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.”