Pastor Note #81: The Problem with Hymns


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Washington County (Pennsylvanian) Courthouse; photo by GAC

Recently, in an on-line discussion forum for pastors in the Reformed tradition, I read a complaint by one of the participants that he could not comprehend the appeal of what are sometimes called “7-11” songs – praise choruses that, it is claimed, are seven words long and are repeated over and over eleven times.  He expressed mystification that anyone would want to sing like that.  The accusation generally is that such singing is empty, mindless, uneducational.  For my own part, I value the opportunity to slowly turn some deep truths of the faith over and over in my mind and voice by repeating phrases and concepts in song, meditating and reflecting as I do.  Repetition in song is not some new-fangled idea.  It is an ancient practice in the singing of God’s people.  Monastic singing, for example, made and continues to make repetition of the deep things of the faith a major feature in its approach to worship.

I also, however, appreciate and benefit from some of the classic and older hymns.  They are very much a part of my vision for worship.  They are often very rich; they are time-tested; and they tie us to our brothers and sisters from the past.  But classic and just plain older hymns are not without their problems.  Many have passed out of vernacular English.  The hymn with the title “O Zion Haste” is best known by the first words of its refrain, “Publish Glad Tidings.”  Each of the three words in that exhortation are problematic in some way.  “Tidings” is one of a class of words that are a common feature of older and classic hymns.  “Tidings,” “behold,” “hasten,” “dwell” are words that probably most American adults could, if you gave them a few minutes, more or less correctly define.  They are not, however, words that American adults ever use in conversation.  That is to say, they are no longer part of the vernacular.

The other two words in that hymn refrain, “publish” and “glad,” are both word that are still in common usage in contemporary American English, but in this hymn refrain those words mean something quite different from what they mean in contemporary conversation.  If we ask the average American worshiper what “publish” means, we would certainly be told that it means to put something into print.  And “glad” would be generally understood to refer to a happy feeling, and the word would be applied only to persons, not to inanimate objects or abstract concepts.  Now, I don’t doubt that most American worshipers could eventually come up with a more or less correct definition of these words in their context in the hymn, but they would not come up with it immediately, because these words just like “tidings” and “behold” are no longer vernacular English for American worshipers today.  In other words, when we ask our congregations to sing classic hymns, we are asking them to sing in a dialect that is not their own nor is it one they use in any other arena of their lives except for the singing of hymns.

The Relentless Pace of Hymn Singing

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Washington County (Pennsylvania) Courthouse; photo by GAC

I have a very distinct memory from my childhood, when I was probably six or seven years old, standing beside my mother in our traditional, middle-American Presbyterian church.  We had just finished singing a hymn.  I looked up at my mother and asked, “What language is everyone singing in?”  My confusion stemmed partly from the “thee-s” and “thou-s” and the inflected verb endings.  It also was the result of the archaic vocabulary and the often-contorted poetic word order forced into the lines in order to make the meter and rhyme work right.  It came also from the rush of biblical allusions and theological references that flew past like the varied cars of a freight train on a long, clear straightaway.  That little boy beside his mother recognized a word or phrase here or there, but he couldn’t focus on them long enough to try to understand them before the next one was already barreling past.  Classic hymns move at a relentless pace.  There is no pause button to allow for working out a translation or a reference.

In many cases, even very good classic hymns are a bit like trying to get a drink from a fire hose.  You may get some water down your throat, but it may not be an entirely uplifting experience.  Or to change the metaphor, I could drive across Pennsylvania on Interstate 80.  I’ll stop one or twice to fill up the car and empty out my bladder and maybe to grab a bite to eat.  I’ll see some Pennsylvania landscape and glance at a few towns and farms as I breeze by at 65 mph (or so!).  But I could not rightly say that I had experienced Pennsylvania that way.

Many of our classic hymns are like viewing the faith from an interstate highway.  They often give the impression that the author was determined to cram into them as many biblical allusions and theological references and concepts as he (or she) could.

Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God;
He whose word cannot be broken
Formed thee for his own abode
On the Rock of Ages founded
What can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded,
Thou mayst smile on all thy foes.

In the forty seconds of so that it takes to sing those lines, we’ve covered some good bit of ground.  I am confident that very few even of the older members of my congregation who have sung this hymn off and on most of their lives could get anywhere near being able to tell me what they had sung.  This hymn is no longer vernacular singing – if it ever was.  It has not place in the today’s worship.  I suggest that if we use it, we are encouraging our people to mindless worship, a step back toward the Latin mass.

