Guest Writer Jacob Smith: A Young Man on Hymns

At Pulling On The Push Door, we love to have a wide variety of voices to provoke us to thought and discussion. Thus, we are more than happy to welcome our good friend Jacob Smith, who has written the following post on hymns, as a guest writer for the blog. Please feel free to comment with your own perspective on the issue!

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hymnsThe Church made for herself quite the divisive topic when she invented modern praise music. I doubt that many of those who pioneered the “Contemporary” movement foresaw how churches would bicker and split over their very own songs. The conflicts over worship styles definitely provide for an interesting conversation, but the so called “worship wars” of the past do not concern me today. Today, the average church goer rarely thinks about his music and that, indeed, constitutes a much greater problem. Thus, the church must return to the question of worship styles once more.

I am twenty-one and a college student, and, therefore, most would assume that nothing makes me feel more worshipful than soft synth, deep bass, and crisp lighting sets, but not so fast. As the title of this article clearly states, I love hymns. I love them quite a bit actually. This does make me an aberration I suppose, but I know that I am not alone in this. Therefore, I would like to begin with clearing an unfortunately common false assumption from the ecclesiological air, twenty-one year olds are not a monolith, we cannot agree on a uniform dress style—thus the exceptionally cliquish nature of style this day (i.e. hipsters, rockers, preps, goths)—let alone on something vastly significant such as how we worship God. So no, for all those over forty, switching to all contemporary music will not necessarily “bring in more of the young people.” In fact, if you switch and do so poorly, then you are more likely to drive off “the young people” than to draw them in. Switching styles does not send out an instant notification to all those under thirty, such that they throng to your doors in a hysterical mass bent on awesome worship. A multitude of reasons could be contributing to the older demographics in many churches, the most common of which is a generally more demographic in many smaller towns, and you should not assume that switching teams would alter your demographics any more than switching socks alters your height

Also, please stop subjecting what youth you have in your church to poorly executed worship music (or, heaven help us, worship track CDs) when you have a perfectly good piano and organ. Most of us would rather sing thirty well executed hymns—and I am not talking about Rachmaninoff concerto performance here—than attempt to sing one contemporary song with the ubiquitous struggling praise band. Furthermore, some people seem to have the alarmingly foolish formula in their minds that traditional = insincere. There are few more logically deficient assumptions as this. I am sure that anyone who lived before 1978 would love to discover that they along with the nineteen hundred and seventy-eight years’ worth of faithful Christians who preceded them were worshiping God insincerely this whole time. What a foolish thought, but I digress.

1. Hymns are simpler

This may not seem quite right. You might point out that modern praise music operates by a much simpler chord system and has more commonplace words in its lyrics, but these both miss the mark on this point. Do you recall how I was talking about churches poorly executing praise music earlier? Well, the reason for this is not because non-professional musicians are all terrible, but because executing a praise song well requires quite a few more people and the addition of people equals the addition of multiple possible points of failure. You see, to do modern music well you must have a full praise band, a sound technician, and a light/projection crew. This provides for quite a few opportunities for things to go wrong. We all know how irritating it is when the man working the slides gets lost or the guitarist plays in the wrong key, and it happens all of the time.

Hymns are a totally different story. They are simple. They require no more than three people to execute them well. When was the last time any of us were distracted while singing a hymn because the pianist accidentally lapsed into the wrong key? Furthermore, organs and pianos are both acoustic instruments, so no sound technicians are required. As far as people’s voices go, the church got along quite well for 1800 years without any electrical amplification, so I imagine we could still pull it off. Also, hymnals work quite well, in that they never get lost mid song and give you the wrong lyrics. They always work and even give you more information than slides do anyway.

2. Hymns are more musical

I am sorry, but the continual progression of the same chords kills modern music for me. Furthermore, most all of it is in major keys, which may seem like an advantage, but a minor key is a powerful thing and should never be excluded from any kind of music. Sure, praise music is much more emotional, but, just as a passionately pained road stripe does not equal Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” in artistry, this is a poor comparison. This carries over into the realm of beauty as well. How many of us want “10,000 Reasons” sung at our funerals? Few if any, I would guess. It is a nice song, but ultimately not a beautiful work. I ask you, what contemporary song is as hauntingly beautiful as “I Wonder as I Wander” or as jubilant as “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”? None, I would say.

3. Hymns are More Theological

This is a pretty classic argument, so I will not belabor my point here. I will say that modern praise music often doesn’t get the props it deserves on this front. Your average praise song tends to have more straight scripture than your average hymn (unless you use a psalter), but even then that does not truly resolve this question. Most hymns will teach you more about Christianity and the truths in scripture than your average contemporary song could imagine, and hymns also tend not to have a heavy proliferation of that great theological term “oh.” What does singing a single meaningless syllable communicate about faith in Christ? Substitutionary atonement? Incarnation? The consubstantiality of the Son with the Father? This non-theological bend becomes especially evident in how modern praise music so often relies on giant musical mood swings to whip its listeners into some kind of a worshipful frenzy, rather than actually engaging them in the lyrics. Needless to say, hymns are powerful theological works in their own right.

