Hymnals? We don’t need no stinkin’ hymnals!

A couple days ago I read a blog post from Tim Challies called, “What We Lost When We Lost Our Hymnals.” Mr. Challies is quick to point out that he is not advocating a return to hymnals, but wants us to consider what happens when we switch media in the church. With no malice or animosity, I wanted to take a brief moment to respond to his article. He writes:

We lost an established body of songs. Hymnals communicated that a church had an established collection of songs. This, in turn, communicated that its songs were vetted carefully and added to its repertoire only after careful consideration. After all, great songs are not written every day and their worth is proven only over time.

True, a book of songs is quite restrictive on a congregation’s musical repertoire.  The idea that all of the songs in a given hymnal were vetted carefully and after careful consideration is not quite true. Have you ever gone through a hymnal? I have. I have a copy of the hymnal my church used when I was growing up. And lemme tell ya, THEY AREN’T ALL GEMS!

Sure, there are the greats that we all know and love. But my 50 year old hymnal has 504 songs! That means that, within our musical canon, there was a functional canon of songs we always did and songs that we NEVER did. Many of those we never did are not great music. they aren’t memorable nor are they especially inspired. I’m not even going to mention the patriotic songs that wound up in many hymnals. 😦

Finally, the Bible never calls us to an “established” body of songs. Psalm 96 encourages us:

Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth!

SOMEONE’S gotta write the new songs. And when the Apostle encourages us to singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, there’s no mention of the old standards which were appropriate for use. Since God is a Living God who is actively involved in the lives of believers, it seems perfectly normal that our worship can reflect what God is doing here and now. Hymns of old? Great! Songs extolling the ongoing work of God in the world? Wonderful!

Mr. Challies continues:

We lost a deep knowledge of our songs. When we removed the hymnal, we gained the ability to add new songs to our repertoire whenever we encounter one we deem worthy. This reduces our familiarity with our songs so that today we have far fewer of them fixed in our minds and hearts.

Sure, we don’t remember the songs of old any more. But they aren’t Scripture – there’s nothing sacred about one generation’s worship music. There are powerful songs written today that are rich with good theology and musicality. They aren’t any less wonderful just because they were written 150 years too late. This kind of ageism says that “older is better” when it isn’t. Older is older. We venerate the songs that were powerful when we had a tremendous religious experience and we look down on songs from other people’s experience. But radio, Spotify, YouTube, and iTunes has give people a wide variety of options to fix wonderful music in our minds and hearts.

We lost the ability to do harmonies. Hymnody grew up at a time when instrumentation took a back seat to the voice. Hymns were most often written so they could be sung a cappella or with minimal instrumentation. For that reason, hymnals almost invariably included the music for both melody and harmonies and congregations learned to sing the parts. The loss of the hymnal and the associated rise of the worship band has reduced our ability to harmonize and, in that way, to sing to the fullest of our abilities.

Okay, this is just bunk. I’ve been part of hymnal-using churches, and some of them were simply awful with no ability to harmonize. Since most people cannot read music, having notated music means nothing. Churches that utilized hymnals would have a couple people who could harmonize, and others would follow the examples of others to learn voice parts.

This can STILL happen with worship bands. Many modern worship bands have 2-3 part harmonies. People in the church simply have to follow the vocalist that fits their range. But please continue, Mr. Challies.

We lost the ability to sing skillfully. As congregations have lost their knowledge of their songs, they have lost the ability to sing them well. We tend to compensate for our poorly-sung songs by cranking up the volume of the musical accompaniment.

Again, just because a church uses a hymnal does not mean anything about the skill and ability of the church. I know of many worship bands that spend a lot of time practicing so that they can be skillful and lead people skillfully. Perhaps Mr. Challies hasn’t spent enough time with the hymnal-using churches that sound like dying cats, but trust me – they’re out there!

We lost the ability to have the songs in our homes. Hymnals usually lived at the church, resting from Monday to Saturday in the little pockets on the back of the pews. But people also bought their own and took them home so the family could have that established body of songs there as well. Families would often sing together as part of their family worship. It is easy to imagine a family singing “It Is Well With My Soul” after eating dinner together, but almost impossible to imagine them singing, “Oceans.”

oceansAh, there it is – the crack against “Oceans.” It seems to be a common theme among Reformed believers. This comes across and being petty and merely personal opinion. I know for a fact that families can sing “Oceans” together because I have witnessed my wife doing it with our children. We utilize Spotify and YouTube to bring worship music into the house. Our kids are growing up around it, and the music they hear at the church is reflected in the home. The issues is not so much about hymnals versus modern media as it is about Christian parenting, and it’s less than honest to blame media for parenting failure.

