I was going through some of my old files and ran into this outline. I should mention from the beginning that I am not one of these “only hymns” type of guys but am in love with any “worship” song that helps me focus, lift up, meditate, and think about Christ and when it comes to the local church music should always be a supplement to lyrics when it comes to congregational singing and not the other way around. Generally speaking hymns have played a consistent part in my spiritual growth in the midst of the many new and creative Christian music that has come out.
Kevin Twit of Idelible Grace lectured back in 2006 at Southern Seminary on “Exploring the ‘Why’ behind the Modern Hymn Movement Part 1”. Here is part of the lecture notes:
Exploring Some Possible Reasons Why Hymns Are Resonating With Many Today
- Post-moderns love mystery. My students are much more comfortable today with my explaining that there is a tension in scripture between divine sovereignty and human responsibility than they were 15 years ago.
- The hymns love to sit in mysteries. Hymns are mini-meditations on the “paradoxes” of the gospel that drive us to worship. Spurgeon said “When I cannot understand anything in the Bible, it seems as though God had set a chair there for me, at which to kneel and worship; and that the mysteries are intended to be an altar of devotion.”
- Hymns are an opportunity to sit in a mystery like “And can it be that Thou my God shouldst die for me?!” until it begins to enter into our heart! Another great example is Augustus Toplady’s “O Love incomprehensible, that made Thee bleed for me. The Judge of all hath suffered death, to set His prisoner free!” The greatest mystery is not why is there evil, but why God would suffer for His enemies?! If we ever lose our amazement at that, then we are in deep weeds!
- Hymns engage the whole person by offering a more full emotional range of expression than most modern choruses. Dan Allendar (author and Christian counselor) has said that if we sang more Psalms we would have a lot less need for Christian counselors. Calvin (in his intro to his commentary on the Psalms) says “I have been accustomed to call this book… “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul,” for there is not an emotion of which one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror… …[and] they call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of ourselves in particular so that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and the vices with which we abound, may remain concealed. I think a similar thing could be said for hymns because they help us work through emotions and they cover a wider range of emotions than modern choruses. This is often a surprising point because we associate hymns with a lack of emotion and modern choruses with emotional excess at times. But a careful study will reveal that the emotional range touched on by modern choruses is really rather narrow.
- Hymns tend to engage our imagination, intellect, and will together! Many praise choruses go directly for the emotions, but good hymns (unlike many of the melodramatic gospel songs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries), give us rich language and images that require us to think and imagine as the way to stir the passions. While praise choruses do use imagery, many times they are stuck in the same limited number of clichés that no longer engage our imaginations. The scriptures are full of diverse images and our songs should reflect this creativity too! For example, “I trace the rainbow through the rain, and feel the promise is not vain” (from “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go” by Matheson) recalls the covenant with Noah and applies it to our current situation in a rich way.
- Hymns broaden our range of metaphors. Modern choruses tend to be pretty limited in the metaphors used, in contrast to the rich range of metaphors we find in scripture and in the classic hymn tradition. The reason this matters is that as Peter Matheson argues in “The Imaginative World Of The Reformation”, “When your metaphors change, your world changes with them.” Postmodern people think more in terms of metaphor and image than linearly, and in the hymn tradition we have a great resource to engage this generation! People are getting tired of same old clichés! (See Brian McLaren’s “Open Letter To Songwriters’ in Worship Leader)
- Hymns are great art! The arts, stories, poetry, music all combine to sneak into the heart by the backdoor – something increasingly important for our ministry to the coming generations. “How will you reach this post-modern generation – a generation that cannot conceive of objective truth, cannot follow your linear arguments, cannot tolerate anything (including evangelism) that smacks of religious intolerance?” (Kevin Ford)
- Hymns remind us that the church is bigger than the people we know, or even who are alive today! Through hymns we can connect with believers who lived centuries before us! We can have “mystic sweet communion, with those whose rest is won.” (from “The Church’s One Foundation” by Stone) When I introduce people to Anne Steele’s hymns (like “Dear Refuge Of My Weary Soul”) they are struck by the powerful way she dealt with her immense suffering and find that her cries can become their cries, and her tears can join with their tears, and that her faith can encourage their faith. To see that we can connect with an English lady who lived in a small village 300 years ago and feel what she felt is powerful. All of the sudden the kingdom of God grows much bigger! Thus it really helps to study the stories behind the hymns!
- Hymns focus us on God’s promises more than upon ours! We grow by feeding on God’s character revealed and by feasting on His promises. Many modern choruses, with their almost constant emphasis on what we want to do, (“Lord I just want to …”) fail to teach us to rely on God’s love for us as 1John 4:16 says (“We know and rely on God’s love for us”). We need to recall Augustus Toplady’s hymn “Rock of Ages” 9originally titled “A living and dying prayer for the holiest believer on earth”): “Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone, thou must save and thou alone!” –many of my students have grown weary of a Christianity that is all about what I just wanna do.