Normally I answer a question on Fridays, but I’m currently on a writing retreat. I came across these thoughts I wrote down a few weeks ago, and thought I’d post them today.
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.
Great article – thanks for posting it. Recently, I started a new position as Worship Director of a local church and on my first Sunday a nice, older lady approached me and said “just fyi, you MUST sing at least one hymn every sunday”.
Thanks for mentioning some of the titles as well!
For the Kingdom,
Hope your retreat is/was productive. I’ve seen and done “Alas And Did My Savior Bleed” to the tune of “Foggy Dew” as one way to change the tone of the music to something perhaps more complementary to the lyric. I’m sure there are others.
I see you’re listening to the Koln Concert – I haven’t had a chance to check out his latest solo concert in Carnegie, but i’ve heard it’s pretty good.
Great article, Bob. At times it seems that people see leaders of congregational song as a worship music juke box. Just put a request in with your tithe and we’ll play your song. I’ve received several requests on our website for particular songs. My favorite was “Do, Lord.” A woman had recently heard a cd of Johnny Cash singing it and thought it would be good on a Sunday morning.
On a serious note, Michael Bleecker of The Village Church has done some fine modern arrangements of “One Day” and “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.” You can check them out for free on itunes.
I’m praying for a productive, God-honoring time of writing for you this week.
There are some in our Church that think the hymns are to be worshiped. It is refreshing to read an article that essentially says that no song is above admonition. I agree…
Thank you kind sir for your continued desire to worship as He desires and not man. Your writings and heart are transparent and desirous of many.
I appreciate your comments on “Joyful, Joyful”. We are a Doctrines of Grace church in AL but do sing that hymn. So does Bethlehem Baptist (per their song list at their website). We see it as more of a celebration of God’s general grace. We won’t build a whole song service around it, but it does make a good statement to God’s gracious hand in creation. We always sing of specific grace in every song service, centering on redemption through Jesus Christ and His Cross and Blood.
Thanks for all you do!
I appreciate the items mentioned in your post on hymns. Pardon me if I interpreted it in the wrong way, but I perceived a generally negative attitude towards hymn singing in your post as well as in most of the comments. Please let me point out that hymns are a rich tradition particularly in American worship and many congregants worship just fine singing mostly hymns. There are many people who have grown up in churches singing hymns who can quote you marvelous hymn texts that richly communicate the truths of God’s word. They have favorite hymns committed to memory and are able to worship with them at any time by humming or singing them as they go about their day. This is really no different than with other, ‘modern’ worship songs.
I guess what I am saying is don’t discount hymns as some old tradition that can be thrown in periodically to keep the old folks happy. Yes, there are bad hymns. Hymns with theology problems; hymns with bad music; hymns that are difficult to understand. Likewise there are vast numbers of contemporary worship songs with the same problems. I have gone through reams of pages of ‘worship songs’ and ‘praise choruses’ looking for singable songs with sound texts that are appropriate for worship and not merely emotional entertainment. IMHO there are at least as many poorly written worship songs out there (probably more) as there are poorly written hymns. Use the many rich hymns that are out there in your worship just as you do other choruses and spiritual songs. Where do you think the hymns came from, anyway. They are a collection of the ‘contemporary’ Christian music of the last several hundred years. You should hope the songs of today are the ‘hymns’ of tomorrow, as the songs that survive are most likely the best of what we are singing today.
Thanks for leaving a comment, and for your enthusiasm for hymns. I think you misread my post, though. I said, “There are many reasons we should value and take advantage of the rich hymns that history has handed down to us,” and, “Any church will benefit from doing more hymns.”
Since modern songs are usually critiqued more often for their lack of content, I thought I’d point out that not every hymn is a winner, either.
I’m from a church that sings a capella, hymns only (I have attended a church with more “contemporary” music and contemporary hymn settings in the past) and the hymns are one of the things I love most about my church. There’s something so worshipful about congregational singing in 4-part harmony from these songs that have stood the test of time. They are rich in meaning, doctrine and spirit.
That said, I agree that hymns aren’t above reproach. Some are no deeper doctrinally than your average praise & worship chorus. Some of the melodies are hard to sing, tuneless and insufferably dull – though I’ve never yet heard one to be improved any by a modern setting – and some contain questionable theology. Most hymns, though, are theologically sound and created to be sung by the average congregation, and sound beautiful while doing it.
The bigger problem is so many hymns are so familiar – we’ve been singing them as long as we can remember – that we run through them without so much as a thought for the meaning of the lyrics, and they often don’t relate at all to the rest of the service.
When a song leader chooses hymns for a service, they should relate in some way to the occasion or to the topic that the minister is preaching on. It’s always appreciated if the song leader gives a brief thought on the message of the hymn or a certain line that resonates with him, before he starts the singing. That way, the congregation’s minds are focused on the words, and not just the familiar tune.