“Turn in Your Hymnals to Number 287…”

What We Lose When We Dump Hymns

I grew up in a church that used hymnals, and only hymnals, during Sunday morning worship. Of course, that was pretty typical, as my sons used to say, “back when dinosaurs ruled the earth.”

Well, maybe we “dinosaurs” knew a thing or two. I recently ran across a blog post that noted how much we inadvertently lost when we traded hymnals for newly-composed music projected onto a screen.

On his website, Toronto blogger Tim Challies notes that only a few decades ago, nearly every church had a goodly supply of hymnals; they were the best way to provide each worshiper with copies of all the songs they were to sing on a given Sunday. But today, many churches project the words of songs up on a screen—not just hymns, but songs of all types.

What’s lost, Challies writes , is the sense that the church “had an established collection of songs”– something well-worn hymnals suggested. Hymnals also communicated the idea that each song, before its inclusion, had been carefully vetted regarding its quality and its message.  “After all,” Challies writes, “great songs are not written every day and their worth is proven only over time .”

This meant new hymns were “chosen carefully and added to new editions of the hymnal only occasionally”–about every ten or fifteen years, Challis writes.

Not so today. Now, congregations are asked to sing all sorts of newly-written songs, many of which, to put it charitably, are not likely to stand up to the test of time. Some songs are composed by enthusiastic musicians who often have little understanding of the theological messages hymns ought to convey .

The loss—or downgrading–of traditional hymns means we now have the ability to add new songs to the service willy-nilly. The result: We “have far fewer of [the great hymns of the faith] fixed in our minds and hearts,” Challies observes.

And when was the last time your church harmonized its songs? Hymnals contain music for both melody and harmonies. But “the loss of the hymnal and the rise of the worship band has reduced our ability to harmonize, and, in that way, to sing to the fullest of our abilities,” Challies argues. The result? “We have lost the ability to sing skillfully. We “compensate for our poorly-sung songs by cranking up the volume of the musical accompaniment.”

In short, we sing mediocre songs enthusiastically, but badly, assuming we can be heard at all over the drums. Some years ago, when searching for a new church home, I immediately eliminated any church whose website noted the presence of a “worship band.” And “Christian rock,” if we must have it, should be confined to Youth Group meetings—preferably as far from the sanctuary as possible.

Of course, not all new music is bad, and not all 300-year- old hymns are worth singing today.  What we need to do is find a way to determine what music, old or new, is appropriate for worship and praise .

Professor Donald Williams of Toccoa Falls College has some advice on this matter. In an article in Touchstone, titled “Durable Hymns,” Williams writes that we should examine the music of the past to “learn the criteria by which to discern what is worthy in the present.”

Like Challies, Williams appreciates the judgement of the centuries—music and words that have endured because they are great. In order to determine what is good in modern music, he says, “We must know those marks of excellence that made the best of the past stand out and survive so long.” These marks of excellence derive “from biblical teaching about the nature of worship.” They come “from an understanding of the nature of music and how it can support those biblical goals.” Among them: biblical truth and theological profundity.

Consider the lyrics of a hymn by Charles Wesley :

“’Tis mystery all: th’ Immortal dies!

Who can explore his strange design?

In vain the firstborn seraph tries

To sound the depths of love divine.”

These verses help us obey God’s command to love Him with our minds as well as our hearts. By contrast, too many contemporary songs are “so simplistic and repetitive that theological reflection never has a chance to get started,” Williams notes.

Among the worst, “You Never Let Go,” especially the chorus, which we are meant to endlessly repeat :

“Oh no, You never let go

Through the calm and through the storm

Oh no, You never let go

In every high and every low

Oh no, You never let go,

Lord You never let go of me.”

I get it! God doesn’t let go. Not. Ever .

Another sign of musical excellence is poetic richness, Williams notes. He points to “the simple but evocative word like “wretch” in Amazing Grace, and “the use of questions in What Child Is This? to capture the wonder of the Incarnation. By contrast, he asks, “How many ‘praise and worship’ texts would be worth reading simply as devotional poetry without the music?”

Very few, I’m afraid.

And while poor quality hymns of the past have been weeded out, in some churches today, nobody seems to be weeding out contemporary music—especially music composed by church members. Why? Perhaps because the congregation can no longer discern good music from bad. Or if they can, they keep quiet, because nobody wants to hurt the feelings of the person who wrote it.

