How do you feel when the song-leader says, from the pulpit, “I’d like you to turn in your hymnals to hymn number. . .” (fill in the blank)? Do you do it eagerly? Do you do it without thinking? Do you do it at all? There was a man in our congregation, a number of years ago, a sweet godly man, by the way, who hated hymns. “Why should we be singing songs that were written hundreds of years ago?” he’d say. “Let’s sing the music of today!” Do you agree with him?
It’s a fair question and has been asked many times in many churches. In fact, in recent years, some churches have moved away from this type of music. No more “Old Rugged Cross” or “In the Garden” for them. Curiously, a number of modern musicians are coming back to the oldies, but adapting the arrangements or perhaps maybe making them part of the overall song rather than the whole song (“Amazing Grace” still keeps popping up in various forms). Often this issue becomes a contentious one. We now have a new term in the church vocabulary. We call this phenomenon “worship wars”. That has an ugly ring to it, doesn’t it? Fortunately, I haven’t experienced it at that level, but in some churches it hits a nerve. Let’s explore it.
Why do some think that the time for hymns is past?
1. Some think that the time for hymns in past because they come from a different era
Sure, there are specialty radio stations, or old-timer concerts, but when’s the last time you heard “Has Anybody Seen My Gal” or “I Did it My Way”? on the radio? Music is an ever-evolving phenomenon. I even hear people talking about how “that song has a 90’s sound”, meaning 1990. Many people want to hear more modern music with fresh styles and ideas. Even what’s considered “old-time” music, and preferred by middle-aged folks or seniors, was once, in their youthful days, “the new stuff” which their parents didn’t necessarily like at the time.
2. Some think that the time for hymns is past because they sometimes use old-fashioned language or wording styles
Hymn publishers do try to keep up with this, to some extent, by replacing obsolete words. Yesterday, my song-leader used “forever” instead of “for aye” in “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”. Those are helpful changes. The word “breast” (used in “Safe in the Arms of Jesus”) is a little awkward today, since men now have “chests’ rather than “breasts”. All of these oddities, of course, cannot be eliminated and people sometimes just have to learn what the older phrases meant, which can be off-putting. In a similar vein:
3. Some think that the time for hymns is past because they reflect a more patriarchal culture
There was a time when “men” was used in hymns to represent men and women. This is seen as irksome to certain folks – which I understand. Our hymnal changed “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” to “Good Christians All Rejoice” (this is also an issue in modern Bible translation as well). I personally have no problem with making this change where the word “man” or “men” represents both sexes, though it’s caught me off-guard in my song-leading a few times. We’re also told to “fight manfully onward” in the hymn “Yield not to Temptation”. Not quite sure how to change that. “Courageously” maybe?
4. Some think that the time for hymns is past because they turn off the youth
“If we’re going to keep the younger generation we need guitars, drums, and updated lyrics,” they say. There is some truth in this, but hasn’t this always been the case? I’m told that at least one of Martin Luther’s songs was based on a popular bar tune. Today it’s an “oldie”. As mentioned, hymns can be updated in various ways – wording, musical backing, etc. and still retain much of their old flavor.
5. Some think that the time for hymns is past because of their theological density
A lot of modern praise music is not complex. It covers a narrow theological spectrum and has simpler, more personalized language. We had that too, of course, with the popular choruses of our day (think John Petersen, the Gaithers, etc.) and both serve slightly different purposes, while each has its limitations.
So should we can the older hymns? I say yes and no. Some of them are clearly obsolete and are best set aside, but others are classical gems and have remained so for good reasons. I’d hate to see them disappear. Let me make my case.
Why are the older hymns still useful?
1. The older hymns are still useful because they’re theologically rich
This is not to deny some good teaching done in praise music. It is. Yet the Bible is full of many critically important teachings, some of which need the hymn format to explore. The set-up lends itself better to this. The older hymns cover a wider range of theology in more depth. Good theology is at the heart of a godly Christian life.
2. The older hymns are still useful because they’re especially well-written
I realize I’m generalizing here. Some old hymns were mediocre and should disappear. But the reason that hymns like “Amazing Grace” have survived so long (it was written in 1779) is that it’s brilliantly written. Lots of the classics are. They’re insightful, skillful poetry which penetrates to the heart of important biblical themes.
3. The older hymns are still useful because they’re meaningful to many in the church
The church is a body of believers of all ages. Each of these folks matter. For a lot of them (not just the older ones), the hymns are meaningful and a pleasure to sing. They help them worship. On the other hand, the praise songs, are more meaningful and enjoyable to others. All of us matter in the local Body of Christ.
4. The older hymns matter because they connect us to the universal church
When we sing “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” there’s a faint echo in the background coming from around the world and back into the history of our Christian brothers and sisters in the universal church. “O Sacred Head” was translated from a Latin poem, first set to music in 1656 and first given a more current English version in 1830. Millions of us have sung it down through time to the glory of our suffering Savior. Hymns allow us to retain the time old connection of the one Body we share in Christ.
5. The older hymns matter because worship is more a matter of the heart
Musical worship isn’t about entertainment. It’s a love song to our best friend. Yes, there are some songs which makes this easier for us than others, that’s normal and okay, but if we come to worship with a tender love and awe for the Savior, it’s amazing what can happen even when this isn’t our favorite song. It’s the Spirit who uses these “jars of clay” to glorify God and to make His presence known and He can do it in many ways, including older hymns.