Hymnals and Looking Backwards

Should Churches Go Back To Using Hymnals?

This post from the Ponder Anew blog has been floating around the interwebs recently. It’s technically well written (good grammar choices, punctuation, etc) but it falls flat on the lack of strength in it’s own arguments.

I’m sure the author is a nice guy, good husband, and a brother to me in Jesus. But he’s also holding the flag for a past tradition. According to his argument, it’s not enough just to sing hymns. We have to sing them using traditional (old outdated) technology in church buildings with traditional (old outdated) architectural styles. Why? Because that’s the way the author likes it.

The authors post is summed up with three foundational principles:

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When Is It Time For A Song To Die?

I’ve heard and read a lot lately on how to introduce a new song, but the Worship Links blog posted a link to Jon Nicol’s thoughts on the Lifecyle of a song, or better yet, how to put a song out of our misery.

RECOGNIZE THAT SEASONS EXIST

“To everything there is a season” the Bible tells us. This is also true for worship songs, although not everyone seems to have read Ecclesiastes 3:1.

They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. If you don’t recognize that every song has a season, then you won’t be aware and watching for when that season has it’s end. This doesn’t mean that every song you’d played last Sunday is out of date. But out of the songs you did lead, some where at the start of their life cycle, some where in an undefined middle, and some were quite possibly past their prime.

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Hymns and Worship Culture

The Gospel Coalition had a great discussion about Hymns and Church culture. I recommend this video as well worth 10 minutes of your time.

Here’s what I took from it:

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Vocal Range, Hymns and Other Questions

WordPress lets me see the Google searches (who uses Bing?) that bring people to this blog. I thought I’d use those search queries to do a miscellaneous topic post of sorts. So let’s start off with…

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Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

Hymns, Choruses, What’s the Difference?

Do a Google search on the difference between Hymns and Choruses, and I’ll give you a dollar if you can find a straight answer.

According to Eastman’s Bible Dictionary the word Hymn in the New Testament is used for the benefit of Christians from a Greek Culture to understand. Musically the Jews had used Psalms in their music, whereas the Greek used Hymns. If you read the Psalms, some are long, wordy and epic. Other Psalms are short and to the point, mainly in a section called the “Psalms of Accents” which were to be sung by the people on their way to the feasts in Jerusalem. The basic structure of a psalm lyrically is one continuous thought or theme.

The Hymn on the other hand is generally centered around finishing the lyrical or musical thought at the end of the refrain. Basically in modern form we would say that Hymns are all verses and no choruses.

Then there is the modern Chorus structure: Verse, Chorus, Verse.  The verses build (both lyrically and musically) to the summation thought in the chorus. This is of course a very simplistic view of all of these types of songs but I thought it would be good to lay a foundation for this discussion.

What Type of Songs Should Be Sung In The Church Today?

If there is one thing I’ve learned in 12+ years of leading worship is that just about everyone will have an opinion on song choice.

“Hymns are too old fashioned”

“Those new songs just don’t have the same depth as the old songs”

“That’s NOT a worship song!”

And many more. The point is that there are a lot of different expressions in the history of the church, and all of them are equally valid and invalid in their own ways. Twice, both in Ephesians 5:19, and Colossians 3:16 the Bible tells us to sing in Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs. These verses have shaped how I see song selection and stylistic expression in the church more than just about any verse in the bible.

Psalms

In the book of Psalms itself I see both hymns and choruses, but for our purposes, I don’t think I’m too far off to Insert “modern worship songs” for Psalms. I see a lot of good in modern worship songs. The bible tells us over and over to sing “a new song” to the Lord. Amazing Grace, Come Thou Fount, and Be Thou My Vision don’t make the cut for that command. New songs, express the fresh faith, of a new generation of Christians. They also lend themselves well to worship events where Words (overheads, hymnals, etc) aren’t readily available like camp fires and home groups, much like the Psalms of Accents in the Bible.

There are downsides to the modern songs. They haven’t stood the test of time, whereas generally speaking, bad hymns have been forgotten. Not just musically, but there are many modern worship songs with great music but questionable theology or that lack in depth. Many of the criticisms towards modern songs about their lack of depth, unrealistic view of the world (all sunshine, no suffering), Prom Songs to Jesus (if they mention Jesus at all) etc, have some truth to them. Another criticism of modern songs is that many are not in fact modern. What I mean is that if a bunch of musicians with little to no church background became Christians, they wouldn’t write the music that many christians call “contemporary”.

Hymns

Full Discolsure: I consider myself a modern hymns guy, whatever that means. I like the hymns because they have had the benefit of time letting the cream rise to the top. Musically, I find that Hymns often lend themselves better to Modern musical expressions than the “modern songs” of the church do. I can play Amazing Grace in 10 different arrangements but I can’t figure out more than one way to play “How Great is Our God” by Chris Tomlin. Hymns also have suffering. Suffering is a constant in life and a constant in our churches. 1 in 3 women in your church has been the victim of sexual abuse. People have lost loved ones, they’ve suffered unemployment or disability on the job. Many of the great hymns were written by people who had suffered, they knew what they were singing about. Hymns are also a great musical bridge. I’ve found that, generally speaking, older saints are often more open to a new style or expression in worship if they know the songs, and that as a worship leader, hymns have honestly allowed me to get away with more with the 65 and up crowd.