Musical beauty is also a sign of excellence in church music. There are, Williams writes, “certain contours, structures, and cadences that make for a singable melody and certain harmonic felicities that can make that melody more memorable or even haunting.” He points to “Be Thou My Vision” and “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” as good examples of such beauty. By contrast, many praise choruses “seem to ignore all the rules of good composition, giving us not well-shaped melodies but just one note after another.”

The good news—if your church music committee embraces the kind of music that makes you want to cover your ears –is that we can sing hymns at home. Make hymn memory part of your daily devotions. Buy or bring home a hymnbook (especially if they’re simply gathering dust at your church), choose a dozen favorites, and commit to learning all the verses of each hymn over the space of a year. Tape a copy of the hymn you’re trying to memorize to the refrigerator or on your desk. If you’re out and about, bring the words up on your smart phone (as long as you’re not driving!) and memorize another line or two. My favorites: “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” “Guide Me O, Thou Great Jehovah,” and Charles Wesley’s magnificent “And Can It Be That I Should Gain.”

I’ve been memorizing hymns for several years, and I’ve noticed that if I start singing, my husband, working within hearing distance in our home, will often join in. When I’m stressed, I sing to God. And when I’m trying to comfort a crying baby, I rock and sing hymn after hymn until it falls asleep.

Much as I hate to admit it—because I love the old hymns– there are SOME contemporary worship songs that are of good quality. (You’ll want to check out Warren Cole Smith’s interview with composer and musician Keith Getty about Getty’s music and his passion to renew congregational singing)

But before churches give up the great hymns of the faith, or cut down on them to make room for songs written last week, we need to think carefully about what we might be losing: Music that teaches us to worship God with our minds; music that celebrates His great gift of salvation while joyously nourishing our souls.

Or, as Charles Wesley put it:

“No condemnation now I dread;

Jesus, and all in him, is mine!

Bold I approach the eternal throne,

And claim the crown through Christ, my own.”

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  • Keith Accisano

    I just discovered Keith Getty last week. I was visiting a nearby church when his beautiful and theologically rich hymn “We Believe” was sung. I looked it up when I got home, thinking it must have been some ancient song, and was shocked to see a composition date of 2016! We need an army of Gettys to write music like this. SO much better than trite and modern sing-songs like “Oceans.”

  • Tyler

    I love this, I think it’s great to have strong opinions, to do so thoughtfully but with passion, and I concur wholeheartedly. I grew up (spiritually at least) in a large evangelical church which I absolutely loved, but there were certainly times when guitar solos and monotonous repetition felt very awkward. I now go to a much smaller Reformed Baptist church, and we sing hymns and Psalms exclusively (some from the Gettys and other contemporary hymns), and I feel like though I’m standing still, holding a book, I’m actually worshipping more now than ever before. And again, I loved my big evangelical church, but I think the music also reflected the theology, much the same way that my current church is much deeper theologically and musically.

  • Sue Stanford Pearl

    Amen. And Amen. Another thing to regret is the dawn of the “worship team” to replace the church choir. I grew up with choirs. Kid’s Choir, Youth Choir, Adult Choir. And I was never the kid picked for all the solos. I never had the voice to be picked for all the solos, and other people did. But I was still a part of the music ministry. And I had a role in the church’s life. However, the Worship Team is a different story. Instead, in order to serve as “back up singers” to the “main vocal performer”, you have to audition as though for a performance. They don’t want/aren’t interested in allowing people with less than the top shelf of musical talent to partake.

    And don’t get me started on the problems with projecting the words on the screen–I am 4’10”. And nearly invariably, no matter where I sit, someone who is a foot taller than I am and with broad shoulders will plant himself right in front of me, effectively blocking the screen. My husband is blind. And because we hardly ever sing the same songs more than twice in the same month, he doesn’t get to participate.

  • Nawon Emmanuel

    Perfect piece there thanks

  • Bill Knapp

    thanks for the article – well done… I must confess that I also love most modern music, as well as classical, jazz etc – I am a musician that plays almost every week in our church, in a worship band and have done so for years… I agree with the article that songs that are rich in theology and biblical truth are the best and usually as well have the best texts and poetry … I love playing traditional Christian hymns with modern instruments … and recognize that there are bad worship songs out there both musically and text wise

    however I think that the article is quite cultural as well specifically American or anglo-saxon culture at large .. I worship in a french speaking congregation (my wife is french Canadian – Quebec) and have so for many years .. most of the people in our congregation came to be followers of Jesus as young adults or later and were not raised in a traditional evangelical church and are not at all familiar with traditional anglo-saxon Christian hymns .. I notice the same thing with the immigrant population and their worship … yes there are traditional hymns from the anglo-saxon hymn books that have been translated as well as some modern songs – but there are more and more songs, hymns that are unique to french or other cultures …

    a recent anglo visitor to our church remarqued that she was astonished to note that she did not recognize one song from the music during the worship …. I really believe that God loves our worship in our lives and song, wants us to dig deep to know him, to continually write new worship hymns and not discard the best of what has been written … if we become entrenched in our ways (either with modern worship or traditional ways) maybe it is a sign that we are stagnate ..

