It is probably because of my background that hymns never felt boring or old to me. I grew up in a megachurch where we sang the popular fare of choruses of the day. “Awesome God,” “As the Deer,” and “Shout to the Lord” were the songs of my childhood.
It was in college that I really experienced hymns for the first time and they felt so fresh and different from what I grew up with. I attended an historic Congregational church replete with eighteenth century pews, an organ, and a hymn board. It was there that I began to learn of the rich treasure trove of hymns the church had been blessed with by centuries of saints.
The church I attended in seminary and then went on to be a pastor at for eight years incorporated at least two hymns in every service, sung in the traditional style, with organ accompaniment. New Life, where I currently serve as a pastor, has a modern style of worship, but even so, we still have not set hymns aside. While we typically sing updated versions, we still sing hymns about twice a month.
In the coming weeks I will defend modern worship, but before I go there, I want to defend holding onto hymns. Whether or not you sing modern worship as well, I would encourage you to continue to sing hymns.
Why would we hold onto music that is so antiquated? We don’t still wear wigs and corsets, why would we sing music from a bygone era?
Here are four reasons we should keep singing hymns:
1) Singing hymns is a great way to remain connected to saints who went before us.
Hymns connect us to the lives and stories of saints who have lived before us. We know that we will meet the great company of saints from every century and every nation one day in the new heavens and the new earth. Hebrews reminds us that this host is watching us. What a gift to get to know some of their stories and to sing their songs before we meet them. We are not so disconnected as we think. So many rich stories, from the backstory of “It is Well,” whose author wrote those profound words of promise after the death of his wife and children, to the rich history of John Newton, the former slave trader, who penned “Amazing Grace” and other classics, to the hymns that Martin Luther, the instigator of the Protestant Reformation, wrote, such as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Each of these hymns are connected to lives that are worth remembering.
2) Singing hymns is a great way to learn how to read music and sing harmony.
This isn’t the most spiritual reason, but singing hymns out of hymnals is a great way to learn how to read music and a wonderful opportunity to learn how to sing harmony. I think the fact that my children sang hymns weekly growing up fast-tracked their music education.
3) Singing hymns links generations.
My grandma sang “Amazing Grace” and I can guarantee my grandchildren will sing “Amazing Grace.” It is a gift to join generations in singing praise to God together. There will certainly be modern worship songs that endure the test of time, but we all know that it will only be a small percentage of them. The great hymns, on the other hand, will almost certainly endure. “Be Thou My Vision,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” will be sung far longer than I will live.
That said, we must remember only a tiny fraction of hymns remain, and that fraction will continue to diminish. Our worship director pointed out to me that there are some amazing cantatas and worship hymns from Palastrina’s day (16th century Italy) that we do not sing anymore. Their rich way of speaking the truth of God is amazing, but for the vast majority of the church they have been lost (along with so many other riches). Charles Wesley, perhaps the most prolific hymn writer of all time, wrote an astounding 6,500 hymns, and yet even the biggest fans of hymns probably haven’t heard of more than two dozen of those hymns. That number will only continue to dwindle.
4) Many hymns have incredibly rich lyrics.
Perhaps the most important reason that we should continue singing hymns is that they have stood the test of time because so many are packed with profound truth. Some hymns are so deep that they are theological masterpieces in their own right.
Consider these treasures through the centuries:
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence of Byzantine origin, 3rd Century
[P]onder nothing earthly-minded,
for with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.
Be Thou My Vision by Dallan Forgaill, 6th- 8th Century[i]
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always.
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts, 1707
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise by Walter Chalmers Smith, 1867
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise.
Great Is Thy Faithfulness by Thomas Chisholm, 1923
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father
There is no shadow of turning with Thee
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not
As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be.
What a treasure trove! Of course, that isn’t to say that all hymns have rich lyrics—we will reflect more on that next week.
Christianity would be impoverished with the loss of its hymns. If your only diet of Christian music is modern worship, I encourage you to reach back and appreciate the treasure that has been given to us. Whether you listen to them or sing them in their original musical style or in updated modern versions, they are a gift not just to be memorialized and entombed, but enjoyed and used.
Next week we will consider why modern worship is a gift to the church.
The other two parts of this three-part series can be found here:
In Defense of Love Songs to God
[i] Neither the author nor the date of Be Thou My Vision is known with great certainty.