I love hymns. Some of my favorite people are hims. har har. (Yeah that doesn’t work in writing.)
No one will argue, at least not well, that hymns from centuries ago do not carry great depth of expression and poetry and beauty in their lyrical reflections on theology and doctrine and the spiritual experience of humanity. The great hymn writers of the faith penned hundreds and thousands of meaningful, rich phrases matching the musicality of tunes both singable and pleasing to the ear. there is nothing like hearing voices raised together in beautiful harmony “Come Thou Fount of every blessing” or “Praise to the Lord the almighty” or “O the deep deep love of Jesus” or “When I survey the wondrous cross.”
But then you have those folks who distance themselves from all modern songs because they say there is no depth or they say the poetry is lacking or the tunes aren’t singable. I would bet money that contemporary folks back in the day of say Isaac Watts or John Newton said bah! These songs suck! We only sing from the Psalms. The Psalms! The Psalms! Harumph harumph harumph!
Don’t get me wrong. I love the discussion. I love sitting around with other music/worship leader types and bringing up every “bad” song in the book – think “It only takes a spark” – and reflecting on what makes it a bad song and noticing who says what and how that matches up with personality type or personal preferences. Every now and then, someone I would label as a “high churcher” will surprise me with a song from I don’t know Jesus Culture or Delirious!, and I’ll smile and think how you just can never really tell what a person will respond to.
And for me, that’s the key issue, the response. I often tell the story when talking about music in my life about when I first listened to Linkin Park Hybrid Theory as I was driving from California to Colorado in the middle of the night. I blasted that album the entire 15+ hour drive over and over because it was hitting me right upside the head. The lyrics, the music, the screaming angry vocals, it all came together in that drive for me in that time and in that place and I can’t explain that fully nor will I try to. I just know that when a song from that album comes on now, my immediate recollection is of that drive and that time in my life and you can’t predict that or replace it.
Such is worship music. I’m in the PCA now so the party line is that the lyrics need to be doctrinally sound and theologically deep which is great and I love the rich imagery and poetical licenses taken in evoking great spiritual truths. A fountain of blood, a moon shining full, cherubim and seraphim, and blind wretches. We love Shakespeare set to music and the great thing about hymns is that they, ideally, marry the mental acceptance of the Truth and the emotional connection to the Truth.
But then there are those who are stirred by driving rhythms and repetition – How He loves us, yeah, He loves us, no yeah He loves us, totally seriously He loves us, no really really He loves us. We can wrestle with the love of God in singing that 50 times in a row and find His Peace in the midst of the eternal Truth of His irresistible Grace until it really breaks through our minds and grabs hold.
To me, there is a place for all of it. There is a church for all of it. The “Thee and Thou” crowd will find a home in 18th century hymnology and the “God rocks” crowd will hear redemptive Grace for the first time in a chorus from Hillsong. We are all things to all men, creating space and liturgy to reach every tribe and every nation. Our music should be a bridge, not a gate, and I believe as a local body of believers you choose your type of bridge and you build it and if you build it, they will come.
Probably one of the best things I’ve heard on worship and music was by John Piper who in a series on worship made the connection to church being like a hospital. and therefore, “First do no harm” is our worship team model. We don’t want to distract or draw people away from the centrality of the Gospel in and through all actions taken in the service. We want to point people TO the cross and not to us or strobe lights and fog machines. But I would argue that, for some, the strobe lights and fog machines won’t even register and all they will see is Jesus in the middle.
But we all know that eventually, we must come back to Scripture infused worship. That songs we choose and develop into full scores, the soundtracks of our lives, will be the ones that echo in our minds in the darkest of nights and at times it will be a profound image rhyming and melodic or a simple chorus of Jesus loves me.
For fun reading… The Gospel Coalition regularly has bloggers post on hymnology and worship music. Here’s one I read recently…