Mr. Challies finishes his article with this line:

That little change from book to screen changed nearly everything.

overhead-projectorI really don’t think it did. Before the PowerPoint revolution, churches decades ago made the switch from hymnal to using overhead projectors and transparency pages.

The hymns of old and the “new” choruses of the 70s-80s were printed on the overhead transparencies and one poor soul was designated to change the overheads, making sure to slide the page up or down so that the words were never cut off! HAHA – good times! And people complained then. I heard one octogenarian refer to the choruses from the 80s as “ding-dong-ditties.” HE HATED THEM! But people have always been complaining against new songs and media in worship.

But isn’t God bigger than a hymnal? Isn’t God bigger than your favorite 150 year old song (that used to be one of them new-fangled worship songs all those kids are singing)? Instead of lamenting the loss of old forms of worship, let’s embrace new ways to worship an unchanging God.

How about you? What’s your favorite hymn? What’s your favorite non-hymn worship song?

Fighting in the Worship Wars

Image courtesy of bplanet at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of bplanet at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Did you know that some church songs are holier than other songs? It’s true. Just ask anyone. Well, that’s true subjectively. I’m pretty sure it’s not an objective truth. What makes a song appropriate for use in church? Is it about style? About content? For every 5 people you ask you will find 7 opinions on the matter. There is no unified voice in what make an appropriate worship song. Welcome to the WORSHIP WARS.

People complain about the contemporary Christian worship music that floods many churches and ask why we can’t go back and do the good old songs that were full of theology (yes, I’ve actually heard that argument before). But when those “good old songs” were new people were complaining about them asking why the church had to shift from its older style of worship. Each generation finds its own voice in worshipping God. Style doesn’t make one song better than another.

What about content, then? The good old hymns of the church had great content that is missing from a lot of these “ding-dong ditties” (an expression one octogenarian used in conversation with me). But let’s be honest – for every generation of sacred songs there are some that are wonderful. They are timeless songs that proclaim great truths and will be sung for decades (if not centuries). But there are also songs that are just plain junk. Read through any hymnal and you will find the classics, but there are also songs in there that were no good, are no good, and will never be any good.

There are songs being written currently that have wonderful content full of rich theology. There are songs being written now that are fluff, spiritual marshmallows that don’t nourish the soul. Don’t cast out an entire generation of music because of some bad songs – every generation has bad songs.

What does it really come down to, then? Personal preference. That’s it. We like the songs that we like. We dislike the songs we dislike.

Grumpy Cat

Sometimes we’ll like the way a certain line moves our soul. Sometimes the melody will capture us and we will love worshipping to it over and over and over and over again.

A mentor of mine once noted that people seem to love the worship songs that were present when they had a significant spiritual experience. What was being played when you had your first real encounter with Jesus? Chances are that those songs will have a special place in your heart. If you have attended a retreat or spiritual conference that was dynamic and revitalized your spirituality, the songs played at that event will have significantly more meaning to you than a new song introduced by your church’s worship team the following week. We are a highly subjective people. Our experiences lead us to like or dislike worship.

When we understand that our experiences and preferences determine our pleasure and displeasure with songs we are freed to worship alongside of people in spite of differences. We don’t have to like the same music, but we worship the same Jesus. I don’t even have to have all of the words of a song memorized to worship God. God transcends words and is not limited to what I can read on the projection screen and sing along with.

As a pastor, then, I have made a conscious effort to engage multiple generations and styles in our church’s service. This is typically called a “blended service” – which I guess is an adequate description. Our worship leader is prayerfully intentional in selecting songs that cover a variety of styles and eras. I don’t think that our way is the best way, but we do understand that people respond to different music in different ways, and we seek the good of the ENTIRE church, not just one demographic.

We recently conducted an unscientific survey in our church, asking people to rate 20 different worship songs. They were asked to scale how familiar they were with the song (little, medium, or very familiar) , how much they liked the song (don’t like, somewhat like, really like), and if they wanted to hear it more, less, or the same. We included 5 hymns and 15 contemporary songs.

