Theology for the People

Music is one of my passions. For a while I thought that I might be a music teacher. I used to be in a Christian metal band (which didn’t last long at all). I still feel, to this day, that one of my best ways to rid myself of stress is to listen, sing along, or play drums to music. There is a great joy that I experience when I am surrounded by an aural blanket of sounds and words.

I think that many of us feel the same way, even if we may not be musicians. Each of us have had an experience with music in a worship service that has carried us before the Lord’s throne. It is for this reason that we feel so passionately about the music that we worship to. It is for this reason that churches have split (officially or not) over the issue of what music is played in the Sunday service.

It may come a surprise to some that I, a 23 year old, would suggest that the church needs to reclaim its hymns. Most people my age may not agree with me, but I would like to make a case for why we should sing more hymns in our services.

Disclaimer: I do not oppose modern praise and worship songs in any capacity. Trust me, I enjoy some of them very much. I think that modern praise groups, such as All Sons and Daughters, have written some amazing songs that will affect those Christians long after I have gone. However, this particular post is simply a few thoughts about singing hymns in the 21st century church.

1) Hymns Tell a Story

One of the things that I appreciate most about hymns, ancient and modern, is that they tend to tell a story. Many hymns follow a figurative person who travels from one state to another. This resonates with our hearts and our lives. It reminds us either of how the Lord has worked in our lives, and therefore we can use the song as a memory device, or it tells us what we can expect in the future. Hymns show us where we are in the “Order of Salvation” and they show us what we can expect further down the Christian road.

For example, take the hymn And Can It Be?, written by Charles Wesley. The song begins with a person who is coming to the recognition of the Lord’s saving and justifying work in their life (“amazing love/how can it be/that O my God shouldst die for me?”). The hymn then moves to an explanation of sanctification (“my chains fell off/my heart was free/I rose went forth and followed Thee”) and it ultimately closes with a declaration of the Christian’s expectation of glorification and seeing Christ face-to-face (“bold I approach/the eternal throne/and claim the crown through Christ my own”). We can then take the progression of this song and find our lives in the lyrics, identifying with the figurative character that the hymnist writes about and anticipate the truth about the future.

2) Hymns Have Profound Depth

I recognize that not everyone goes to seminary to read dense books and to wade through the Greek New Testament (a worthy exercise that I do not wish upon anyone!). It’s for that reason that the songs that we sing are so important. I have often called the songs that we sing “Theology for the People” because they teach us what to believe about God, without ever having to read a (long) book!

Because of this we must choose our songs wisely. If the songs that we sing on Sunday mornings teach us nothing about God, his grace, mercy, power, redemption, and love, then we are not learning or glorifying God in the best way possible. Hymns are always teaching deep, rich truths about God that remind us who we serve. That is not to say that newer songs cannot do the same thing, but there are time-tested hymns that we should revisit because of the way that they glorify God.

For example, take the lyrics of the song A Mighty Fortress is Our God!:

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name,
from age to age the same,
and he must win the battle.

Or consider the words of the hymn It is Well with My Soul:

My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

I will be honest and say that I have not found anything more beautiful than these things in modern praise songs!

I have recently found that though the words of the hymns may be old (even ancient!), they have given me a new song to sing. When the modern praise songs have simply been unable to put to words the hope that I need for the day, the hymns have filled that gap and have helped lift my heart before the throne of God.

It is for this reason that I write this post: that others, who may desire to deepen their knowledge and relationship with God, may find new life in the words of the good ol’ hymns of the church.