  • blaynechastain

    As someone who loves old crunchy hymns, but not only old crunchy hymns, I find this article (and the spirit behind it) unfortunate. One must be careful not to confuse one’s own stylistic/consumeristic preferences for “gospel truth”.

    Great lyrics/music are certainly not written every day but they are written often. Since you prefer mostly canonized hymns, you simply can not speak to the depth of modern writing that exists today (other than a few chart toppers such as the Gettys).

    Since this narrow thinking eliminates “any church whose website noted the presence of a worship band”, you’re only agreeable audience will be the choir that you’re preaching to. That choir that calls praise songs written in the modern era (17th to 19th centuries) “hymns” and anything recent “contemporary praise & worship”.

    Hymns by definition are praise songs, let’s not confuse the issue with stylistic preference. There are well written praise songs and poorly written ones, both in and out of the pages of a hymnbook. There are poor singers of both modern “praise songs” and relatively older “hymns”. Simply stocking pews with hymn books does not produce great singers.

    It’s quite debatable also that we are somehow “dumbed down” by not having harmony lines written out for us in hymnals. Which takes more skill, to read a harmony line or to sing one by ear? The answer of course is that both are awesome skills to possess and likewise, equally valuable.

    Yes, there should be standards by which freshly written hymns are selected. They however don’t have to stand the test of time to sing them corporately. In most church communities there are those with the required godly wisdom to help with the selection process. It’s not rocket surgery 🙂

    There’s no lack of great new hymns, you just have to uncover your ears to hear them.

    I’ll leave you with the hymn “Steadfast” written just a couple years ago by Sandra McCracken, Leslie Jordan & Josh Silverberg

    I will build my house
    Whether storm or drought
    On the rock that does not move
    I will set my hope
    In your love, O Lord
    And your faithfulness will prove
    You are steadfast, steadfast

    By the word you spoke
    All the starry host
    Are called out by name each night
    In your watchful care
    I will rest secure
    As you lead us with your light
    You are steadfast, steadfast

    I will not trust in the strength of kings
    On your promise I will stand
    I will shout for joy, I will raise my voice
    Hallelujah to the Lamb!
    You are steadfast, steadfast

    In the moment of emptiness
    All was fulfilled
    In the hour of darkness
    Your light was revealed
    In the presence of death
    Your life was affirmed
    In the absence of holiness,
    You are still God.

    You are steadfast, steadfast
    You are steadfast, steadfast.

  • Gina Moore

    Matt Redman’s “You Never Let Go” is encouraging and uplifting to those who are walking through the valley. The Psalms are also quite repetitive as truth bears repeating. I was raised on those hymnals and I can sing every word in harmony without the words (or the music) in front of me for many of them, but I also realize that the poetic language of old cannot possibly edify those of my younger brothers and sisters who have no clue what those lyrics mean. Let’s find a balance that glorifies God and encourages unity among His children.

  • Matt Andrews

    Excellent! Now let bring the organ back too.

  • Joel Stucki

    Money quote: “the congregation can no longer discern good music from bad.“ so true. So, so, so, so true.

    There was a time when the Church was the locus of musical development in western civilization. Now it is a musical backwater. And it’s our own fault.

  • Arnold Kropp

    Yes, I agree. A few years ago, I visited a large prominent local church. If the words had not been put on the screen, one would not know what was being sung as the drums and horns were so loud. I almost expected Lady Gaga to burst on stage.

  • Leonard Canterbury

    I agree. I grew up in a church where we sang the gospel hymnals. Today when I am struggling with an issue, I think of some of those “old time gospels” and are reenergized by their words. Some of these modern day songs do nothing but get emotions worked up. I am not saying that the Holy Spirit does not use some of those songs. Most of thel hymnal songs are somewhat based on scripture. I will concede that if a song brings honour and glory to God, it is worth singing