Remember the hymns vs. choruses’ war? When the charismatic renewal appeared on the scene in the early 70’s, it brought with it its own music. And worship music became the front line of the renewal movement. You just knew that a congregation had been renewed when folks raised their hands at worship and used songs from “Scripture Choruses” Volume 1.
Looking back it all seems a bit silly. True renewal was much more complex. And much more costly. But the impact of the new music remained. It is hard to find any congregation today that doesn’t use some of the new worship songs. I guess most of us have come to realize that the battle is not between old music and new music but between good music and bad music.
Paul exhorts us to a life of “singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in (our) hearts to God.”(Colossians 3:16 HCSB) God deserves the best music we can offer Him, new or old.
Recently however, I feel that there is a shift towards the new worship music. I hear very few hymns being used in the congregations I visit these days.
I am told that if you want to reach young people you need to use music that is in sync with their music. I understand this. After all worship is a very personal and intimate matter. I can understand people wanting to worship in familiar forms.
So what is the big deal about using fewer hymns? Because the old hymns give us two key things that the new music can’t.
First, hymns remind us that Christianity is a historical faith. The hymns are a linkage to our past. When we sing, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” for example, we are reminded of the Reformation, and the courageous stand that Martin Luther took in defence of many truths we now take for granted.
Many hymns serve as snapshots of key moments in church history. They remind us that the Christian faith has come thus far because many others have come before us, many of whom have paid a heavy price for the name of Christ.
At the very least, the memory of these saints who went before us should inculcate in us a deep sense of gratitude. We are beneficiaries of their faithfulness and their sacrifice.
There seems to be a tendency among many modern Protestant congregations to behave as though the church only appeared after the charismatic renewal. Or at the very most, after the Reformation.
In truth, it has been two thousand years since the coming of Christ. We have much to be grateful for. When we sing the old hymns, we take our place in the congregation of the ages, praising God with saints throughout history. We are reminded that we belong to this vast community of believers.
Hymns remind us that we are a historical faith. They put us in our place.
Secondly, hymns are often much more theological. For example, I can’t think of a better statement of the Mystery of the Trinity than the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy”, one of my all time favourite hymns.
“Holy, holy holy, Lord God Almighty; Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee, Holy, Holy, Holy, Merciful and Mighty, God in three persons, Blessed Trinity.” (Heber and Dykes)
I have taught the Doctrine of the Trinity to various groups. Or should I say I have struggled to teach the Doctrine of the Trinity. It’s not easy trying to explain about a God who is really one and yet three.
Instead of trying to put our minds around the Doctrine of the Trinity, I often suggest we just bow in adoration in the presence of such an awesome God. Guess which hymn comes to mind.
I really appreciate the new music for a number of things. They are often very celebratory and allow me to give full vent to the joy in my heart. They allow me to respond with something of the abandon that David felt in 2 Samuel 6:16.
Modern worship songs also tend to be personal. While many of the older hymns make declarations about God, the newer songs enable me to speak to God. I can declare,
“There is none like You. No one else can touch my heart like you do. I can search for all eternity long and find, There is none like you.” (LeBlanc)
Living in a lonely time in history, the newer songs remind me that I will never be alone in the universe. God is my Father and my Friend. The newer songs help me to experience this intimacy.
Yet there is a real need to balance intimacy and awe. God is my Father and my Friend. But He is still God. What kind of God is He?
Here the ancient hymns with their theological meat help me to remember. They ensure that I do not become over familiar with the living God. Any healthy relationship with God must take into account both His Immanence and His Transcendence.
Besides, songs and hymns that are theological help me to imbibe key truths about God. Many of the older hymns were written in times when few could read, and when books very expensive.
Most of the saints learnt their doctrines by singing about them. And important truths about the faith were passed from one generation to another through the passing on of the hymns.
Today, we have access to numerous resources on doctrines. Yet how popular are books on doctrines? How many of modern saints take courses on Systematic theology?
They should of course. But many don’t. But all Christians sing. Christianity is a singing faith. Ensuring that our diet of songs and hymns include those that are more theologically robust, will ensure that some of the key truths of the faith get imbibed. And passed on.
Let me put on record that I really appreciate the new worship music that is being written today. They have added indispensable dimensions to my corporate and private worship.
And of course I generalize when I write a piece like this. There are new worship songs that are very theological. And some of the hymns are intensely personal.
All I am saying is: don’t forget the good hymns. They too provide indispensable contributions to our worship life.
I hope I get to belt out a few of my favourite hymns this Sunday.
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan