with Me” we have an image of someone dancing because of the romance of God, which is fine. In four lines of In Christ Alone, we have the mystery of the incarnation, the wonder of the hypostatic union, and the disgrace of Christ’s rejection. Before we can “dance through the night” we must first understand why we are dancing. I’m not convinced many who feel the “romance” feel anything than other than an emotional experience of a good song, good musicians, and well-timed lighting. So, let’s keep singing “Dance With Me.” Let’s just make sure we are singing “In Christ Alone” more.
Second, hymns provide a much needed bridge between the church of old and the church of new. Much to the disappointment of the younger generation who think they have unearthed a great, new understanding of worship, they have not discovered something new and uncharted in the church. Our young people have a near zero appreciation for what has gone on before them, the church that has survived untold number of attacks, persecution, and torment. The church that has been faithful to Christ in times of happiness and sadness. Hymns provide a nice way to remember and come along side our servants of old who wrote hymns mostly from a heart desperate and needful of God rather than for the next worship album or potential Dove Award nominee. Again, nothing wrong with an album or an award, but we should pay attention to those worthy songs that were ignorant of such accolades for their music and wrote simply because they loved God and the church.
Third, once you start down the road to full band modern worship music, it is difficult to go back. I truly miss the days of organ led hymns and even a “high church” feel that creates an atmosphere more in tune with the majesty, supremacy, and authority of God than does an electric guitar plugged into an effects processor. It has been important to me to visit from time to time a local church that leans toward a liturgical feel and to breathe in the worship that is being offered there. This past Sunday I had someone ask me, “why don’t we say the Lord’s Prayer anymore?” I didn’t have a good answer for her.
Fourth, hymns were created to sing corporately. And like it or not, that is what Sunday morning worship is all about. It isn’t about finding your own little place to “just get with me and God.” That kind of worship should happen throughout the rest of the week. Corporate worship is just that; worshiping together. This is why I want children with their parents during worship. I don’t want our people to always “close your eyes and just get with God.” I want to see the people, worship with them, and know we are one together in worship. And hymns make that happen easier than does a modern-day praise song written for the key of the main artist who wrote it and then we try to make it accessible to an entire congregation. Most of the time, it just doesn’t work.
So let’s be thankful for contemporary worship songs and sing them with joy and love. But whatever we do, we can’t let go of hymns and their importance to the church. That would be a big mistake.
*note – for what it is worth, many contemporary artists are recognizing the importance of hymns and are releasing albums that are just hymns. Many of these are performed through the lens of contemporary music, but nevertheless it is a good thing.
**2nd note – the picture above is the old green “Broadman Hymnal.” I cherish the days and nights at my home church where this hymnal was the first to ever be held in my 6 year old hands standing next to my mom and dad.