Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

Why Singing Hymns is Better than Singing Contemporary Worship Music

Okay, it is time to re-establish some equilibrium in the universe. Sovereign Grace Music is not the only good form of worship, and hymns are most definitely not bad. Anyone who has worshipped with us at GFC knows that we do sing both contemporary worship music and hymns. And yes, that’s a deliberate choice. In my previous post, I tried to emphasize that hymns are not better merely because they are hymns nor because they are older. The best of Christian songs are the best of Christian songs because they focus our hearts and minds most clearly on what God has accomplished for his glory and for our joy in Christ–regardless of when they were written.

That being said, we must immediately recognize that as wonderful as Sovereign Grace Music (and many other contemporary worship composers / leaders) are, they are not the first Christians to be cross-centred, are there are many ways in which singing hymns can be beneficial. Here are just a few reasons why we need to sing older hymns. Feel free to add your own reasons in the comments.

1. Because We Need the Clean Sea Breeze

Here I want to listen to CS Lewis. Below is something he wrote with regard to the value of reading old books. I would argue that the same principle holds true in the songs we sing as Christians, since the songs that we sing are intended to be educational and edifying (Col 3.16).

Naturally, since I myself am I writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old…. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones…. We all … need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books…. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth [and to be certain, the twenty-first] century … lies where we have never suspected it…. None of us can fully escape this blindness…. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.[1]

So while we may glory in some of the advances of reformed evangelicalism in the 21st century, which is producing wonderful new worship songs, we must also be cautious. The ‘characteristic blindness’ of our own age is invisible to us and we will be doomed to be held captive by it unless we’re able to let the centuries of Christians who have gone before us inform us.

Singing old hymns reminds us of the way that our brothers and sisters who have gone before us faithfully testified to and gloried in Jesus in their own day. Singing their hymns helps us see things a little more from their perspective, which helps open our eyes to the subtleties of the 21st century worldview that we would not otherwise be aware of.

2. Because of the Richness of Our History

As Christians, we simply cannot afford to ignore our glorious heritage. Too often we have been told that the history of the church is nothing but shameful. The average Christian can be made to be afraid of church history because ‘we were so bad in the crusades’ and we somehow view the whole realm of church history as belonging to the Roman Catholics (at least until the Reformation). But when we look back, we begin to uncover the treasures of our history that will help us to glory in our God who is Lord of generation after generation throughout all ages.

Take, for example, the ‘Odes of Solomon’ which were written and compiled in the first three centuries AD (either in Greek or Syriac). These worshipful meditations reflect gloriously (though with all the imperfections of non-inspired poetry) on the story of the Christian faith and the love that has been shown to us in Christ.

Look at this brief meditation from Ode 27:

  1. I extended my hands and hallowed my Lord,
  2. For the expansion of my hands is His sign.
  3. And my extension is the upright cross.
    Hallelujah.

So as early as the third century (at the latest) Christians were raising their hands in worship. But it was deliberate: They were making the sign of the cross. The cross wasn’t just the thing they were singing about, they were glorying in it with their bodies as well! We need to glory in the richness of our history, never run away from it in ignorance.

3. Because the Best of Hymns Are Cross-Centred Too

21st century evangelicalism may have invented the cool terminology for being ‘cross-centred’ or ‘gospel-centred’ but the concept is thousands of years old. And that is indeed reflected in the best of hymns from all ages. Take this hymn from Bernard of Clairvaux, written in 1153, for example.

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Saviour! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favour, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

My burden in Thy Passion, Lord, Thou hast borne for me,
For it was my transgression which brought this woe on Thee.
I cast me down before Thee, wrath were my rightful lot;
Have mercy, I implore Thee; Redeemer, spurn me not!

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.

My Saviour, be Thou near me when death is at my door;
Then let Thy presence cheer me, forsake me nevermore!
When soul and body languish, oh, leave me not alone,
But take away mine anguish by virtue of Thine own!

Or how about this one, from Isaac Watts, written in 1707:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God:
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down:
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Singing these hymns and hundreds of others like them not only points us to Christ, but unites us with brothers and sisters from past centuries, with whom we will one day worship forever.

4. Because Words Matter

There are many exceptions to this, so I say it with all the necessary qualifications in place, but I still think it’s worth point out. The form of hymns often tends to better use of English. The form, metre, and length of hymnstend to increase the demand for highly-skilled writing by those with a high level of poetic ability. For that reason, hymns are often better able to encapsulate more truth through more words in better and more memorable images. Not always, but often.

Speaking personally, when I sing to my children each night when I put them to bed, it is generally hymns that I sing, and it is generally for this last reason. I want them to hear more truth in poetic images and rhymes that they will remember into adulthood–truth that I pray God will cause to sink into their hearts and cause them to love the God of the gospel that we’re singing about.

