Hymns

Rose-on-hymnal-on-pianoI suspect fewer and fewer churches sing hymns any more. My church did away with hymnals when we remodeled the sanctuary last year. We now have one service with “classic worship,” but the music of late seems to be one hymn to every three contemporary praise songs.

What stands out to me when the songs are put side by side is the quality of the hymns and, well, the weaker craftsmanship of the contemporary songs. Often times the latter doesn’t have a very complex vocal arrangement. I’m not a musician, but I don’t think you have to be one to hear the difference when they’re played one after the other.

But of late, it’s the lyrics I’ve been noticing. The last two Sundays I’ve been thinking, I grew up singing the kinds of hymns like “To God Be The Glory,” and it’s no wonder I have a strong sense of who God is and what He’s done.

At least for me, music gets inside me and makes the lyrics live. If contemporary music focuses more on the worshiper (“I give You my heart/I give You my soul/Lord, have Your way with me”) rather than on the object of our worship (“To God be the glory, great things He has done”), then it seems we’ll have fewer and fewer doctrines of the faith reinforced through our music.

I understand hymns are hard. There are too many thee‘s and thou‘s and hath‘s and would’st. But it dawned on me a number of weeks ago, those hymns were hard for me when I was growing up, too. I didn’t understand phrases like “schisms rent asunder” or “Mid toil and tribulation, / and tumult of her war, / she waits the consummation / of peace forevermore,” at least not in those early years when I first sang those lines.

But like learning another language or learning to read poetry, the meaning of those hymns became clear one by one. When I was younger I loved “Trust and Obey.” Now I’m pretty sure I thought of that song as my favorite, not because I was so trusting or obedient or even because I valued those qualities greatly, but because I understood what the words were saying. “Trust and obey for there’s no other way / to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

I’m tempted to say “Trust and Obey” has a lot in common with contemporary music because it does seem to put the focus on the worshiper, but there’s still doctrine woven into the fabric of each line. The point here is, “Trust and Obey” is an example of my “entry” hymns. I understood it and came to love it and that led me to other hymns I understood and loved.

Ultimately, singing hymns was no longer a chore but a rich pleasure. I miss four part harmony, I miss the great truths of the faith put to music. And I’m concerned for the next generation, growing up with parents who have been raised without hymns and with a postmodern outlook on life which has given them a relativistic perspective and a lack of an authoritative anchor.

Of course there are a handful of musicians who saw this situation before I did and who are doing something about it. They’re writing modern hymns. The ones I know are Keith and Kristyn Getty who have written songs like “All Around The World”:

All around the world the Kingdom cry resounds
From mountain town to desert plain,
From city to the shore.
Truth will not be bound by walls upon the earth.
From every nation, tribe and tongue
God calls His people forth

Now if we could just sing those hymns more often.

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Published in: on May 26, 2014 at 6:48 pm  Comments (14)  
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14 Comments

  1. I really love playing Chris Tomlin’s Amazing Grace. He gives a contemporary take on an old favorite. The melody remains the same, but the chorus he’s added “my chains are gone, I’ve been set free. My God my Savior has ransomed me…” I think he’s done an excellent job merging the traditional with the contemporary.

    I try to make sure we have a mix of contemporary and traditional in our service. Speaking as a musician, sometimes the hymns are difficult to play, especially for newer, inexperienced musicians. However, my music professor once told me that the best way to improve on an instrument was to play in church: the songs are challenge…as are the music leaders 😉 Always keeps us on our toes!

    By the way, there will be a Singsperation at our church June 21st. You’d probably really enjoy it. It has a large mix of all sorts of worship music from hymns, contemporary, bluegrass…just about everything. Send me a FB message if you want more details.

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  2. I love hymns — their majesty, solemnity, dignity. When I was a teenager I hated my Sunday school class, so I skipped it to sit in the pew and memorize hymns. I don’t think I’ve ever regretted that decision. Unlike Sunday school, the hymns were not awkward and patronizing — they were real, and they were both profound and beautiful. Those words resonate through my mind every day, helping me through my darkest moments.

    I’m sad that the great hymns are dying out, replaced by fluffy worship songs about shallow emotions. And I’m probably one of those wishy-washy relativistic postmoderns! 😉

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  3. Ohhhh Hallelujah!!!

    Come stars in space and bow down to His Glory!
    Come hearts of praise and tell His Holy Story!
    Let every rock, let every realm, let every voice speak His name.
    Let every song on every tongue proclaim His glory,
    Glory, filling the night with his praise.

    Immortal, Invisible, God only wise,
    In light, inaccessible, hid from our eyes.
    Most Blessed, Most Glorious, The Ancient of Days,
    Almighty, Victorious, Your great name we praise!

    Not with our eyes, but unseen we adore Him.
    Lost in His light, we stand trembling before Him.
    With every breath, with every song, we love to worship His name.
    With every word, with every prayer, we bring Him glory,
    Glory, lifting our voices in praise.

    Immortal, Invisible, silent as night.
    Not wanting, not wasting, but ruling in light.
    Your justice, like mountains, is soaring above,
    Your clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.
    Immortal, Invisible…

    Though we can only see dimly,
    Some day we’ll see face to face.
    Love, once invisible, we will see shining before us
    Crowned in a chorus of praise!

