In his book, Christian Leaders of the 18th Century, J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) spends a chapter on August Toplady, the gifted but often contentious hymn-writer/pastor who penned “Rock of Ages.”
I appreciated Ryle’s comments on the effect of writing good songs for the church to sing. It makes me more aware of the importance of leading and writing songs for congregational worship.
Good hymns are an immense blessing to the Church of Christ. I believe the last day alone will show the world the real amount of good they have done. They suit all, both rich and poor. There is an elevating, stirring, soothing, spiritualizing, effect about a thoroughly good hymn, which nothing else can produce. It sticks in men’s memories when texts are forgotten. It trains men for heaven, where praise is one of the principal occupations. Preaching and praying shall one day cease for ever; but praise shall never die. The makers of good ballads are said to sway national opinion. The writers of good hymns, in like manner, are those who leave the deepest marks on the face of the Church. (382)
What a difference a worship song writer can make! But in the next paragraph, Ryle criticizes many of the hymns that were being sung in his time. His comments are just as relevant today.
But really good hymns are exceedingly rare. There are only a few men in any age who can write them. You may name hundreds of first-rate preachers for one first-rate writer of hymns. Hundreds of so-called hymns fill up our collections of congregational psalmody, which are really not hymns at all. They are very sound, very scriptural, very proper, very correct, very tolerably rhymed; but they are not real, live, genuine hymns. There is no life about them. At best they are tame, pointless, weak, and milk-and-watery. (382)
If you’re a songwriter, don’t settle for a “milk-and-watery” product. Strive to write the best songs you can. Edit, edit, and re-edit. And if you’re a worship leader, don’t feed your people songs that “have no life” in them and will only have a temporary effect. Choose the greatest songs – lyrically, melodically, and musically – for your church to sing.
“The last day alone will show the world the real amount of good they have done.”
Great thoughts Bob, thanks for the reminder!
I remember Keith Getty emphasizing during a workshop at Worship God that songwriters must realize that the church is already supplied with great hymns and flooded with mediocre ones. If we are going to add to the church’s song book, it’s going to take a LOT of work.
But it’s a joy striving isn’t it?
Bob, what songs/hymns that have been produced lately do you think will last until “the last day”?
Some songs I think will be around for decades are: In Christ Alone (Getty/Townend), Before the Throne of God Above (Charitie Bancroft/Vikki Cook), I Will Glory in My Redeemer (Steve & Vikki Cook) maybe Blessed Be Your Name (Matt Redman), and I hope many others…I tend to think it’s the hymn-like songs that will have the longest shelf life because they can be done in so many different styles.
Thank you for sharing Ryle’s thoughts today. His observations are still spot on for today. Thank you for your ministry to the church in this area as well. Although I have committed much Scripture to memory, I find my first thought in the morning to be in the form of song that not only rehearses Scripture, but does so in a way that focuses my mind on the greatness of its Author.
Thanks Bob. I appreciate Ryle’s insight that hymns can be “very sound, very scriptural, very proper, very correct, very tolerably rhymed” and yet not be “real, live, genuine hymns”.
One thing’s for sure: Sovereign Grace Music falls into the category good hymns. There’s nothing “milk & watery” about this music! I can’t tell what a blessing all of the different projects have been in my husband’s & my lives. We even give them out to help others, especially “Come Weary Saints” to those who are in trials. We are truly thankful for the work you all do for God’s glory & our good! I truly believe that “the last day alone will show the world the real amount of good they have done”.
Ryle’s complaint with the mediocre hymns of his day had more to do with a more subjective, musical quality than with the content. He said they were usually “very sound, very biblical, very correct, very proper,” but just missing a certain life that the great hymns had.
Do you guys really think this critique is applicable to much of the contemporary worship scene? My main problem with much of what is written today and passed off as “worship music” is that is indeed NOT sound, biblical, proper, and correct. Seems to me that even the mediocre hymns of which Ryle speaks had something that many modern worship songs don’t have.
