Why sing hymns? Part 1
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16, ESV)
There are few things today that seem to divide Christians from one another more than the issues of “worship style” and worship song. It used to be that professing believers would find it necessary to separate from fellow believers over deeply-held theological and denominational distinctives. But in our contemporary context of widespread biblical and theological ignorance, where personal religious experience trumps sound biblical doctrine, it is the “worship wars”- in particular the issue of the classical hymns versus contemporary worship songs – that seem to cause the most division in the Body of Christ. In fact, I suspect that for many Christians today, if put in a position of having to choose between a church that was more biblically orthodox and faithful but which did not offer one’s preferred worship style, and a church which was less biblically consistent and less doctrinally sound, but offerred a “worship experience” more suited to one’s personal musical and liturgical preference, would put “worship style” over sound doctrine and choose the church which was more musically and stylistically to their liking.
There are many things about the “worship wars” in the churches which are regrettable and unnecessary. For example, there can be hardened attitudes and a dead traditionalism on all sides of the contemporary versus traditional worship debate (yes, not just on the side of those who advocate for the exclusive use of traditional hymns, but even on the “contemporary” side, where the singing of contemporary worship songs has sometimes become a newly fossilized liturgical tradition that pushes out the older hymns of the faith in the name of “relevance”). Certainly, as believers on both sides of this liturgical divide dialogue and try to understand each other, they should do so in a spirit of Christian civility, mutual respect and a desire for genuine spiritual unity in Christ’s Body. But at the same time differences must be honestly faced.
In this article I want to offer a number of reasons why I believe Christ’s church would do well to continue to use the biblical Psalms and the classic hymns of the faith as the predominant (though not necessarily exclusive) material for the church’s worship song.
Lest the reader misunderstand where I’m coming from, let me make it clear that I am not arguing that old = good and new = bad. I am not saying that all traditional hymns are biblically sound and theologically substantive, or that all contemporary worship songs are by definition biblically and theologically shallow or flawed. On the contrary, one can find a number of traditional hymns which are theologically shallow, sentimental, and devoid of biblical content, just as one can find a number of contemporary worship songs which are biblically and theologically rich. Let the reader understand that I am not saying that we should exclude all contemporary worship songs from our worship services, or that we should only sing hymns from our authorized hymnal (which, in our case, is the Trinity Hymnal). (In fact, Lake OPC recently obtained a CCLI license, which allows us to include a wide range of worship songs not found in our hymnal in either bulletin inserts or overhead projections, and we do on occasion sing high-quality contemporary worship songs in our services.)
So why would the contemporary church do well to retain the predominent use of the biblical Psalms and classical hymns of the faith in its worship practice. Here are a number of considerations:
(1) Good hymns are theologically rich and feed the Christian soul.
Good, classical hymns of the faith have biblical and theological substance which can edify and feed the soul of the believer, whereas many (though certainly not all!) contemporary worship songs tend to be biblically and theologically shallow and are thus inadequate as spiritual food to the soul.
Consider, for example, the first verse of that classic hymn “O Worship the King”:
“O worship the King, all glorious above,
O gratefully sing His power and His love,
Our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days,
Pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise.”
In this hymn God is extolled as the Divine, all-glorious King, the Shield and Defender of His people, the Ancient of Days (see Daniel 7:13), indicating His eternality. This brief verse is God-centered, biblically-grounded and theologically-rich. It is rich spiritual food for the Christian soul.
Compare and contrast this rich, substantive hymn to the chorus of a popular contemporary Hillsong worship song:
“Your fire fall down
Your fire fall down
On us we pray
As we seek…
Show me Your heart
Show me Your way
Show me Your glory.”
Aside from the fact that it is questionable how biblical it is to pray for God’s “fire” to fall down upon us, since in Scripture the falling of God’s fire is often a picture of God’s holy wrath and judgment, notice how man-centered and theologically shallow this chorus is. (“Show me Your heart…Show me Your way…Show me Your glory…me, me, me – it’s all about me.) Furthermore, as I’ve heard this chorus sung, it is repeated multiple times, becoming almost a “Jesus mantra”. While singing such a worship chorus over and over and over again at the leading of a skillful praise band might emotionally manipulate worshipers to have a powerful, emotional religious experience, almost no biblical content is conveyed in actual chorus, and thus it is practically worthless in edifying the believer or leading her/him on to spiritual maturity.
Or consider the chorus of another contemporary worship song, written by popular contemporary Christian musician Chris Tomlin:
“You’re a good, good father,
It’s who you are, it’s who you are, it’s who you are,
And I’m loved by you,
It’s who I am, it’s who I am, it’s who I am.”
This song has at least some biblical truth to it. Certainly God is a gracious and good heavenly Father to those who are in Christ, and we believers are certainly loved by Him. However, it is only because of Christ’s incarnation and atonement on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins that God can relate to us as a good and gracious Father, and not as an offended, righteous Judge. And it is precisely any clear reference to the Person and work of Christ that is missing in this otherwise touching song.
Contrast this theologically-shallow Tomlin song with the first verse of the classic Charles Wesley hymn, “Arise, My Soul, Arise”:
“Arise, my soul, arise, shake off your guilty fears;
the bleeding Sacrifice in my behalf appears:
before the throne my Surety stands, before the throne my Surety stands,
my name is written on his hands.”
This gospel-saturated hymn points the believer to the ultimate basis for his right standing before the “good, good Father” in heaven, namely, the bloody sacrifice of Christ as our Surety before the throne of the Father. It is the sacrificial death of Christ for sinners which demonstrates God the Father’s goodness and love (Romans 5:8). Again, good hymns are biblically-faithful, theologically-rich, and they feed the Christian soul with the truth of God, not with mere emotional sentiment reflective more of adolescent angst than of biblical fidelity.
(2) The classic hymns of the church connect contemporary Christians with the historic church.
When we as 21st century Christians sing the Psalms of Scripture and the great classical hymns of the faith, we are joining our voices with the voices of past generations of past Christians who fought the fight of faith, ran the race of discipleship, and who thus encourage us as we strive through the grace of God to fight the good fight and run the race of faith that is set before us. When we cut ourselves off from the classic hymns of the church and opt for only that which is contemporary, in a sense we cut ourselves off from the communion of the saints who have gone before in past ages. Thus we impoverish ourselves and our churches. Singing Psalms and the classic hymns of the church reminds us that Christianity is a historic faith and that it is a multi-generational communion! Singing only contemporary worship songs in church implicitly teaches that God has only been at work in the here-and-now, or that what God did in the past is “irrelevant” to what He is doing in the present.
(3) Good hymns serve a catechetical purpose in the church.
The wording of Colossians 3:16 (which I quoted at the beginning of this article) seems to indicate that one of the ways we “teach” and “admonish” one another is through the singing of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Many of us learned the English alphabet through singing the alphabet song. Likewise, worship song is a great way to teach the “a-b-c’s” of the Faith. Teaching the faith to new believers and to future generations is greatly enhanced through the singing of Psalms and biblically-faithful hymns of the faith. Thus the hymnody of the church undergirds the church’s preaching, instruction and catechesis. If the steady diet of the church’s worship song is biblically and theologically-shallow, we should not be surprised if the contemporary church begets biblically ignorant and theologically shallow Christians.
We will consider some further reasons to retain the predominent use of hymnody in the church’s worship practice in Part 2.