    Immortal, Invisible, Father of Light.
    Your angels adore You, all veiling their sight.
    Most blessed most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
    Almighty, Victorious, Your great name we praise!
    Immortal, Invisible…
    Read more at http://www.lyrics.com/immortal-invisible-lyrics-cynthia-clawson.html#6wCmfSFCYZqZ0vYL.99

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    • I heartily agree! Thankful to be in a body that still sings many hymns, including newer ones like those that the Gettys write. I did not grow up singing hymns and see that I missed out on good, doctrinally sound lyrics that put the focus where it belongs, on our amazing, omnipotent God!

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  4. Becky, I think about this, all the time, because I was so blessed with beautiful, traditional hymns, growing up. I am saddened that many children I know have never heard even the classic Anywhere with Jesus, or Jewels, or Can You Count the Stars of Evening? all of which minister to the individual, as part of the “songs and hymns and spiritual songs” God has ordained for us, let alone the wonderful Christmas hymn, which for some reason, mostly stays out of the playlists on Christian radio at Christmas time, Joy to the World. It is leaping with inspiring doctrine, and I love every verse, as well as O Little Town of Bethlehem; . . .”How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift was giv’n . . .”
    The idea that children do not like hymns is a myth, by the way. We sang hymns to the children before their naps in a Filipino daycare, and they absolutely loved it. It gave them a lovely sense of security, and a positive direction for their subconscious minds, as they drifted off.

    However, our teens tell us at church that they can’t understand our hymns, at all, and I agree with you, that they should have an opportunity to learn. The problem is not their I.Q.; they simply have not been properly introduced.

    Although there have been some highly successful bridges built, between the archaic and the cutting edge versions of songs, some have actually lost the meaning of the hymn, because the rewriter never understood the original in the first place! So I think it is important for people to respect the original hymn writers, and be very careful not to change content, in our desire to enhance understanding of these great works. : )

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  5. I know what you mean about hymns. I suspect a lot of it has to do with love of poetry. Aesthetics can stir the soul as well as holiness. Some folks never take to poetry, hymn or not. There’s also the stateliness of hymns, the grandeur, the numinous — and so many modern christian songs just don’t hit that glory, the sense of God high and lifted up. Because they are so person-centered or so banal. There is a problem with democratic worship in that the lack of poetic skills is considered “okay.” The sense of the vastness, the unreachable, the far-off, the unattainable…is gone. Something in hymns brings together the perfection of words, the perfection of music, the perfection of God and the difficulty of hymns –something to be reached for– is like the medium being the message. I like easy worship songs but am so glad the episcopalian church tradition created in me a love of beauty, order, and hymns.

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  6. Forgive me Becky if this is outta line, but I think it’s worth pointing out. Keep in mind, I HATE this kinda “music”. However… 😀

    Theologically? it don’t get no better n this. Most pulpits ain’t even this solid. Shai is a rappin Westminster Confession.

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  7. My church has 3 campuses, 2 are modern contempoary while the main campus has a soft contemporary and a classic service. I hear the hymns through modern service at our church but also through Bible Study Fellowship. I teach children in BSF the hymns of old/classic but yet it is one part of my day I do not want to forget at all.

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  8. I would like to buy some CDs of the hymns we used to sing in church, but can’t find them. Any ideas of where they can be found?

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  9. We have a 2cd set of Hymns. I love to play it. It is called Top 25 Hymns by Maranatha. I am playing it now! I grieve my children and grandchildren will not be able to stand washing dishes singing Trust and Obey or Nothing but the blood of Jesus!!!

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  10. I’m very much with you … until you cite “To God Be The Glory” and “Trust and Obey” as hymns. In the late 19th century, publishers moved from buying and publishing hymns to primarily buying and publishing gospel choruses. Some of those choruses (like “To God Be The Glory”) are excellent songs in both words and music, well worth keeping and singing and placing on the same level as the great old hymns, but the trend away from hymns is not so recent as we might like to think.

    And if you get one “hymn,” even if that category includes choruses written in the 1940s and ’50s and recent repopularized versions that are half original words and half near-inanity, for every three currently-popular choruses, you have a better ratio than my local church. (Which my family originally settled on, almost a decade and a half ago, partly because it primarily sang hymns.) This is why I’ve been making a quasi-monthly series on my blog looking at old (by which I mean something closer to “old as hymns go” than to “choruses my parents grew up with”) and favorite hymns.

    There are too many thee‘s and thou‘s and hath‘s and would’st.

    Speak for yourself. When I was growing up, one of the main reasons I liked some of my favorites, that I now love for what their texts say and the glory of their music, was that the archaisms were so much fun to sing.

    And while I certainly like some of what the Gettys have produced, for preservation and revitalization of hymnody I’m most grateful for the Cardiphonia project, which has produced several excellent (and freely downloadable!) albums of “retuned” hymns.

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    • I’m very much with you … until you cite “To God Be The Glory” and “Trust and Obey” as hymns.

      Me too. I prefer the old High Protestant hymns — O Sacred Head Now Wounded, For All the Saints, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. Some of the American hymns aren’t too bad — Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing is quite good — but a lot of the 19th and 20th century American hymns are more happy-go-lucky than majestic and terrible.

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      • I’m a different Rebecca. This is not my site. I am for tradition in the churches and if not in them, at least a little on the outside of them. There’s still an audience for classical music, even if they don’t play it much anywhere, and could be an audience for traditional Christian music as well it someone would work on it. I think the Christian music business is fine, but it has a void in it.

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  11. I’ve heard some versions of the hymns updated with guitar music instead of a piano or organ, and they sounded pretty good. I just wish someone would make traditional hymn music on the order of the Christmas carols, and put it on a CD without making it sound like they recorded it in the 1950s. I attended a Catholic church service recently and they sang Protestant hymns. It was wonderful.

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