The Proper Purpose of Worship

The proponents of classic hymns not infrequently point to this theological/biblical overloading of hymns as the essence of their value and strength.  That belief is, I want to suggest, the product of a serious misunderstanding of the proper aim of Christian worship.  If the primary purpose of worship is to educate worshipers and to pass on to them information about God, then singing songs packed with information might well be an excellent approach.  But if the aim of worship is to facilitate a living encounter and conversation between whole human persons and the living, personal God, then education and passing on information about God take on a secondary and supporting role only.  In that case, the measure of a good worship song is not the amount of biblical and theological information that it contains but rather how well it leads us into communion with the living God, who is present.  As John Jefferson Davis writes, “The central point to be made, then, is the real presence of God as the central reality of every worship service.  This divine presence is the fundamental reality of all true worship ‘in Spirit and in truth,’ and all true worship should be conscious of and organized around this central truth.”[1]

Education and information about God can to be sure help worshipers enter into communion with the Divine Presence.  In his classic book, Knowing God, J. I. Packer makes the point that knowing about God and knowing God are not the same thing.  The proper aim or end of the Christian life is to know God.  Knowing about God is an important and necessary means to the goal of knowing God, but knowing about God is never a proper aim or goal for Christian life or for Christian worship.

Worship and the Nature of Human Persons

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Washington County (Pennsylvania) Courthouse; photo by GAC

Further, worship songs that aim primarily to convey information about God fail to appreciate the nature of human persons.  Human beings are not disembodied minds, and so worship must not be conceived of as being primarily the act of intellects coming together to reason with one another over concepts about God.  The classic Westminster Confession of Faith seems to recognize this better than many modern-day adherents of the Confession.  The Confession asserts that in worship we encounter One “who is . . . to be held in awe, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served with all our heart, soul, and might.”[2]  Worship is to be understood as the act of fully orbed human persons in all our multifaceted complexity coming together to communion with the person of God in all his even more complex multifaceted being.  John Witvliet makes this point in an article in Reformed Worship, “The highest purpose of our worship music is to enable full, conscious, and active participation in worship at the deepest level possible for people of all sort.”[3]

Matters of Musical Genre?

Now, lest anyone assume I am advocating for a particular style or genre of worship music, I will simply say that on the whole I don’t believe that the style or genre of music matter much at all.  Worship music must never be seen as anything but a means.  It must never be treated as an end in itself.  The music of worship is to serve the sole end of assisting the gathered people of God to glorify him and to enter into a deep communion with him.  If any worship music effectively serves that end, then its particular genre or style or even its artistic quality is irrelevant.

I mean nothing that I’ve said to be taken as opposition to hymns per se.  In fact, the musical scheme of the classic hymn format has much to commend it.  At its best, it is simple and easy to sing.  The classic hymn tune, “Cwm Rhonda” (e.g., “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”) is a good example of the kind of simplicity and ease of singing and learning that I’m thinking of.  “Cwm Rhonda” is a hymn tune built around musical repetition.  It begins with a four measure melodic line, followed by a second four measure melodic line that is a repetition of the first line with a small variation in the last measure.  Next comes a melodic line of four measure that is musically related to but different from the first two lines.  Then the hymn ends with a simple straightforward repetition of the last two measures of the third melodic line.

Another classic hymn tune, “Hyfrydol” (e.g. “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”) also exhibits this repetitious melodic structure.  In “Hyfrydol” we find four melodic lines.  The first two lines are identical.  The third and fourth lines are not identical but are very similar.  This repetition of melody lines makes these songs easy to learn and remember.

A New Renaissance of Worship Songs & Hymns

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Washington County (Pennsylvania) Courthouse; photo by GAC

The best worship music for the singing of the people will have these key qualities.  It will be in the vernacular of the people.  If the people cannot understand what they are singing, their singing can never become an act of worship.  It will have as its driving purpose the goal of assisting the people to worship God and to enter into communion with him and not merely that of educating the mind or of presenting information about God. It will not address the people as if they were disembodied minds but will seek to engage their mind as well as their heart, their character, their affection (Matt. 22:37).  Insofar as education is a goal of worship, it is education in the sense of whole person transformation.  We should aim to educate (i.e., transform) not only the minds but also the character and the affections and even the bodies of those who gather to worship.

The problem with many classic hymns, in my view, is not with the music.  It is with the words, words that are no longer part of the vernacular and words that were written primarily to inform the intellect of the people.  The best contemporary praise band music is a healthy response to this problem.  The time has also come for a renaissance of new hymn writing.  We have a huge storehouse of very serviceable hymn tunes.  Let’s have new hymns written to those tunes with words that speak the language of our people and lead them as whole human persons – not just as intellects – into a rich communion with their God, which is the end and goal of worship.

[1] John Jefferson Davis, Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic/InterVarsity Press, 2010) 173.

[2] “The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms in Modern English,” (Orlando, FL: The Evangelical Presbyterian Church, 2010), 36.

[3] John D. Witvliet, “We Are What We Sing,” Reformed Worship, no. 60, June 2001, 6.

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