I’ve often heard people suggest that we “do a hymn.” I usually interpret that as a good suggestion. There are many reasons we should value and take advantage of the rich hymns that history has handed down to us. Many of them contain biblically rich lyrics that develop substitutionary atonement (And Can It Be), God’s sovereignty in suffering (God Moves in a Mysterious Way), God’s attributes (Immortal, Invisible), the Trinity (Come Thou Almighty King) and countless other themes. The melodies to most hymns are singable and memorable. Plus, hymns remind us of our connection to the communion of saints who have gone before us. There is a great joy in singing hymns.
But there is not a great joy in singing any hymn on any occasion.
Some hymns are hard to sing (Jerusalem), sentimental in meaning (I Come to the Garden), universalistic in theology (Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee), and offer a questionable (IMHO) combination of music and lyric (Alas and Did My Savior Bleed or Rock of Ages).
That’s why I think we can be more specific when we talk about hymns. When someone says, “I like hymns,” or “Let’s do a hymn,” it matters which hymns we’re talking about.
Hymns aren’t a category of worship song that is above critical evaluation. They aren’t divinely inspired songs that we can just insert into a slot. So I’ve come up with a few questions we can ask when thinking about “doing a hymn.”
1. What do the lyrics actually mean? Is the emphasis more on biblical truth or aesthetic beauty? Both are important, but truth trumps aesthetic considerations. Are the lyrics progressive in nature? If so, where do they begin and end? Do the lyrics take a theme and state it different ways? What specific theme or themes does the hymn address?
2. What do the lyrics actually say to people? Is it overly familiar? Do people understand all the words? Do people like the hymn for the sound or the truth? For instance, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a stirring hymn, but I don’t think I’d ever use it on a Sunday morning, since it seems to mix Scriptural themes with national ones.
3. What context will surround the hymn? Hymns are generally weighty compositions lyrically speaking. Is there time before or after a hymn or group of hymns to reflect on the truths that you’ve sung?
4. What is the emotional effect of the hymn? Some hymns are triumphant, others reflective. Some are somber, others jubilant. Hymns can express everything from repentance to joy to God’s holiness to God’s mercy. Simply saying we should do a hymn is like saying we should go shopping. “For what?” should be the obvious question. Similarly, asking “why” we should sing a hymn will help us to use them more effectively.
5. How will the hymn be accompanied musically? The same hymn can sound very different when the accompaniment is changed from a pipe organ and piano to an electric guitar and drums. And there’s a world of variety in between those two extremes. Thank God for musicians who are taking many of the great hymns and revitalizing them through fresh musical arrangements. Passion and Indelible Grace are two that come to mind. There are many others.
6. Should the melody be updated? Since melodies aren’t sacred, it’s perfectly legitimate and often advisable to create a new setting for the words of a hymn. When we do this, though, the goal is to use music that emphasizes the lyrical meaning, not detracts from it.
Any church will benefit from doing more hymns. But it’s always a good idea to understand why.