We found an interesting phenomenon: even when people really liked a song they indicated that they would like to hear it played about the same in church. This was true almost across the board for hymns and contemporary songs. For example, Revelation Song received one of the highest favorability ratings in our church 73.1% of responders really like it. At the same time, the overwhelming majority said the frequency of play in church was fine and to keep it the same.

While we don’t pick music based on the subjective likes and dislikes of people, the surveys were interesting to see how people think and what they desire in a weekly worship service. I don’t think we’ll ever get it all right. No single service will make everyone content, but we do want to be intentional about creating a worship environment where it is easy to worship God, so we will continue to utilize the blended method. If your church does something else – more power to you. But we have to be faithful with what and who God is calling us to be.

I don’t think the worship wars will ever end. It’s about personal preference, so we will never achieve total unity. But we can worship alongside each other and embrace each other’s preference even if it isn’t our own. I really don’t think God cares about our preferences as much as he cares about whether or not we are actually worshipping. So, next Sunday at church, forget about what you like or prefer and attempt to engage and worship God no matter what song the praise team is leading.

How about you? What are your preferences? What songs move you? What songs make you shut down?

And, just because I know some of you are interested, here are the 20 songs from our survey:

1. Victorious – 
2. Let God Arise – 
3. Mighty to Save – 
4. All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name – 
5. Great is Thy Faithfulness – 
6. When the Stars Burn Down – 
7. God is Able – 
8. 10000 Reasons (Bless the Lord) – 
9. I Surrender – 
10. Everyday – 
11. My Savior Lives – 
12. The Solid Rock – 
13. Blessed Assurance – 
14. Revelation Song – 
15. Glory to God Forever – 
16. Here In Your Presence – 
17. Here and Now – 
18. Wonderful Merciful Savior – 
19. The Stand – 
20. Days of Elijah –

Garbage In – Garbage Out. So What Do You Fill Up With?

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We were created to worship. It’s part of our natural design – we can’t escape it. So the question is not “Will we worship?” but rather “WHAT will we worship?” Some worship their career. Some their kids. Some their hobbies. But we all worship something. From a biblical point of view the ideal is that we worship God.

I admit that worship may take several forms. Some people view worship as the congregational singing churches do during a service. Yes, that is one form of worship. Tithing can also be a form of worship. Serving others could be a form of worship. Worship is anything that we do that declares the worth and value of God and how we esteem him.

We as worshippers can develop the habit of worshipping well! Worship should not be a once-a-week event when we go to church. Declaring the value and worth of God should be a daily occurrence in our lives. Richard Foster writes in “The Spirit of the Disciplines”

In worship we engage ourselves with, dwell upon, and express the greatness, beauty, and goodness of God through thought and the use of words, rituals, and symbols…. Practically speaking, the Christian’s worship is most profitable when it is centered upon Jesus Christ. When we worship, we fill our minds and hearts with wonder at him – life, death, resurrection, and work as ascended intercessor. (177-178)

But how do we develop that habit? The same way we develop any habit – with repetition. I encourage you to start repeating worship acts on a regular basis. The three easiest areas to pinpoint worship actions are giving, serving, and words (prayer, song, etc.)

As to giving, start giving regularly to God through your local church or Christian ministry. I won’t be legalistic, but I believe that there is a biblical foundation (foundation, mind you, not a mandate) to giving 10% of one’s income.

As to serving, start actively looking for ways to serve others in Jesus’ name. You can do this in your neighborhood, the kids’ school, your church, or any other place where you can step up.

As to your words, start a daily practice of speaking how much you value God. This is most easily done in prayer or song. Find a good devotional that can lead you in some prayers. I try to make a habit of listening to worship music. There’s a lot of good stuff from the past. There’s a lot of good stuff out there right now. I can’t wait to hear the great song that still have yet to be written. It’s an easy way for me to glorify God and proclaim his worth. Psalm 17:7 says:

I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness, and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.

As one final aid, here are 10 worship songs (in no particular order) that are currently on my playlist that inspire me to worship God.

  1. Relentless –
  2. One Thing Remains –
  3. Glory to God Forever –
  4. Desert Song –
  5. Whom Shall I Fear –
  6. White Flag –
  7. When the Stars Burn Down –
  8. Come to Me –
  9. Ready for You –
  10. The Stand –

How about you? What’s your preferred method of worship? How do you think you could grow in your worship habits? What songs move you? I’d love to hear what you worship to/with.

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