After the Bible, the book that I’ve used most often in my personal Bible reading, prayer and worship times has been a hymnal. I’ve had my own hymnal since 1981. It’s a forgotten aid to personal praise, worship and contemplation of universal Christian experience. In fact, many Christian homes throughout the 1800s and most of the 1900s had a copy of a hymnal, and families would often join together for singing hymns.
It also seems that the hymnal is being neglected in many modern churches. They sit in their racks while the words are projected onto screens in front of the church. While there were many churches where many of the congregation would mumble into the hymnal in the past, these seem to be being replaced by worship bystanders who stand around and look at the words during the times of praise to God. In either case, a congregation of men and women who know the joy of salvation can express their joy with either a rousing hymn or a rousing contemporary praise song. The presence of the hymnal in the hands of the worshippers or the words projected on the screen do not seem to make as much of a difference as the preparation of the heart and the presence of the joy of salvation.
At any rate, the danger in contemporary worship is in missing what I’ve heard Ravi Zacharias describe as objective worship, that is, the praise of the nature, character and works of God, in who he is in himself, and what he has done in history through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, apart from the worshipper’s own subjective experience. I can remember Ravi saying how the objective hymns, which declare and celebrate the eternal nature of God, helped him through many dark times. One’s own experience is changeable and temporary, and the objective hymns bring the worshipper into the realization of the eternal, unchangeable nature of God, and how secure a foundation faith in him and obedience to him is.
Even more, I would add that there is a danger in much contemporary worship of losing sight of the distinctive nature of Christian worship. Many songs address God simply as, “Lord”, and do not even mention the name of Jesus, let alone address God in a Trinitarian way. Many do not even mention the work of God in providing and bringing salvation through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ in any kind of reverential or contemplative way. Others seem only to describe salvation as “God providing for all my needs,” which is hardly distinguishable than his providential provision for our physical needs. While I do regard God’s provision of my daily bread, clothing and lodging with deep gratitude, there is so much more for a believer to be thankful for in salvation, in being set free from the penalty and power of sin, in being transformed daily through the Holy Spirit, and in having the hope of heaven and the return of Jesus Christ to anticipate.
The often gushy subjectivism of many modern songs in worship services is often missing the reverence and sobriety which is more suited to the holy God of the universe, and an appreciation of the great hymns of the church can help to correct this. For example, I can remember being embarrassed at a phrase in a worship song which addressed Jesus as, “My love,” and I sung the phrase as, “My Lord,” because I was mortified at using a phrase with such common romantic overtones in worship. Joy in God and passion for God, yes, definitely, but no gushy pseudo-romanticism. My love for God and devotion to Christ is of an entirely different nature than my love for a girlfriend or wife would be, and anything in a worship song which sounds too romantic creeps me out. Likewise, many songs seem to focus too much on the worshippers telling God, and presumably themselves in the telling, that they are worshipping; it seems to be too much a self focus on me worshipping rather than a focus on the God who is being worshipped. Just as much, many contemporary songs seem to have too much “I” and “me” in them. For myself, I’ve lost a lot of enthusiasm for singing, “I’m Coming Back to the Heart of Worship” once I realized how many times the words “I” and “me” were in the song. Then, too, it seems sometimes that a phrase that one chorus writer uses seems to pop up in others for several years afterwards, and I personally call these repeated catchphrases, “worship clichés.” For example, I can remember a song where at a climactic moment the performer choked out an emotion laden, “I want to worship,” and my reaction was to think, “So what’s stopping you?” But for a long time afterwards, a number of other songs seemed to copy that same emotion laden phrase, to where it became trite, threadbare and more or less filler.
So then, let’s break open the hymnals once more. Remember that there is no such thing in a hymn or song as an ‘oldie but goodie’, but rather an ‘oldie and truthie.’ Even more, let’s learn, or if necessary, re-learn the hymns and songs which represent universal Christian convictions and experience, and keep them in our public services.
Here are a number of hymns which I believe reflect universal Christian convictions and experience, and which I believe warrant regular inclusion in our public worship services. It can often be very powerful to align one of these alongside a contemporary and popular Christian song, in a way that the worshippers can understand that they are entering into a deeper appreciation of the truth that they just sang.
