Last week, I posted my take on what the 50 greatest hymns of all time were, and I revised the list a few days later. Though the exercise was interesting in itself, I think the process generated some lessons that were even more interesting. I think they are as follows:
ALL HYMNS ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL. The unspoken assumption behind my compilation of the list, an assumption shared by the hundreds of Christians who interacted with me on the various threads about it, is that hymns are not all the same, and that the differences between them matter. To put things another way, there is such a thing as a good hymn, so there necessarily must be such a thing as a bad hymn.
Whenever I posit the latter online, I invariably get pushback from somebody who insists that a hymn cannot be bad unless it teaches false doctrine. In a sense, I suppose that’s true. A poorly written, low-content hymn does not directly send people to hell, any more than a sermon that’s a stand-up comedy routine or a Bible class that’s about pop psychology does.
However, most brethren will critique the pulpit comic and the pop-psychologist Bible-class teacher not for what he says, but for what he does not say. The same critique applies with equal force to bad hymns. It’s not enough for a hymn not to be actively harmful. It must be actively helpful. It must present the worshiper with meaningful spiritual content (the more the better) in a usable form, because all of us need all the help we can get.
OLDER IS BETTER. When I revised my list, I replaced the four most-critiqued hymns on the list with the four whose absence was most lamented. The oldest hymn that I removed was more recent than the most modern hymn I added. Indeed, three of the four additions (“O Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, “Rock of Ages”, and “Amazing Grace”) hailed from the eighteenth century, and two of the hymns I removed came from the twentieth century.
I was not surprised. As a rule, the older a hymn in our repertoire is, the better it is. This is not because all the hymns written in the eighteenth century were good, or even because most of them were good. It’s because the less-than-excellent ones have been eliminated by successive generations of song leaders and hymnal editors with all the ruthlessness of a farmer shooting rats in a barn. Bad old hymn? Mediocre old hymn? Bang! Dead.
This should call today’s hymnal editors, CD compilers, slide-deck creators, and song deacons to caution in adding to the repertoire. Most new hymns and praise songs today are not good either, and when we shove aside the great hymns of the past to make room for them, the quality of our song worship suffers. There are hymns that deserve to be added (“In Christ Alone” is a shining example here), but there are not nearly as many of them as many brethren think.
POP HYMNS DON’T MEASURE UP. Because this was my list, the most heavily represented category was nineteenth-century American gospel hymns. Mostly, nobody complained about that. Compared to our repertoire, the most under-represented category was 20th-century Southern gospel hymns, the hymns of the radio era. Only two of the hymns on my list were written in true Stamps-Baxter quartet style, “This World Is Not My Home” and “Victory in Jesus”. “Victory in Jesus” endured significant critique, to the point where I reasonably could have cut it instead of “Teach Me Thy Way”, which was my fourth strike. Nor did I sense much of a groundswell of support for adding more Southern gospel hymns to the list.
Those hymns were the first to come from an era of mass-media performance. Everybody in the South listened to gospel quartets over the radio back in the day, and those songs transformed the repertoire of churches of Christ. I would estimate that half or more of the hymns in Sacred Selections are from this genre.
Today, though, the Stamps-Baxter hymns are dropping rapidly from use. Now that they are no longer culturally relevant, their true colors have been revealed. Worship progressives and conservatives alike attack them for being old-timey, hokey, shallow, and not very meaningful. Indeed, in the comments on my list of good hymns, several brethren took advantage of the opportunity to poke at hymns not on the list that they didn’t like. Every one of the hymns so marked was a radio hymn.
This should teach us to beware of succumbing to the allure of cultural relevance today. There are plenty of hymns (though their adherents prefer to call them “praise songs”) written in the style of modern pop music that currently are elbowing their way into the repertoire. As was true for radio hymns, this transition often is difficult because such songs are written for performers and then adapted rather than having been created for the congregation. Their kinship to their Stamps-Baxter cousins also often appears in their shallow, repetitive content.
