Why We Still Need Hymns
Introduction: Is There Really A New Movement Going On?
Loris testimony Coming from a typical praise chorus-reliant high school youth group I sort of turned my nose up as I was handed a notebook of hymns at my first visit to RUF. I didnt understand a lot of the poetic and imagery-driven lyrics and the word hymn automatically meant boring music. But as the weeks passed, I found myself falling in love with the old hymns and the idea of putting new (and very beautiful) music to them. The words are so profound and full of truth one cant help but be broken. Singing hymns has seriously changed my life and freed me from feeling frustrated by surface lyrics that focus on how I feel about God, which is always changing. Hymns have allowed me to center my worship on the Gospel, which in turn compels me to love the God I am prone to hate and wander from.
Whats going on? See The Younger Evangelicals by Robert Webber, Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks, and The New Faithful by Colleen Carroll. Webber writes, I find three trends in the worship of the younger evangelical. They are (1) a reaction to entertainment worship, (2) a longing for an experience of Gods presence, and (3) a restoration of liturgical elements of worship.
My grandmother saved it, my mother threw it away, and now Im buying it back
Roots and wings! The challenge is to provide roots and wings to bring young people into a sense of connectedness with the past that doesnt rob them of their vision of the future. Gerard Kelly Retro-future
I. Worship Is Formative Lex Orandi Lex Credendi (The law of prayer is the law of belief.)
And we, who with unveiled faces all gaze upon the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit 2Corinthians 3:18
The expulsive power of a new affection! Worship shapes and molds us! Our hearts are drawn from other treasures as our eyes are opened to see Jesus for who He really is. Thomas Chalmers (19th century Scottish Presbyterian) called this the expulsive power of a new affection. By that phrase he means that you never really get over one love until a new one comes along. In worship we seek to have Jesus become more beautiful and believable to us. (Bill Lanes wonderful phrase!) See Thou Lovely Source Of True Delight by Anne Steele (18th century), Thou lovely Source of true delight, Whom I unseen adore. Unveil Thy beauties to my heart, That I might love Thee more!
Worship restores our sanity! We seek to have God restore our sanity so that we can live in line with the truth of the gospel rather than in accordance with the fantasy world in which we must earn Gods favor and manipulate Him to do whatever we want. Our basic problem as believers is that of idolatry, we too often worship a god who is so much less than the God of the Bible. But the gospel heals us of our idolatry by showing us that we already have what we are trying to get from our idols. Whether it be power or security or meaning, we already have it in Jesus. When we see this, and the truth of it connects to our hearts, we are transformed!
The longing for experiencing God. Postmoderns long for experience with God and the hymns are some of the richest expression of Christian experience we have they are a real doorway into sensing the truth on our hearts rather than just knowing it in our heads! See Wesleys Arise My Soul Arise for a great example of crying out to God to sense what we confess. Arise my soul arise, Shake off thy guilty fears, The bleeding sacrifice, On my behalf appears. This communion hymn is a pleading with the soul to feel what we see displayed in the sacraments!
II. Hymns Help Us Grow Up!
Hymns teach us the rich theology we really need! If we have a limited view of who God is and what the gospel is, our experience of it will be limited as well. Why does Paul write the longest explanation of the gospel to people who are (literally) world-famous for their faith? (Romans 1:8) Because as Luther said, we leak the gospel and it needs to be beat into our heads over and over again!
Hymns stretch us! Postmoderns despise a watered-down, content-less gospel! People think if we make it easy on young adults, well draw them in, [but reality] is the very opposite. Youth are looking for a casue, a reason to live. They need something to give their lives to. A Christianity that says, Go to church on Sunday and be a good person thats no cause! Christianity doesnt say go to church on Sunday, Jesus said, He who loses his life will find it. In other words, If you dont love me above all things, youre not worthy of me. But few people are given that message. Rosalind Moss (quoted in The New Faithful by Carroll) Dont be afraid of content in our worship services! Sometimes we might even have to ask someone what a line means. But who says that everything we sing must be instantly accessible? Is there no value to learning songs that take some work? Why is Henry Lytes Jesus I My Cross have Taken one of my students favorite hymns? I think it is because it offers us orientation to what the Christian life really is all about and doesnt sugar-coat things at all!
III. Hymns Focus Us Where The Focus Needs To Be!
Hymns are mini-meditations on the paradoxes of the gospel that drive us to worship. C.H. Spurgeon once said When I cannot understand anything in the Bible, it seems as though God had set a chair there for me, at which to kneel and worship; and that the mysteries are intended to be an altar of devotion. I think that is good advice. Hymns are an opportunity to sit in a mystery like And can it be that Thou my God shouldst die for me?! until it begins to enter into our heart! Another great example is Augustus Topladys O Love incomprehensible, that made Thee bleed for me. The Judge of all hath suffered death, to set His prisoner free! The greatest mystery is not why is there evil, but why God would suffer for His enemies?! If we ever lose our amazement at that, then we are in deep weeds!
Many hymns actually are born out of mediation upon scripture an art we desperately need to relearn! Tim Keller (pastor at Redeemer Church in NYC) says meditation is thinking a truth in [into your heart] and then thinking it out [thinking out the implications of this truth for your life etc.] That is what the hymns help us do as they take their theme and turn it over and let us gaze upon it form all different angles. And they often will suggest (though by no means do they ever exhaust) ways in which this truth should change our lives. In this way they model how to meditate upon scripture and the truths of the gospel. This is not just a happy coincidence, it is born out of the fact that hymns are usually the result of mediation in the first place! A great example of this is How Sweet The Name Of Jesus Sounds by John Newton (18th century.) We have the notes from Newtons sermon the day he introduced this hymn to his congregation and it reveals that his text was Thy Name is as ointment poured forth (Song of Solomon 1:3). As he reflected upon that text all week he saw its fulfillment in Jesus and the implication for the trials and tribulations of the Christians life. When was the last time you got that much out of meditating on Song of Solomon 1:3?
Hymns remind us that we can only approach God through the shed blood of Jesus (1Pet 2:5) It is amazing how little the gospel is celebrated in some modern choruses. The idea that we only approach God as Christians through the blood of Christ is (I hope) assumed but it is too rarely mentioned! And when the cross is mentioned, it is only mentioned, it is never explained or unpacked or gazed upon. The major theme is wanting to see Gods face and His glory, but the cross is the way we see Gods face and it is the fullest expression of His glory! (Luther called this the theology of the cross and we need to relearn this theology especially in Middle Class America!) We need deeper and richer, and longer, looks at the cross and all that it means! As Luther advised, For every one look you take of your sin, take 10 looks at the cross! But we rarely look at our sin, perhaps because we dont look at the cross enough! Because if you really look at your sin without seeing the cross as huge it will devastate you!
Hymns focus us on Gods promises more than upon ours! We grow by feeding on Gods character revealed and by feasting on His promises. Many modern choruses, with their almost constant emphasis on what we want to do, (Lord I just want to ) fail to teach us to rely on Gods love for us as 1John 4:16 says (We know and rely on Gods love for us). We need to recall Augustus Topladys hymn Rock of Ages (originally titled A living and dying prayer for the holiest believer on earth): Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone, thou must save and thou alone!