“Holy, Holy, Holy” (Reginald Heber). the Trinitarian nature of this hymn and familiarity of its melody warrant it’s being sung at least every two months. It’s a reminder that we worship a holy God who has revealed himself in Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“How Great Thou Art” (Author unknown). A wonderful rendering of praise to the God of creation and salvation.
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (Thomas O. Chisholm). Tends to be sung around Thanksgiving, but worthy to be sung year-round. A great celebration of the faithfulness of God in providence and salvation.
“To God Be the Glory” (Fanny Crosby). My vote for her best. A wonderful celebration of salvation; an example that a traditional hymn is not necessarily boring and stodgy.
“Blessed Assurance” (Fanny Crosby). Perhaps more familiar than the one above, and likewise joyful.
“Oh, for a Thousand Tongues” (Charles Wesley). Sing it with passion and joy, but not too fast. More musically adept congregations could try it in another melody besides the familiar Azmon.
“And Can It Be” (Charles Wesley). From a much longer poem purported to have been written on the day of Charles Wesley’s conversion, this celebrates the joy and truth of salvation in a way which few songs ever approach.
“Fairest Lord Jesus” (Author unknown). Praise and devotion to God the Son.
“The Old Rugged Cross” (George Bennard). In a world where people seem to become more and more proud and conceited, this song redirects the Christian back to what it means to glory in the cross of Jesus Christ (Galatians 6:14) and to take up the cross daily (Luke 9:23).
“Rock of Ages” (Augustus Toplady). Many congregations sing this too loud and too fast, and leave out too many verses to grasp its full impact. There is no other song that I know of that expresses so well and so succinctly the Christian’s utter dependence on Christ alone for salvation, and the utter uselessness of anything that any Christian can add to it. If people in your church have a tendency to give demonstrative shows of tearful repentance at an altar call but show little change afterwards, make this the basis of your altar call!
“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (Isaac Watts). This song used to be sung often at communion services, and it does make a fine accompaniment to the Eucharist. It’s worthwhile to learn and all its verses on its own, without the chorus that was recently added. Again, it shows our pride for the folly that it is in the light of the cross of Jesus.
"Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed” (Isaac Watts). Likewise a contemplation and celebration of the cross of Jesus. It’s unfortunate that the phrase “for such a worm as I” is understood in terms of comparing oneself to an earthworm by many current authors, and not in the much more likely comparison to a serpent or dragon, which is what ‘worm’ actually meant (see the consistent usage of ‘worm’ in this sense in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, where the dragons Smaug and Glaurung are also called, “worms”). Watts was certainly comparing himself and others of the fallen race of Adam to being children of Satan, which is certainly Biblical, and certainly shocking to many overly optimistic modern self assessments (see Ephesians 2:2, Colossians 1:13 and John 8:44).
“Rejoice, the Lord Is King” and “All Hail the Power of Jesus’s Name” Celebrations of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, which can be quite raucous for a congregation that really rejoices in it. Good to sing alongside, “He Is Lord” and “All Hail King Jesus.”
“He Lives” (Alfred H. Ackley). A celebration of the reality and presence of the risen Lord and Savior with the believer. Nice to add with Charles Wesley’s “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” (which has been true every day since the first Easter).
“Amazing Grace” (John Newton). An unrivalled appreciation of the saving grace of God in the life of a believer.
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (Joseph Scriven). A wonderful reminder for those going through deep waters of adversity. I can remember a time when I added this into a worship service, followed by Helen Steiner Rice’s, “He Giveth More Grace,” and found people in tears all over the sanctuary. Many times in our worship services it seems like we concentrate so much on praise that sometimes it seems like that we forget that as we draw near to God, he is ready and willing to draw near to us and give us his comfort and strength.
“How Firm a Foundation” (Author unknown). Another hymn that speaks especially to those going through difficulties.
“O to be Like Thee” (Thomas O. Chisholm). One which gives the tremendously relevant reminder: holiness is Christlikeness, and his character is what we are responsible to display before this world.
