As a church, we worked towards incorporating hymns back into our regular worship music rotation 6-7 years ago. It was a really fertile time for church music writers and arrangers who had decided to not only retune some of the classics of hymnody, but also to mine old hymnals for some gems it seemed like the church had long forgotten. Groups such as Sojourn Music, Citizens, Indelible Grace and a number of others outside the mainstream of Christian music were churning out fresh and new versions of hymns our grandparents and their grandparents and even their grandparents sang years ago. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive as we adopted them here at Gateway Church. The beauty was that the content of the hymns wasn't really changing, just the instrumentation around it; they kept the structure and changed the aesthetics of them.
Ultimately, the choice to reintroduce hymnody into our worship services wasn't one made by virtue of aesthetic, because retuned and modern hymns have much more value than updated instrumentation or a driving beat. Sure, those things are great and allow us something to latch on to, but they're really just a cherry on top.
Hymns teach theology
Our faith is a sung faith. We have an entire book of the Bible that is known as the songbook of the Bible. Those scriptures were sung by God's people and today, we learn deep truths about the attributes of God through them. Harold Best says, "A congregation is just as responsible to sing the gospel as the preachers are to preach it." So much of our story as believers has been passed along from one generation to the next through song. Martin Luther once wrote this:
"The gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to man that he should proclaim the Word of God through Music."
Hymns are not only great facilitators of worship among God's people, but they're also vehicles for teaching theology. For example, take a look at Verse 2 from the hymn, Before the Throne of God Above:
When Satan tempts me to despair
and tells me of the guilt within,
upward I look, and see him there
who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died,
my sinful soul is counted free;
for God the Just is satisfied
to look on him and pardon me,
to look on him and pardon me.
Not only does the hymn, in general, teach us about the The Doctrine of Salvation and the assurance of pardon we have because of Christ, this verse, specifically, teaches us about justification. These are important theological subjects of the Christian faith. We've sung two wildly different versions of this hymn through the years, neither of which changes the lyrical content whatsoever. Despite their musical differences, they both teach sound theology to us. I could endlessly geek out about this hymn, but I'll spare you that punishment and move on.
Hymns help us develop a language of worship
Not only do hymns teach us theology, but they also help us develop a language of worship that recognizes God's attributes, and how to respond to God. In practice, hymns teach us to sing of the ways of the Lord: His ways toward us, and our ways toward Him. We are better able to respond to His grace and mercy in our lives and to delight in His goodness. They put words of praise and adoration on our hearts and lips that enable us to ascribe Him the glory that only He deserves. In the end, we build a vocabulary that is more robust and profound than we'd previously experienced.
The language hymns help us develop ends up permeating the whole of our lives, from the substantial to the seemingly inconsequential.
Hymns give voice to our emotions
Going back to the Psalms for a second: the Psalms are the source code for so many of our most treasured hymns. You might ask, why? Because the range of emotions expressed in the Psalms span the entirety of the human experience. From joy and celebration, to lament and sorrow. They teach us not only to rejoice in the peaks, but how to worship through the valleys. As John Piper states:
"The Psalms show us life is not smooth sailing, but how the writers navigated the waters."
We see it in hymns like It Is Well With My Soul, a hymn written by a man named Horatio Spattford. Spattford's son died in the Great Chicago Fire and shortly thereafter, he decided to move his family to Europe. Just prior to shipping out, Spattford was held up in Chicago on business, but he sent his wife and four daughters on ahead to make the trip to Europe without him. Tragically, his daughters perished when their ship collided with another ship. Out of his grief, he penned the words to this treasured hymn.
Issac Watts, the Father of English Hymnody, penned hymns based on nearly every chapter of the book of Psalms, most notably one on Psalm 98. We know this particular hymn as, Joy to the World. This one is the celebration of Christ's arrival and His Lordship.
Hymns continue to strengthen the roots of our heritage
We're not the first century church, obviously. Our faith heritage stretches back centuries, so it's a bit of an understatement to say that it's easy to feel disconnected from our brothers and sisters of ages past. But the hymns we sing even still today... these are the songs of the church that have been sung for ages. They stretch back from the Old Testament on through to the New Testament, and even into today with the modern hymns being penned by writers such as Keith and Kristyn Getty. They co-write a modern classic with In Christ Alone. Hymnody communicates timeless truths through a tried method for carrying forward history. They bridge the gap between the ancient church and the modern church in ascribing glory to God through song and poetry.
Honestly, some of the retuned and repurposed hymns we sing during our worship services are some of my absolute favorites. I hope that we can all learn to treasure them and keep passing them along to future generations of Christ's church.