Why I Grieve the Loss of Hymns in My Generation

By Wednesday, October 28, 2015 ,

I grew up singing hymns. My weekly dose of worship at church included a wide range, from really old ones like “Be Thou My Vision” (could have been written as far back as the eighth century), to modern ones like “In Christ Alone” (written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend in the early 2000’s). But in recent years, I’ve realized how much I took it for granted. I look back now and am so thankful for the constant presence of hymns in my life. I grew up in a church that sang them, I attended a summer camp that sang them, and my college church and campus ministry sang nothing else. I’ve preferred hymns to contemporary worship songs for a long time, but a defining moment for me came last year – I mentioned the hymn “Fairest Lord Jesus” to a friend only a few years older than me, and she said she’d never heard it before. I wanted to cry.

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I believe the loss of hymns in my generation is indeed a great loss for many reasons. Let me offer the disclaimer upfront that I’m not saying there is anything inherently wrong or sinful about contemporary worship songs. However, I do believe that in many ways, hymns have more to offer, and they are certainly important to preserve. Thus, I am deeply saddened by how it seems that fewer and fewer people my age know them. 
For starters, I think it’s important to explain what I mean by “hymn.” Among many my age, the word “hymn” conjures up images of stiff, bored churchgoers reciting long, complicated phrases out of a hymnal with a melancholy pipe organ playing in the background. If that matches your perception of hymns, I beg you to put that aside. “Hymn” simply refers to the structure of the song. Usually, a hymn is made up of several multi-line stanzas that are all sung to a repeated melody, and there’s often no chorus between these stanzas. That recurring melody is also usually easy to pick up quickly, even for those with no musical experience. I mentioned “Be Thou My Vision” earlier, which most of us surely have heard even if you are a twenty-something. Think about it for a moment. It has no chorus, and each verse is made up of four to five lines and are all sung to the same melody. It’s okay – go ahead and sing it in your head. 

So, that is what you should think of when you hear “hymn.” Yes, they can be sung slowly and unemotionally, but they can also be sung at an upbeat pace with plenty of emotion. I’ve participated in it and I’m thankful. Many hymns are old, but new ones are still being written! Keith and Kristyn Getty, original writers of “In Christ Alone,” “Power of the Cross,” and “O Church Arise,” are probably the most popular hymn writers of the present day and have been wildly successful at blending traditional hymn styles with modern wording and tunes. Do yourself a massive favor and look them up. Their songs are magnificent, and I’ll be referencing them here. Having said all that, I now want to share why I think hymns are so important and why I believe they’re better in many ways than contemporary songs. 

1. Hymns engage the mind and the heart in an age that prioritizes instant gratification and how things feel 
Instantaneous results and touchy-feely things are the order of the day we live in. And many contemporary worship songs seem to fit that. Quite often, a contemporary worship song has an emotional, “spiritual high” feel to it, but requires much less of the mind. Take for instance the popular song “How He Loves.” The verses talk about the believer realizing the greatness of God’s love, an idea conveyed through a few different images – a tree bending “beneath His wind and mercy,” the Lord’s love compared to a hurricane, and His grace compared to an ocean. But the song lends itself to an “emotional high” feeling, expressed heavily in the chorus that’s sung many times throughout with a couple of key changes at certain points – 

Yeah He loves us 
Oh how He loves us 
Oh how He loves us 
Oh how He loves

Again, there is nothing wrong with any of that. But whenever I’ve sung that song and others like it in groups, the focus has been on feeling loved and feeling good rather than on God Himself. As I once heard John Piper so eloquently put it, the mind informs the emotions. Thus, I think there’s much to be said for songs that engage us intellectually as well as emotionally. 