Spiritual Songs

What does this mean? Aren’t Psalms and Hymns both “Spiritual Songs” by default? I’m not sure what Paul meant when he wrote it but I’ll tell you how I apply it.

“True Love” by Phil Wickham. ‘The Pearl” by Emmylou Harris. “Come to Jesus” by Mindy Smith. “Tears of the Saints” by Leeland. They are not really worship songs. But they are songs that the church can sing together. I see these songs as useful and helpful to the church, but I do them at a ratio: Out of a 6 or 7 song set, I will probably only do 1 spiritual song, if any. I see songs like the ones I mentioned as being very good, but only in the right proportions.

Many churches would see these songs as “specials”. Which is music done more as a performance to the church than music sung by the church. There is nothing wrong with this form of liturgy, but I wouldn’t limit the work that God can do through these songs either. I remember being at a church singing “Yahweh” by U2, when the song started I thought “this isn’t a worship song,” and then in the last verse God spoke powerfully to my heart. There is nothing wrong with doing Spiritual Songs as “specials” but there is also no biblical mandate for it either.

The Real World

I said earlier that the idea of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual songs had shaped how I lead worship. It’s kept me from embracing just one style or expression of worship. I’m a modern hymns guy but I’ll still lead a Chris Tomlin song. It’s shown me the place for “spiritual songs” in the worship life of the church. It’s lead me to my current attempt to have a wide expression of music and style at Calvary:Arlington. Hymns are not just “the old songs of the church”, and contemporary worship isn’t as contemporary as people say it is.

Whatever songs I pick I try to follow my friend Chad’s rules:

-Well written -Glorifying to God -Somewhat predictable -Poetic and imaginative integrity without obscurity -Sung to God directly, or of His attributes secondarily -Theologically correct -NOT LAME… all to the glory of Jesus.

Behind the Music: How Great Thou Art

I’d be lying if I said that this song wasn’t one of my favorite to sing and lead. I like where the song takes me, both lyrically and musically. I like the song’s versatility in that it can be serious and somber, or loud and ruckus (which is how I prefer it). I’m not alone in my admiration for the hymn as it was voted America’s 2nd favorite hymn (after Amazing Grace) in a 2001 survey by Christianity Today magazine. BBC’s TV show “Songs of Praise” declared it “Britain’s favorite Hymn”.

The song has travelled on an unusual path with authors through at least 5 countries over 2 contents. The Original song O Store Gud (O Great God) was written in Sweden by a 25 year old pastor named Carl Boberg in 1885. It became popular in his native country and in churches in Swedish ex-patriot communities in Europe. It was translated into German in 1907 (where it again became popular) and from German to Russian in 1912. It was in Russia that a British missionary named Stuart Hine heard the song and eventually translated it into English, adding 2 verses of his own original composition in 1931 (published 1949). The song rose to popularity in American in the mid-50’s at the early Billy Graham crusades.

I love the song because it calls Christians to THINK (think, consider, see) about all the God has done and will do in our world and to respond in worship: THEN sings my soul. The singing, the worship comes in response to THINKING about all the great things God has done.

Behind the Music: He Giveth More Grace

He Giveth More Grace is one of the first “new” songs we’ve done at Calvary:Arlington. The version we do uses the original lyrics and new music written by Pastor Brett Williams from Calvary Chapel on Whidbey Island.

The song was written by Anne Johnson Flint, who by the age of 6 had lost both her parents. By her teens she had developed arthritis and soon after lost the use of her legs. Bedridden, she was covered with sores and lost control of her hands and many of her bodily functions.

The song itself was published in the 1940’s during a time of war, suffering, pain and loss.

If anyone could have been excused for writing dark and depressing lyrics it would have been a woman like Anne Flint. Instead, she focused on Jesus and the lyrics that she was inspired to write were of hope and faith.

In the Revelation of Jesus, where the writer John sees the throne room in heaven and the question is asked “who is worthy to redeem the Earth from it’s bondage of sin?” and the answer was given that no one on Earth or in Heaven was found worthy, John began to wail with tears in despair. This would have been a very understandable response for a lady like Anne Flint. People will far lesser trials easily succumb to despair and despondency. But like the Apostle John, Miss Flint saw “the Lamb who had been slain” and then saw hope for her life and her world.

This is not easy believe-ism. This is not “feel good” faith. This is a desperate clinging to the only hope humanity has. Like a shipwrecked sailor clings to a piece of wood, we who are believers cling to the cross of Calvary from where our hope comes from. We cling to the reality of an empty tomb for the strength to live a world that has caused men and women far greater than ourselves to surrender to hopelessness.

The message of the Christian faith is not the way for us to be strong. It is the realization that we have no strength. It is the moment when, like in a tag team wrestling match, we tap out and let God do the fighting for us.

I sing songs like these as a prayer: God give me the faith of people like Anne Flint, and give me the wisdom to seek Your strength and not mine.

“He Giveth More Grace”
by Annie Johnson Flint – (1866-1932)
He giveth more grace as the burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength as the labors increase,
To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials His multiplied peace.

His Love has no limit; His grace has no measure. His pow’r has no boundary known unto men. For out of His infinite riches in Jesus, He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again!
When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources,
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.