4. Hymns are Holier

This might get me in trouble, but I think singing hymns is a holier pursuit than singing praise songs. Now, am I saying that those who sing hymns are holier? No, and do not construe this as self-righteousness. I have always felt holier while singing hymns. I know this is very much a personal feeling, but this is a blog post, it is all personal opinion. Anyway, Hymns have a far greater air of holiness to them; you feel like you are doing something sacred. I think that this feeling actually roots itself in some facts though. Firstly, the fact is that Hymns are inescapably sacred. Sure, some have a colorful past, but no one remembers them as bar songs or whatnot. Their defining influence has been as a hymn. People often decry a sacred/secular divide, but to do so, I believe, is shallow. Yes, Christians should integrate their faiths with the lives out in the world, but something should be different from the world when believers get together to worship. I am confident that most people want to feel like they are somewhere different, somewhere better, than the outside world when they are at church. Modern praise music is too akin to the popular music of our day to effectively be sacred. It is like claiming a 2011 Chevrolet Aveo really is the same thing as a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro. It may be produced by the same company, but it really cannot share the stage. Contemporary music is sacred, but only in name. Little, other than a lack of creativity perhaps, sets it apart from this world. Hymns have always been clearly distinguishable from the secular world. Since the meaning of holy is “to set apart for God” it is clear from this angle that hymns are holier, since contemporary music fails to fulfill this above listed definition.

Secondly, there is a tradition to hymns. Hymns are how the Church has facilitated worship for nearly eight hundred years. We cannot just deny that. People have sought Christ with the very some words you are singing for hundreds of years, which connects you to a long tradition. While many spurn tradition these days, I contend that it should always play an important role in the activity of the Church. When singing hymns you are in-line with not only those older than you in the church, but countless others who have gone before you. Furthermore, churches are more cohesive bodies when they embrace hymns. They remain together, forming strong bonds held together with the firm glue of tradition. I will emphasize this with some anecdotal evidence. I recently attended a joint service between a church’s traditional and contemporary services and in this service we did not sing one hymn. Everything was modern. Do you know what that did? It created division, because those who love hymns were told by the worship leader that their feelings did not matter. They were told that it was more important that the folks used to the contemporary service not be inconvenienced with their old-fashioned musical tastes, than it was for them to feel included and comfortable. It was divisive and disappointing.

In conclusion, I think we have cast off hymns too quickly, as if the music that replaced them was impossibly superior, and alienated our elders. Furthermore, in embracing modern praise music we have taken what was a simple and effective system and introduced so many points of failure that few churches can execute a worship service well. Too many distracting errors are possible in contemporary services. Somewhere along the way, we decided to throw out beauty with simplicity. Sure, complex things are often beautiful, but this is not that easy. The praise music of today is rarely, if ever, beautiful to hear and has little musical complexity. In keeping with this motif, we replaced hymns that were both beautiful and thoughtful in lyric with praise songs which are often poetically and theologically lazy and, it is almost as if modern lyricists prefer to blunder about in a rhyme making app on their phones more than they prefer to compose. Finally, hymns set the music and worship of the church apart from that of the world. I want my praise to God to be different in every conceivable way from the culture’s praise of sexuality, fame, or money. I want that difference to stretch even into the form of the music. After all, that is what holiness is: set-apartness. Furthermore, hymns link you to a tradition that not only unifies individual churches, but the Church as a whole throughout time.

Finally, how, then, are we going to change this? If you think I am asking you to form a mob, go beat down your music minister’s door, and demand more hymns in your church services, you are wrong. Such an act would be profoundly disrespectful to a man who, as a pastor, is in spiritual authority over you. What I would suggest is for many of you to begin thinking seriously about how worship is carried out at your church and quietly bring your individual concerns to your music minister, because coming as a group automatically sets you up as an opposing party. No one wants that. At the end of the day though, as long as a church is unified it is in far better shape than one that is disjointed, regardless of worship style. The last thing I want is for there to be disunity in a church. So always seek unity and always display love, for these are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and that, indeed, is what Jesus would do.

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3 thoughts on “Guest Writer Jacob Smith: A Young Man on Hymns

  1. sethbrake December 30, 2014 / 1:43 PM

    Would it be making the same error as assuming that contemporary music will bring in the young to assume that contemporary music would drive out the old?

    • jake2011rt December 30, 2014 / 4:24 PM

      That would be a similar mistake, since Christians should always forbear one another, but it isn’t quite my point. I believe that singing hymns promotes unity though. In fact, I would say that older generations are much less comfortable with contemporary music than we younger folks are uncomfortable with hymns.

  2. Eric Marcy January 1, 2015 / 7:57 PM

    Jacob, though I agree with most of your points, I’m a little confused by what you mean in your argumentation of point 4 regarding the sacredness of hymns. While I agree with your assessment of hymns as generally being sacred and set apart, how exactly do you see them exemplifying that sacredness? Why are they more sacred than secular and contemporary songs? Is it the structure, particular themes in the lyricism? Just curious, because arguing that hymns “feel” sacred seems a bit of a weak argument, and one that could just as easily be used against hymns and in favor of contemporary styles.

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