In Praise of Hymns

Choruses in church are great, but let’s not lose our powerful legacy of hymns in Christian ministry.

Last night I led a Hymn Sing and Soup Supper in the Fellowship Hall at our church. Between bowls of vegetable soup, chicken soup, tortilla soup, bean soup, and a host of others, we sang To God Be the Glory, I’ll Fly Away, Victory in Jesus, and more favorites. Elderly women in the back, members of the choir when we had one, harmonized to tunes they had known as children, while teenagers in the middle sat in silence. We had no slides with words on a screen as we do in our sanctuary, but used white hymnals with gold embossing, small letters, and cryptic little symbols called notes along with the lyrics on each line. The piano was a little out of tune, but we all carried on, singing at the top of our lungs. There was no sound of strumming, drumming, or picking. Having grown up in church singing hymns, I appreciated the change.

For decades, choruses and praise bands have replaced hymns as the mainstay of music in evangelical churches. There are many good reasons. Choruses are easy to learn and easy to play. Big screens on the wall keep parishioners from burying their heads in their song books and singing at the floor. Little words in hymnbooks can be hard to see and the notes, rests, time signatures, and staffs in the music may be confusing to the musically uninitiated. It is easier for pastors to find a guitar player, a drummer, and at least one vocalist than to find a minimum of two sopranos, altos, tenors, and bases, along with a choir director, and one pianist competent enough to play complicated hymns. In such a world, do hymns belong in the dust bin of history?

Not if you ask my children, all five of whom prefer hymns to choruses. After the singing ended and church members had left for home, David asked if it was true that people in my generation disliked hymns. I replied, “Not me, of course, but many did. Perhaps it was because their parents liked hymns so much.” David noted, “Most of my Christian friends also prefer hymns. If your generation rebelled against hymns, perhaps my generation is rebelling against choruses.”

My children may be outliers. All are competent musicians and hang around with other competent musicians. In Jane Austen’s world, there was no music unless someone at the same place and time sang it, played it, or both. In our world, listeners have millions of songs in thousands of genres available instantly on their phones. Computers make music without human intervention. I occasionally wonder if fewer people sing and/or play music today than in yesteryear. Singing is available to almost everyone. Learning to read music and play instruments requires money and free time; both in short supply for the poor.

Why should churches stick with hymns, at least as a mix in their worship?

  1. Hymns are generally more musical than choruses. They have more musical elements such as harmony and dissonance. Hymns require more work from the leaders and the congregation. Reading the music, including tempo and intervals, is a useful skill.
  2. Hymns often have better theology than choruses. Many explicitly highlight the life of Christ, the wickedness of man, and the grace of God. Our family evaluates church music with what we call the Muslim test – if the words could be sung in a mosque as easily as in a church, the song is probably not worth singing in church. In an unofficial survey comparing a hymnal to a contemporary Christian chorus book, we found many choruses, but few hymns, that failed the Muslim test.
  3. Many people love hymns.

Hymns and choruses are both valuable in modern worship. Churches should keep the screen and slides, but also keep the white books with the gold embossing. We mix hymns with choruses in a blended worship, and have a hymn sing once per quarter. Perhaps one day we will have a choir again.

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