Posted by: Kyle Carlson, Pastor of Worship & Prayer, 10/13/2011
In Part II of this series I mentioned that the reasons I am so interested in classic hymns remaining a vital part of the worship language of our churches are not primarily personal, but pastoral. I spoke of the ability of hymns to remind us of our spiritual lineage, and to provide Christian perspectives on life and faith that do not share our particular cultural weaknesses and blindspots. (Though, to be sure, every previous generation and culture has had its own!)
The second pastoral motivation I have for remaining committed to old hymns is that they often possess a gospel-centeredness, a theological articulateness, and a devotional fervency that a host of the songs flowing from the “Praise & Worship” industry do not have. I want to explain what I mean by each of those phrases, but first let me make a disclaimer. I’m aware that no categorical comparison of one era or genre with another is likely to produce an entirely objective, or even accurate, evaluation. The classic rhetoric in this discussion is to contrast one of the greatest examples of one genre with one of the very worst examples of the other, and then go, “See?! My genre is toootally better!” This is obviously unfair, and it is not my aim to prove that any particular hymn is superior to any particular contemporary worship song. It’s also helpful to point out that with both hymns and contemporary worship songs, there are great ones – and there are terrible ones. But even with all these potential pitfalls I believe there is value in comparing the practices of the church's current generation with those of previous ages.
Hymns Are Valuable Because They Are…
…Gospel-Centered. Though this is not true of all hymns, at the heart of many of them – and indeed of most of the best-known and best-loved of them –is the gospel. The soul-staking realities of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are articulated and celebrated repeatedly in many of these old hymns. The gospel is honored as a source of joy (Fanny Crosby’s “To God Be the Glory”); a cause for wonder and awe (Charles Wesley’s “And Can It Be?”); the only lasting hope in the midst of trouble and pain (Horatio Spafford’s “It Is Well with My Soul”); a ground for Christian living (Isaac Watts’ “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”); and more. As a worship pastor, I can think of no better use of Sunday morning than to pump my congregation full of the gospel, so that they leave reminded of what Jesus has accomplished for them, and equipped to share his love with those around them. Singing old, gospel-centered hymns is one great way to achieve that.
…Theologically Articulate. Hymns were composed quite differently than modern worship songs. Much of today's worship music is composed music first, and then lyrics and melody are superimposed upon a pop-style chord progression. Hymns were written as poems, many times not becoming acquainted with the melody they would eventually inhabit until many years later. This meant that everything depended upon the lyric. An unworthy hymn text would simply never see the light of day, and what might have been a suitable melody would be wed to another text. This poetry model of composition led hymn writers to hone their craft, both artistically and doctrinally. If an author's text had any hope of finding a home within the churches, he had to be sure it A) contained theology, B) articulated it clearly, and C) expressed it with artistic beauty and excellence. At the risk of over-generalizing, I find that much of what is produced in the P&W industry barely meets any of these three criteria. I've sung songs before (Heck, I've led them!) that had virtually nothing to say, but spent at least five minutes saying it. Of course this is not the case with all contemporary music, but hymns were simply held to a higher standard of theological depth and artistic expression.
…Devotionally Fervent. One of the most common complaints about hymns by those who advocate contemporary worship music is also one of the most thoroughly unfounded. Perhaps you've heard someone say, "Hymns are all about head knowledge and doctrinal precision. I like contemporary worship songs because they're about the heart." If you haven't heard that complaint - don't worry, I've heard it enough times for both of us. It's simply untrue. While it is true that hymns tended to be more theologically robust (See above) than P&W, they did not sacrifice expression of heartfelt devotion to Christ. Many hymns, in fact, manage to feel intensely personal even as they address universal themes. To give an example already cited in this post, consider "It Is Well with My Soul." Take a look at the third stanza:
My sin - O the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole
Was nailed to the cross and I bear it no more
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!
The doctrine of substition is articulated ("My sin... was nailed to the cross"). The Christian's vicarious death to sin in the death of Christ is expressed ("I bear it no more"). So it certainly contains robust theological statements - but it is perhaps one of the most intensely emotional verses of any song I've sung in church. The thought is begun, but then interrupted with joy: "O the bliss...!" When the thought is completed, the author (and the one singing) erupts into praise in response to Jesus' work of redemption: "Praise the Lord, O my soul!" This stanza alone, in fact, bears the marks of all three values I've expounded in this post! It celebrates the gospel, it contains rich theology, and expresses deep exultation in the work of Christ.
Don't Throw It Away
I see churches all over the country discarding every form of tradition, including musical expressions of that tradition, in favor of new and "relevant." I tremble at the thought that in a generation or two these beautiful and rich expressions of faith and worship could be lost forever. Contemporary music doesn't need my defense. It's everywhere. But I hope that this series on the abiding value of hymns might provide a warning note to Christians - particularly younger ones - that we discard these treasures to our own detriment. But really, I don't hate contemporary worship music. In fact, the next part of this series will be a celebration of some artists and resources that I think are providing the church with terrific songs, to prove that my mission is not to replace contemporary music with old music.
But for the sake of Jesus' bride, let's not forget about it either.
*A cyber high-five to anyone who can tell me (without Googling) what hymn is referenced in the subtitle of this post.