——–

[1] C.S. Lewis, from God in the Dock. As quoted in John Piper’s Brother’s, We Are Not Professionals, 69-70.

20 Comments

  1. Equilibrium, gloriously reset. 🙂 Great post.

  2. Here's something else that bears mention, I think. When we sing contemporary music we are singing music that is at the cutting edge. Very little of it is sung even 2 or 3 years later. Conversely, the hymns we sing have stood the test of time, which attests to their power and longevity. Just about anything can be sung for a year or two. Only the best remain 100 or 200 years later. Time is a natural filter of quality. So I think the average hymn we sing is qualitatively better than the average contemporary song simply because the hymns of lesser quality have long since been sung, found wanting, and discarded.

    • Sure.. but someone had to sing those hymns for the first 2 or 3 years to begin the trajectory towards remaining centuries later. Are we saying there are NO songs being written and sung this decade which will remain?

      • That's not what I read in Tim's post.

        Imagine, there were likely a bunch of hymns that didn't make the cut over the first 2-3 years also.

      • Having listened to most modern worship music…yeah I can safely say that they're forgettable and won't stand the test of time.

  3. Great post indeed! And what Challies said is a thumbs up!

  4. I love those moments when reading the bible and coming across a verse that triggers the memory of a song or hymn learned long ago, yet all the more fresh and powerful.

  5. The church will become what she sings. Much of today's contemporary music is "I", "me" centered and points to us and our works rather than to the glory and splendor of God or the importance of the cross.

    • Bingo. My wife & I have this conversation every Sunday. Usually one of the songs during the service celebrates our feelings or something of the like. I daresay these won't be around in 100 years. Most of the stuff we sing won't be, of course.

    • dhoweprovidence

      19 March, 2011 at 6:29 pm

      I would like to agree, but the Psalms are packed with "I and me" as well as "us and we". They have lasted just fine! I have found myself getting irritated by singing hymns that feel like a systematic theology set to music.

    • Funny I am sitting here listening to hillsong singing we will shout for your glory, we will shout for your praise. You really need to listen closely to the words. We and your not I and me. Contemporary music is what I use when I want to worship God and I'm 53 years old. There is a reason why most churchs that use hymn books skip the 3rd or 4th verse.

  6. Having been around a number of years I have watched as the modern church has switched from a mix of contemporary music and traditional hymns to almost all contemporary. When a traditional hymn is sung, a large number of the congregation does not participate in it's singing, not sure why. Several years ago while visiting a Southern Baptist Church, the pastor spoke about some of the new music in the church and referenced that a lot of it was what he called 7/11 music. That it contained seven stanzas and that we often sing it over and over (eleven times.) Traditional or contemporary, in the end the question should be, is it worship and is God receiving the Glory?

  7. Interesting post! For further reading on this topic I would highly recommend Dr. Paul Jones' most excellent book Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today (http://www.amazon.com/Singing-Making-Music-Issues-Church/dp/0875526179)

  8. I vociferously agree. Most songs labeled "contemporary" are pop-style songs; most can't lyrically or musically bear the weight of gospel truths, and don't lend themselves to congregational singing. Thanks for these articles.

  9. Why not agree to include songs which best meet Paul's Colossians 3:16 criteria (among others) regardless of when they were written?

  10. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPsOWIHd4tI

    I have composed a new hymn..(or rather the Lord has given me a new song to sing)…."Accepted in Christ the Beloved"…but I doubt if it will ever be sung in the churches… mainly because it does not "sound contemporary enough"…..:-)

  11. You are, most certainly, correct. Thank you for such wonderful and needed thoughts. I would add, though, that traditional church music is not by necessity old, but follows a certain set of predetermined theological and aesthetic standards. I would suggest it is important for us to write new poetry in this same vein so that we make lasting and valuable contributions to those who come after us.

    I pray my grandchildren won't be singing to their children the best of Chris Tomlin.

    • at the end of the day it all comes down to preferences and the end result because there is no biblical basis to say what kind of music and from which era we should sing worship songs from, and remember, hymns were once new also. in this age, perhaps the prayer should be for your grandchildren to receive jesus and to follow him with all their heart rather than to not worship using chris tomlin music.

  12. Why do so many older christians pick on contemporary music. When I start seeing the stars, wind, whales, creatures singing out of a hymn book then I will join in. Sing to God however you want to but sing from the heart. And most of all when you walk out the door of the church act like you are always in the presence of God because you are. I'm 53 years old.

  13. Steve Ascension

    5 August, 2014 at 7:17 am

    It’s very sad that those who only use old hymns in their church to the total exclusion of new hymns & songs are really denying that the Holy Spirits works today in new music writers. To conclude that the Holy Spirit does not inspire today, is to border on or invoke Christian heresy into the Church. To say that the Holy Spirit does not inspire modern song writers is to subtract from the word of God or even elevate oneself above God. A church that maintains that view is outside of the cannon & the will of God.

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