Am I off base here?
Great point. I think it goes both ways. I listen to a lot of songs that have good words with mediocre music. On the broad level, there are probably more songs with weak words than weak music. Having said that, I think a lot of modern worship songs have Scriptural words, but leave no lasting impact on the heart.
Wow, this really resonates! It’s EXACTLY the case that history–even church history–continually repeats itself. Ryle’s comment that for every 100 great preachers there’s 1 great hymn-writer is powerful. This is why I’m grateful for the ministry of re-hymners like Sovereign Grace, Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Church, and Sojourn Community Church. And it’s why I’ve jumped on the bandwagon of setting old hymns to new texts. I’d rather take time-tested texts that are lasting and re-give them to new generations. It seems like a more valuable, lasting, and “economic” use of my creative energy. I’ll have to get Ryle’s book. That’s just too good.
I struggle with what may be good songs and hymns, but the artists that write and record themtrun me off with their hyper feminine sound. I cannot worship with an male artist who sounds breathy, wimpy, whiny, pansy, and girlie. Likewise, when I hear an otherwise good song by a female artist who adds sensual sound noises and breaths, I cannot listen anymore. I know this is off the issue of content and musical quality, but it affects me–whether I even want to hear the song again.
I love the songs you have mentioned, Bob. I love pretty much all of Sovereign Grace music. I would sincerely love it and be extremely grateful if you or those who breathe the same air as you do would produce a comprehensive (as much as possible) list of worship songs and hymns that you think are really good and lasting. Much grace to you.
My father is a songwriter and his advice to me when writing is that for every 30 songs you write there might be one “keeper”. For all the hymns that we remember of Watts, Westley, or Crosby there are hundreds of forgotten, mediocre hymns.
So what’s the key to writing a “real, live, genuine hymn”? talent? a gift? a special anointing of the Spirit?
I would suggest that a daily discipline of songwriting is a big part of it.
I love what you said Bob, its amazing to think of how difficult it is to write a great song that is profound, yet simple, and brings people to a closer relationship with God.
I have recently written and recorded a new song for my church which is filled with people who have no real knowledge of what praise is about, or its function in their lives. If you get a chance, listen to it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJppfLGXrss I would love to hear what you think of it in context to your article, and to hear your feedback to make it better for my people.
with all due respect, most of this is way too subjective and based on cultural upbringing and personal opinion.
One thing that is more objective then others is if a songs message lines up with the scriptures, you have some basis for an argument here, but it’s mostly about doctrine at that point I think.
A lot of songs are personal expression of the writer at that moment and seem very good but when you think about it … what am I singing?
for example “I am coming back to the heart of worship…” great song, love it… but I am not sure I am away from the “heart of worship” today … well most times it is relevant I guess :-)
I kind of agree with my wife (she wrote great stuff by the way) on this, my favorite songs are the ones that proclaim Gods attributes, or are about Him and to Him in their lyrics. Not to discourage personal ones, just speaking in context of congregational worship.
Anyway all I was trying to say is that definition of “milk-and-watery” is itself very “milk-and-watery”.
I think we need to re-look at the context J.C. Ryle is coming from. He seems to me to be talking about corporate worship more than personal worship. I agree with you that personal worship would be much more based on “cultural upbringing and personal opinion/expression.” However, corporate worship as J.C. is getting at, is what we will be doing for eternity together glorifying the same God. Just like in Revelation 4, for example. Is that chorus “tame, pointless, weak, or milk-and-watery?” I hope not! Because to me it has life, longevity, sticks in my memory, and I think God revealed this to John to leave a deep mark on our, the churches, hearts as to who He is and why all of His creation will worship Him for eternity!
I hope this helps with perspective, so we can continue to work hard at our craft with the goal of leaving that mark/legacy on the church and honor/serve our God with what He has given us.