Posted by: Kyle Carlson, Pastor of Worship & Prayer, 10/5/2011
Note: This is the second part of a multi-part series about hymns. You can read the first entry here.
The musical category of "hymns" is one that's likely to trigger an emotional reaction from anyone with hardly any background at all in church life. For those who grew up singing four-part harmonies accompanied by a piano and/or an organ, often the very mention of a traditional hymn brings back warm feelings and fond memories. For other (mostly younger) Christians, steeped in the pop-music culture of the late 20th / early 21st century, and accustomed to rock anthems with lyrics in simple English, the mention of a hymn may repel him, bringing to mind old-fashioned language, campy melodies, and lifeless forms that have outlived their welcome.
It should be plain by now (especially if you read Part I of this series) that I don't count myself among the latter group. The truth is, I'm not exactly in the first group, either. I do in fact have some fond memories of singing hymns in the Southern Baptist churches in which I was raised. My family even used to sing gospel hymns as an a capella quartet, to the delight of several dozens. But my main reasons for placing such value on traditional hymns of the Christian faith has little to do with childhood memories. No, the reasons that I cherish hymns and believe in recasting them into the musical language of younger generations are not primarily personal, but pastoral. There are at least two reasons, which I'll address in this post and the next one, respectively: 1) Hymns provide 21st-century Christians with a bridge to their heritage, and 2) Hymns provide deeper theology, fuller devotion, and richer poetry than many* modern songs composed for the church.
* Please note the word "many." This is not a categorical argument that hyms are inherently superior to contemporary songs. To the church's good fortune, there are many compelling, gospel-centered songs being written for the church today. More on this in the next post.
Singing the Same Song
You can probably guess that I strongly disagree with that notion. Singing songs of faith written by Christians who have been dead for a very long time can have tremendous value for the individual faith of a believer, and for the life of a congregation. Let me give a few reasons.
1) The Church is an eternal institution, not a passing fad. Jesus only established one institution, and it was the Church. Limiting ourselves to songs written by the current generation of Christians may have the unintended effect of orienting our lives and faith disproportionately around our own cultural/historical setting. Shutting ourselves off from the expressions of faith and worship of previous generations of Christians blinds us to the essential reality that we are but one (small) part of the grand and glorious people God is creating for himself: the Church. Singing songs of faith written by the Church of the ages reminds us that we stand upon the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Our faith, and our ability to articulate our faith the way we do, is due in no small way to the lives, labor, and sacrifices of Christians from each preceding generation. There's no better way to tangibly remember this reality and soak it in, than by singing songs that were written a long time ago.
2) Faith in God is not unique to our generation. Christians of days gone by staked their lives upon the truth of God's word and worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob long before we did. We worship the same Savior, we read the same Bible, we are rescued by the very same gospel. Singing old songs reminds us of these essential realities. It connects us to our heritage. It surfaces in our minds the "cloud of witnesses" spoken of in Hebrews 12:1.
3) There is value in the perspective of previous ages. Each generation develops its own language, culture, and, to some extent, worldview. If we sing only songs written by Christians of the current generation, we will end up with an unbalanced perspective on life, faith, and what matters most. We ought to inform our faith with the perspectives and emphases of every generation of Christians, trusting that a true balance can be found only when we consider these varieties of expressions, rather than leaning too heavily upon our own.
Let me close with a sort of analogy. Have you ever had the experience of visiting a historic city, building, or battle field? A few years ago I had the chance to walk among the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Philippi. I stood in the middle of the arena where Paul may have preached to a crowd; I sat inside what was likely his jail cell; I walked through the remains of a palace in that long-since-decimated city. The experience was nearly overwhelming. The sense of connectedness I felt at that moment to the first generation of Christians, and the awareness of the flesh-and-blood historical reality of the stories I've read so many times in the Bible were nearly palpable. Perhaps you've had a similar experience.
I think, on a smaller scale, we can have that same sense of connectedness, and that same awareness of the historical reality of the lives of Christians of previous generations, when we sing the songs that they sang. Giving heartfelt praise to our Savior with the same words proclaimed with faith by the Church of the ages connects us in a powerful way to the one universal and timeless institution that Jesus came to establish. And that institution, the Church, spans the ages. As we worship the God who has saved those who believe in every age, let's sing their songs as well.