Such songs appeal more to the zeitgeist than to the spirit. 100 years from now, when someone who hasn’t even been born yet compiles a Top 50 Hymns list, not many of them will appear on that list either. Hymns like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” will continue to be beloved, but today’s hit singles will seem dated, old-fashioned, and irrelevant—just as Southern gospel hymns increasingly do now.
Some may be fine with the idea of a disposable worship repertoire. I’m not, especially when so many older hymns are worthy of use today. It’s like dumping Grandma’s china on the curb and eating Thanksgiving dinner off of paper plates. There are people who do that too, but I don’t think I’m alone in believing they’ve lost touch with something important.
Sunday, April 12th, 9:15 AM: Facebook Live study on Titus 1.
Sunday, April 12th, 10:15 AM: YouTube worship service. Sermon title: "The Pattern of the Resurrection”
Sunday, April 12th, 5 PM: Zoom Bible study on the parable of the two sons and the parable of the tenants.
Wednesday, April 15th, 7 PM: Facebook Live study on intercession.
For about 20 years now, I’ve been having discussions with brethren all over the country about who should lead singing. Some argue that the congregation’s best song leaders should lead on Sunday morning to the exclusion of everyone else. They say that’s giving to God our best.
By contrast, others argue that it’s ungodly to judge the value of a song leader according to fleshly, external standards. The technical virtuoso may be self-centered and godless in his heart, while the guy who can’t hardly carry a tune in a bucket may be giving the Lord heartfelt glory. In consequence, we should let everybody lead who wants to lead and leave the judging to God.
I think both sides have a point, but I also think that the difference between them is not so great as it appears. To illustrate what I mean, let’s consider a couple of different sacrifices from the Law of Moses.
Leviticus 5:7 is an illustration of God’s kindness toward the poor. In it, God recognizes that some of His people may not be able to afford a lamb to offer as a sacrifice for sin. As a result, He allows them to offer according to what they could afford, by substituting turtledoves or pigeons for livestock. In God’s eyes, the turtledove offered by one who was giving his best was just as pleasing as the bull.
In Malachi 1, particularly in Malachi 1:14, we see a very different scenario playing out. This time, comparatively wealthy Jews who owned flocks were offering their lame, sick, and blind animals as sacrifices. They had the resources to do better, but instead of striving to give God their best, they offered what they thought they could get away with. God was not pleased with them!
Today, I think there are unblemished-turtledove song leaders and blemished-lamb song leaders. The former is a man who is simply limited in his gifts. He’s gone to song-leading schools to perfect his craft, he practices every time before he leads singing, but he regularly makes mistakes.
However, I think God is pleased with a sacrifice like that despite those mistakes. When we fall short of skilled perfection because of the way He created us, He doesn’t expect any better than that. I have a lot of sympathy for a song leader who is struggling but obviously offering his best.
On the other hand, though, we have blemished-lamb song leaders. These men make mistakes during the assembly too, but their mistakes are the fruit of lack of effort. They’ve never bothered to learn how to blow pitch, beat time, or master any of the other skills that are so important to the song leader. Before the assembly, they can be seen hurriedly putting together a song list on the front pew. In raw talent, they may well blow the unblemished-turtledove song leader away, but men like this never will realize their potential because they can’t be bothered to try.
Now, I’m not saying that every Christian man should feel responsible for becoming a song leader. However, if you want to be a song leader, then you need to put in the work. Nobody is entitled to lead the Lord’s people in worship on Sunday morning simply by virtue of church membership!
When men who have not developed their skills and do not work hard seek that position anyway, that is not a God-honoring spirit. Yes, it’s important not to presume what someone’s heart is like, but the one who is not diligent in preparing to serve makes his heart obvious by the absence of fruit.
When somebody wants to open up the song-leading roster, then, I want to know who the additions will be. Are these men who have worked hard, hit their ceiling, and want to serve despite their limitations? Or, on the other hand, are these men who are limited because they never have bothered to learn how to serve? Once we figure that out, I don’t think we’ll have any trouble discerning who should enter the rotation.
