April 14, 2014

Importance of Enduring Hymns

Recently the new head of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society visited with IRD’s UMAction Steering Committee. It was the first such meeting between two often adversarial sides in the denomination. And it was very cordial, even enjoyable. During introductions, Susan Henry-Crowe asked each of us to recall an anecdote about our Christian experience.

I recalled the previous Sunday at church when all five of the service’s hymns were robust favorites of mine, which is unusual. They were A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, O God Our Help in Ages Past, Be Still My Soul, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, and Crown Him with Many Crowns.

How important hymns are to worship and learning the church’s theology, as well as connecting with the wider Body of Christ. I prefer sturdy old, proven hymns. But admittedly every hymn was new at some point. The United Methodist Hymnal, published in 1989, has marvelous old hymns but prematurely included a few from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s that have not aged well and likely are rarely sung.

More recently published, The Faith We Sing hymnal supplement appears in many United Methodist churches but was never authorized by the General Conference. Striving for a distorted diversity, it includes several fatuously pantheistic hymns maybe fashionable in some liberal circles in the 1990s but now thankfully very dated and largely ignored.

Undoubtedly there are conservative Evangelical churches that too often prematurely throw a clunky if well intentioned hymn up on the wall. Perhaps such experiments are sometimes necessary if painful.

A hymn should prove itself across time and geography before its full acceptance into the church’s lexicon. It was said in the early church that authentic Christian doctrine must have been received at all times and at all places across the universal church before regarded as apostolic and catholic. Hymns of course are expressions of doctrine if not doctrine themselves and perhaps similarly should be time and culture tested.

Sermons may or may not fully rise to the occasion. But ideally hymns, reinforced by solid liturgy, creeds and prayers, effortlessly and beautifully convey the catholicity of the church’s faith and doctrine. A hymn, if fully attuned to the Body of Christ’s timeless beliefs, is a tool of and even the voice of the Holy Spirit. And for Protestants, especially Methodists, hymns are almost like icons to Eastern Orthodox, artistically offering a sacred window into Heaven.

We imagine, and trust by faith, that hymns in this world echo, if imperfectly, what the saints and angels are singing eternally before God’s throne. When singing hymns, we mystically join them and the universal church across all time.

For many of us, remembered hymns offer strength in times of testing and are sure boats in stormy waters. They will be the final words we recite or think in this world, as they speak to us most powerfully of Who God in Christ truly is.

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7 Responses to Importance of Enduring Hymns

  1. Roger says:

    “The Faith We Sing” supplement; is this what started out as to be our revised hymnal? Much work was done on a new hymnal and songs were solicited to be included a few years back. Could you present some updated info on this old project?

  2. Creed Pogue says:

    I think “Worship and Song” is what came out of the hymnal revision project. I wonder how those sales have done even compared with Faith We Sing which I think has sold about a million copies to maybe only 3,000(?) churches.

    Will there be a post about the meeting itself?

  3. Martha Berry says:

    As I have said to our music director, the tried and true hymns teach musicology, worship, theology and praise, something that the so-called praise hymns lack. Repeating the same sapid phrase over and over is not musical nor teaching doctrine. It’s seems to focus on “me,me,me”.

  4. Byrom says:

    Amen, Mark – and Martha! I am not very familiar with “The Faith We Sing” supplement, but have looked at a list of contents. However, I am familiar with some of the “praise songs” listed, most being too short to really be called “hymns,” as I understand the meaning. Some of them are faithful to Biblical doctrine and text; others are not. Those that are faithful should not be discarded and can serve to glorify God in their own way. I, too, prefer the old “tried-and-true” hymns (“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is sort of my personal theme song). However, I also enjoy singing some of the doctrinally-faithful praise songs that help me focus on the Lord Jesus Christ as I go through my day.

  5. Mike says:

    I left the UMC because of the failure to preach the word and the disgraceful behavior of the leadership. However, I deeply miss the moving hymns used in the UMC. Praise music leaves me empty. I still support your efforts to bring about change in the denomination. I came to faith in our Lord at First UMC IN Mt Pleasant TN. I still miss it. Keep up the good work.

  6. Arthur Green UK says:

    I agree with the main theme of the article: it’s the tried and tested hymns which should be the mainstay, for all the reasons stated above. One of the problems I have with the new praise songs/modern hymns is that the nature of the music is very worldly. Music is a very powerful means of changing one’s mood, or state of mind. Traditional hymn music is very distinctive, and the hearer knows that what follows is a sacred ‘song of praise’.

    Modern praise songs (I would call some of them chants, a.k.a.: mantras) use the pop musical idiom and the hearer is uncertain about the nature of what comes next. Such music calls attention to itself and becomes a main part of the performance; the theological and self-diminishing aspects of praising God are subtly diverted by the music into an experiential and emotional activity. This is based on the ‘self’ of immediate experience, and not on the transcendence and majesty of our merciful and loving God.
    Discussions over church music are not a new thing; many arguments occur over the words, but one aspect is often neglected, which is the music itself. A true hymn is made up of words and music; both should be scrutinised. One recent trend in my own church is to take a traditional hymn and replace the music with a modern ‘poppy’ tune, in an attempt to make it relevant to the younger generation, who are brought up on a diet of pop, rock and other genres of self-indulgent music.

    Some of my favourites, such as ‘And Can It Be?’ and ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ were thus treated to a new utterly banal pop theme, which reduced the original meaning of both hymns to an exercise of the vocal chords.

    So listen to the music, and see if it is an attempt to bring the world into the church. Originally, the Psalms were the hymns of the church, and they were sung unaccompanied. There’s lesson for us all.

  7. Matthew Ray says:

    Something interesting that I recently noticed, was that the United Methodist “The Faith We Sing” supplement is page for page identical to the Presbyterian Church (USA) Hymnal supplement (entitled “Sing the Faith”). Since the 1990 Presbyterian hymnal had some songs that were already in TFWS, STF included additional newer songs in place of the duplicates. Fast forward to 2013, and the new Presbyterian Hymnal includes most of the contents of The Faith We Sing. I understand that a lot of the songs from The Faith We Sing also made it into the ELCA’s new hymnal. While I love the old hymns, it is helpful to introduce new songs, for our time, as was attempted with The Faith We Sing, and other hymnal supplements.

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