“Just as I Am, Without One Plea” (Charlotte Elliott). Many of us can remember how the evangelistic services led by Billy Graham would close with this wonderful hymn, when he would give the invitation to those with spiritual interest to come forward. It’s also one that churches could stand to sing much more, even in the very beginning of a service, as a reminder that we don’t come to God in worship as having any achievements to offer him, but solely through faith in Jesus Christ, and what he has done for us in his death and resurrection.
These are just a few of the riches that are to be found in a hymnal, and a modern church which neglects a hymnal is one which inflicts on itself needless spiritual poverty.
I do not want anyone to be left with the impression that all that I want to have sung in a church are the classic hymns. In my own ministry, I often included many choruses when leading worship services, and I think that many modern songs, such as Stuart Townend’s ‘In Christ Alone’ will be with us for decades to come. I can remember many songs of the 1970’s and 1980’s which have passed out of use, and they, along with many of the gospel testimony songs of the late 1800’s to the mid 1900’s deserved to be left behind, because of dated melody and trite, cliche laden language. It does seem that over time that which does not appeal to universal Christian experience with a decent melody does not last.
My experience with classical poetry (Greek and Latin) and friendship with several others better educated than I in English poetry has given me some familiarity with simile and metaphor. One of my concerns with some of the songs which I’m hearing now is that the similes and metaphors are becoming more outlandish and obscure. While Isaiah could certainly spin a striking metaphor (trees clapping their hands, for instance), my fear is that some of what I’m hearing in metaphor and simile is simply echoing the outlandish and often obscure images found in modern poetry since the turn of the century. What this did was to make modern poetry more something written by scholars for other scholars than something that ordinary people could enjoy.
I’ve heard Ted Kooser, former Poet Laureate of the US, speak on this, and his down to earth imagery has enabled his poetry to speak to ordinary people so much that he has been one of the few current poets to have a best selling book of poems. He’s also mentioned how from time to time he listens to country music because he relishes how well some songs turn a phrase. (Yes, I’ve met him personally, and found him to be a friendly man and a good conversationalist.) I’m bringing this up simply as someone who as a poet himself knows how to communicate to ordinary people through poetry and relishes it when he does communicate has himself avoided the way of these kinds of images.
The upshot of this is simply that good poetry – as lyrics should be — communicates to ordinary people and does not obscure with weird or surreal images and metaphors. To some extent, the King James language and Old Testament imagery in many of the hymns of the church have forced novices to the faith to ‘speak in tongues,’ as Peter Wagner once said. But usually the images are taken from some part of the scriptures. I have found myself wondering what in the world the metaphors and similes in the lyrics on some contemporary songs are talking about – and I’m not someone that regularly needs to have metaphorical language explained to me or find corresponding Biblical images. In other words, I don’t think that the wording in some contemporary songs is any clearer than some of the hymns that I found trite or obscure, and in some cases is markedly inferior. And lest I seem myself to be pedantic here, my concern is that people in our worship find that the songs and hymns reflect Biblical truth and universal Christian experience, and above all the nature and character of our great God as he has revealed himself in his Word. Otherwise, it’s too easy for an experience to be more someone being caught up in the melody of the music and the emotional experience of the group and less by the glory of God. Music can itself have an emotive and even emotionally manipulative quality in itself, based on the style, orchestration and tempo (think the magnificent background music to the Star Wars movies and the Lord of the Rings movies), and my caution is that where the wording is obscure and the music is exciting or emotive that it may be less the glory of God and more the influence of the music that is touching people in the congregation.
A final note on a contemporary song which I think is often wrongly directed: For a long time I had some distaste for the song, “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” I then came to the conclusion that it is often taken at a tempo which is far too fast and with some claps at the end of phrases which are unnecessary. I started to sing it more slowly in my personal devotions, and then the song started to win my heart. For heaven’s sake, the song is a prayer for revival and spiritual awakening! It’s a song which should be sung much more slowly and reverently, with a broken and contrite heart. At the tempo which many churches and worship leaders take it, it sounds whiny, impatient, demanding and downright ditzy!