Several weeks ago, I encountered an article called “The Devolution of Christian Congregational Worship”. Judging from the title, I predicted that it would be another grumpy get-off-my-lawn rant about contemporary praise songs and the damage that they are doing to Christianity. I was not wrong.
As always, I am struck by the inability of many in the worship wars to find a middle ground. I love the great hymns of centuries past, but I also am aware that there were just as many stinkers written hundreds of years ago as there are now. Many praise songs written in the past 20 years resonate with me, and I can accept and appreciate even ones that don’t for the sake of my brethren who love them.
I suppose that if you are tethered to instrumental worship of some kind or other, you have to pick a side. Organ music is organ music, and praise-band music is praise-band music, and never shall the twain meet. However, within the churches of Christ, we don’t have that problem. It’s easy for us to sing “A Mighty Fortress” (circa 1529) and “Behold Our God” (circa 2013) in the same service without the result sounding discordant.
I think it’s a mistake to junk every hymn that wasn’t written in the past 20 years. However, I think it’s also a mistake to try to turn our worship repertoire into a museum. The only things that don’t change are dead, and new songs inject new life into our assemblies.
The key, I think, is for worship leaders to recognize and accommodate the different tastes that exist in a congregation of any size. The correct response to that old dude with the hearing aids in the back who grumps about “not knowing any of the songs” is not to reply, “OK, Boomer.” Instead, it’s to make sure that every service contains a few hymns that he does know.
Anybody who thinks that hymns from 100 years ago can’t be relevant to today’s Christians hasn’t thoughtfully considered the lyrics of those hymns. Maybe they’re not as accessible as the latest Hillsong smash hit, but all of us can benefit from examining our faith from a cultural perspective that is not our own. I suspect too that if Boomer feels like he’s not being ignored, he’ll be more willing to learn a song or two that he doesn’t know.
On the other end of the scale, you have younger brethren who are impatient with the status quo, who want to sing songs written in a culturally relevant style, who predict doom for the church if church music doesn’t sound like the world’s music. They shouldn’t be dismissed either.
After all, new things are always uncomfortable, and that goes double for what we sing in worship. 75 years ago, the radio hymns like “Victory in Jesus” and “This World Is Not My Home” met with fierce resistance from brethren who thought they sounded like hillbilly music. 150 years ago, the revival hymns of Fanny J. Crosby and Robert Lowry were critiqued for their vulgarity. 300 years ago, Isaac Watts had to sell congregants on the idea of singing anything in worship besides metrical psalms.
So too it is with the praise songs of today. Most of them will be mercifully forgotten. The best of them will be incorporated in the repertoire alongside “When I Survey” and “I Am Thine, O Lord” to be defended by tomorrow’s traditionalists from whatever the next worship movement will be. There is nothing new under the sun, not even when it comes to new songs.
For now, the best thing for us to do is to anticipate the results of the process. When we continue to sing from our musical heritage, while adding to it the best and most useful of what is being written today, the results should be acceptable to everyone. They should ensure that God is glorified by our unity as well as our song.
We'll be meeting at the Jackson Heights building at 3 PM this Sunday to ask the Lord's blessing on the new year. Hope you can join us!
- By Abiding in the Word (John 8:31-32)
Hymn: How Firm a Foundation (248)
Prayer: for zeal for the Scriptures
- By Keeping His Commandments (John 14:15)
Hymn: Trust and Obey (714)
Prayer: for more godliness
- By Loving One Another (John 13:34-35)
Hymn: Blest Be the Tie (76)
Prayer: for increased love for each other
- By Teaching Others (Matthew 28:18-20)
Hymn: Will You Not Tell It Today? (783)
Prayer: for boldness in proclaiming Jesus
- By Supporting Others’ Work (Matthew 9:35-38)
Hymn: Far and Near (139)
Prayer: for foreign evangelists and our willingness to help them
- By Becoming Like Him (Philippians 2:5-8)
Hymn: O to Be Like Thee (499)
Prayer: for greater Christlikeness
Invitation Hymn: Living for Jesus (402, vs. 1-4, then chorus)