Think back to “Be Thou My Vision.” Each verse is about something different as it discusses the overarching idea of the Lord’s all-sufficiency for the believer. As you sing, the words help you examine that characteristic of God from many different angles. It takes you on a journey, so to speak, as you sing. I absolutely love that about hymns. Compare “How He Loves” to the modern hymn “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” Both songs are about God’s love, but look at how differently it’s expressed in “How Deep the Father’s Love.” It declares that the Father’s love was shown to its fullest in the crucifixion of Christ, and then proceeds to study the crucifixion from various viewpoints – the Father turning His back on the Son, the Son’s agony on the cross, the sin that put Him to that violent death, the mocking crowds, and the redeemed sinner who humbly accepts the Father’s love. It tells a story. It makes you think seriously about sin and guilt and the crucifixion, a view which then leads to the heartfelt thankfulness and joy of the last verse. If the mind informs the emotions, who wouldn’t feel humbled and grateful after meditating on the death of Christ as it’s expressed in that song? I know I do whenever I sing it. And that’s the pattern of many hymns – they lead the singer’s mind to meditate on rich truth, which then fosters deeper delight in the Lord. Theology (“study of God”) fuels joy in Him, and hymns help us do both, as I’ll now expound on. 
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2. Hymns engage the singer in deep theology and Scripture 
A few years ago, Keith and Kristyn Getty’s most well-known hymn, “In Christ Alone,” was removed from the hymnal of the PCUSA church because the Gettys refused to allow the leadership to change the phrase, “the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the love of God was magnified.” I was happy to hear it. Yes, God is loving, but He is also wrathful and just. I’ve noticed that scores of contemporary songs talk of God’s love, and very few discuss sin or judgment. While God’s goodness and love are wonderful things to sing about, it’s incomplete theology. To be sure, there are many hymns that discuss these things too, but there are also many hymns that talk about man’s sin and God’s wrath. They give us both. “In Christ Alone” is literally theology put to music. It takes you through the life of Christ, beginning and ending with the conviction that Christ is the foundation and ultimate hope for the believer. It sings of Jesus when He was the scorned, murdered Son on the cross and when He arose the victorious Savior. We need to be reminded of both because one does not exist without the other, and too often, contemporary songs are lacking here. Rich theology is frequently just not present in them, which is a major reason I prefer hymns. Take the comparison I gave of “How He Loves” to “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” Aside from the emotional versus intellectual aspect, just look at how much more theology and Scriptural truth is present in “How Deep the Father’s Love.” 

Another comparison that comes to my mind is the contemporary song “Happy Day” next to “Christ is Risen, He is Risen Indeed” by Keith and Kristyn Getty. Both songs celebrate Christ’s resurrection, but to me, “Happy Day,” is almost trite and flat next to this hymn. The chorus really seems meant as the most exciting part of the “Happy Day”, which reads,

Oh happy day, happy day 
You washed my sin away 
Oh happy day, happy day 
I’ll never be the same 
Forever I am changed 

And it repeats a lot whenever I’ve sung it in groups, which honestly can make it mindless. Again, while there’s nothing wrong or untrue in it, it doesn’t offer as much biblical meat as a good hymn does. The Gettys’ hymn “Christ is Risen, He is Risen Indeed” sings of the resurrection and is centered on almost straight Scripture. It begins and ends with expressions of joy in Christ’s defeat of death, and the verses between discuss the disciples’ surprise and delight at Jesus’ resurrection and then their newfound boldness to preach His name. In general, you just don’t see that in contemporary worship songs. The theological depth and Scripture-centeredness of hymns instruct more and give more on which to meditate, and there is beauty in that. 

3. In general, hymns are written more thoughtfully, richly, and skillfully than contemporary songs  
Which brings me to this last point. Hymns are beautiful. They’re well-written and use rich language. This means a lot to me since I’m such a sucker for pretty words, but I do believe there’s something to be said for excellence and thoughtfulness in writing a song for the Lord. The most common complaint I hear about hymns is that so many of them are old and use words people don’t understand. Well, what’s the problem with prompting someone to find out what an “Ebenezer” or a “potentate” is? What’s wrong with singing a song that someone would need to revisit later to further study the words? We’re supposed to seek knowledge of God, and once you know what an “Ebenezer” is, the hymn “Come Thou Fount” will have deeper meaning for you. What’s more, songs that use that kind of language demonstrate an overall better quality than many contemporary worship songs. I know many people will get mad at me for that, but there is a noticeable difference in lyric quality when you compare such hymns as “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” “Fairest Lord Jesus,” and “How Firm a Foundation” to contemporary songs like “Oceans,” “Our God,” or “You Came to My Rescue.” At the most basic level, hymns appear to have more thought put into them, as the lyrics are more varied and often tell a story. 
Singing at Reformed University Fellowship, the campus ministry that I was part of in college. The hymns we sang were one of my favorite things about it.
If you didn’t grow up on hymns, or if any of this makes you balk, can I encourage you to just listen to some good renditions of hymns? I have a playlist on Spotify chock-full of them, and here are two awesome resources for all the classics: http://www.hymnary.org/ and http://hymnbook.igracemusic.com/hymns. And please visit Keith and Kristyn Getty’s website and find them on Spotify to have your soul refreshed! They’re amazing: http://gettymusic.com/

Thanks for reading if you made it to the end. I know this is a touchy subject, so thanks for listening. Again, please don’t think I’m saying contemporary songs are wrong – I can enjoy singing them! I just think hymns are more valuable and need to be preserved. I hope you’ll join me in that.

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