In this second post on “music and church” I’d like to take a look at the positive contributions that both hymns and contemporary worship songs make to the life of the church.
The Positive Contributions of Hymns
1. Hymns connect us to the Christian past
The Christian faith is built on tradition. From the earliest confessions of faith Christians have realized that we receive our faith from those before us and we pass it on to those after us. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 when he talks about the death and resurrection of Jesus, “I would remind you…of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand.” The letter to the Hebrews speaks to us about the “great cloud of witnesses”—those who went before us in the faith. And the history of the church over the last 2000 years is full of rich stories of those who were faithful to the Lord in their own time.
Hymns are a part of that tradition, and many of our hymns reach back over the last three centuries (I think of the great hymns of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley in the 18th century) and some earlier than that (here think of Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” from the 16th century). These hymns come to us as the witness of earlier voices who aimed to express the Christian faith in song. The best of these hymns are a rich part of our heritage. To throw them away would be to choose novelty over what has proven to have lasting value.
(A little personal aside here: I tend to be a person who gravitates toward the old and stable rather than toward the brand new and perhaps fleeting. In our living room you’ll find a large bookshelf almost entirely filled with old books, lightly sprinkled with more recent ones. I assume that the value of most things cannot be clearly seen until some time has passed. That doesn’t mean we ignore the new, but simply that we recognize that the stability offered by the past is not a bad thing at all.)
2. Hymns are well-suited to theological depth and teaching
Hymns, by their more formal nature, uniquely allow us to reflect good theology back to God. They tend to engage the mind and the will more than the emotions. Their structured meters (how many syllables are in each line) allow for texts that are unimaginable in “contemporary” musical styles.
Consider these lines from my favourite hymn, Wesley’s “And Can it Be”:
’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.
Or this verse from a hymn text I wrote several years ago:
Heirs of faithlessness and sorrow,
By our sadness always led,
Now in Christ have found God’s victory:
Resurrection from the dead!
It’s hard to think of either of those verses being sung to a rhythm-driven contemporary tune. But the structural form of hymns allows exactly this kind of reflection to be put into words and sung as a congregation.
For this reason, the church has often found that hymns can be a great teaching tool. People often say, “You are what you eat.” It’s also probably true that “You believe what you sing.” Hymns are interested in echoing back the truth of the gospel to God, in a sense singing the gospel, while contemporary songs tend to sing our personal response to the gospel. It’s sometimes a slight difference, but it is still a difference.
3. Hymns are meant for corporate singing
There’s not much to say about this. Hymns are typically arranged for four-part harmony, giving a specific place to every voice in the congregation. They are generally intended to be sung by a group, not an individual. Since the Christian faith is largely about community (people often remind us that the New Testament letters are always giving direction to groups of people, not to individuals), a music style that encourages corporate singing is on the right track.
The Positive Contributions of Contemporary Worship Songs
1. Contemporary worship songs remind us that we still have something to sing about today.
For all the value of our Christian past, the fact remains that we don’t worship a God who only lived in the past. Our God and Father, together with his Son and the Holy Spirit, still lives and reigns today. The reason Scripture encourages us to “sing a new song to the Lord” is to remind us that God is always active, even now, and always deserves our praise. We can, and must, reflect his present work through our songs, just as we always need to rearticulate the unchanging gospel for every generation. The truth of what God has done in Jesus Christ does not change, but the way that truth speaks to our culture is always shifting.
Along with this need goes the importance of singing those songs in our own voice. If for some people, country gospel is their “music language,” their “new songs” might sound like that. If the “music language” of other people is pop music on the radio, their “new songs” might sound more like that style of music. And of course, if others are most conversant in the music language of choral music/hymns, then their new songs will likely take that form. The point is that through these songs we can bring something of our own life before God through music.
2. Contemporary worship songs bring freshness and energy to our worship.
Whatever your take on contemporary music, it’s hard to deny that it has an energetic quality. The church’s newer worship music emphasizes rhythm more than harmony, which means that they are often about excitement. It’s true, excitement can take the form of chaos and noise. But it can also encourage genuine enthusiasm. And who wouldn’t agree that the Christian church in 2013 could use a little genuine enthusiasm and youthful joy?
This music is usually the music of a younger generation. This music is coming from a fresh voice in the church. There may be lots we’d love to encourage the younger generation to learn and grow into. But any voice that wants to lift its praises to God through Jesus Christ should be encouraged. It does all of our hearts good to hear the gospel in the words of the young.
3. Contemporary worship songs engage the heart.
I highlighted above that hymns are very good at engaging the mind and the will. Contemporary worship songs (generally) focus less on the mind and will, and more on the heart. We need all three. One of my favourite theologians, Colin Gunton, used to say that the gospel is finally about the transformation of the human heart. The mind and the will are involved in our transformation, but if our hearts aren’t picking up God’s truth, Christianity easily becomes dry and stale. Contemporary worship songs provide a needed addition to the serious theology and call to commitment of the hymns of, say, Wesley and Watts.
Within the church, we can be truly thankful for the contributions of both hymns and contemporary worship songs. And as a result I think we should consider that using both can be a great benefit to church life.