Reaching Back to Move Forward – an Ode to Hymns by a Contemporary Worshipper

church-1499312_640In the church, I am a bridge baby. Maybe you are, too.

I grew up singing hymns. I still weep at How Great Thou Art and It is Well with My Soul. I remember the thrill on Easter Sunday mornings at the low notes of Up from the Grave He Arose and how I reveled in the wonderful echoes of There is Power in the Blood. Even as a child I knew the number of my favorite hymns like Blessed Assurance (333) and Come, Thou Fount (well, I used to know it). It was a rite of passage to learn the harmonies of the hymns and join in the great “pew choir” on Sunday mornings.

But by the time I was a teen, the first praise music was being introduced (along with blue jeans on Sunday mornings and guitars on the altar (acoustic only – not an amp in sight at that time). This development excited me, too, since hymns were challenging to play on the guitar and this was the age of folk rock (plus, by then, we were pretty weary of endless choruses of “Do Lord” and “Kum Ba Yah,” especially when our friends were rocking out to The Eagles!).

By the time I got to college, there were even some Christian rock musicians like Larry Norman and Randy Stonehill. Those of us who could sing were able to choose modern sounding selections from Amy Grant and Noel Paul Stookey. We were excited to have songs in our own guitar-756326_960_720music with lyrics free from the restraints of Elizabethan poetry. I love a wide variety of praise music, I’m in awe of some of today’s amazing contemporary Christian musical artists and songwriters, and I appreciate being able to sing to the Lord with the level of intimacy these new songs allow.

But I never imagined a day without hymns.

Praise songs, like hymns, have their drawbacks. Praise songs, being personal and intimate, lend themselves to specific preferences and regional tastes often resulting in believers visiting churches from other areas and not knowing any of the songs played in the morning service. I’ve been in my home church on a Sunday morning and been unfamiliar with any of the selections that day. Let me tell you, feeling isolated and left out while others sing does not facilitate worship.

Since the point of praise songs seems to be to reflect the heart of the modern believer, they become dated as quickly as last season’s social networking site. Praise songs I loved five years ago are already obsolete. And while the simple melodies make for easier unison singing, I miss the complex harmonies provided by written sheet music. Singing those hymns often led to the surprising discovery that many men who rarely speak could unleash beautiful, rich, musical tones. With this being said, a lot of the hymns I grew up listening to and singing, I have noticed that they have became popular wedding hymns, which was pretty exciting. I mean, if you are going to have these sort of songs at your wedding, they must at least mean something to you.

praise-1154566_640Hymns, as stiff and archaic as many of them may have been, provided our culture with a common musical language. There may have been melodic variations on some tunes or wording changes on a verse or two from church to church but for the most part, hymns were a language spoken from church to church. Even when I spent a summer in Japan, I could sing the hymns in phonetic Japanese and feel included in a service executed entirely in a language in which I wasn’t fluent. (I could even offer special music in that language with feeling.) The movie, Joyeux Noelle, depicts a Christmas Eve in WWI when three different armies (French, German and Scottish) met on the frontlines, declared a momentary truce and shared a worship service singing hymns.

Hymns may seem impersonal but they proclaim the truth of God and explore His numerous, magnificent characteristics with sweep and grandeur. While praise songs allow me to cry out, proclaim my love, and speak of the deep yearnings of my heart for God, hymns proclaim who He is and His heart for me. They explore His love for us all, His unchanging nature, and His scope. They connect us with all those who have gone before so that we see ourselves in context and find our footing in the midst of our own stories set against a greater one.

Sometimes when I speak of hymns, I’m told that time moves forward and so must the church. But, that’s not entirely biblical, is it? The biblical view is that time is more of a spiral, constantly winding back on itself even as it progresses. God dwells outside of time and our worship can transcend it. He calls to us as the one who was and is and is to come. We were thrown out of the spiralgarden but we hold onto the latent memory of what we once were in that place because that is the end to which we are moving in Christ. A spiral moving forward but touching back on themes that draw us to Christ who is the Alpha and the Omega and is with us in the now.

Jeremiah issued this warning on the Lord’s behalf “This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. Jeremiah 6:16 The “good way” does not drop what is worthy and true along the path just because it is a new day. Why do we let the world dictate our path, even to Christ in our most intimate of times – worship and praise?

This post is about hymns but really it’s about a way of life. It’s about knowing that when we walk with Christ, we take a different path and it’s one that is a little outside of time. While others are on this moving conveyor belt that propels them helplessly forward, the path of the believer meanders, allowing opportunity for reflection, consideration, and thought as to what stained-glass-1181864_960_720moves forward with us. As for me, I will bring some hymns to the future with me because I will need their truths tomorrow just as I needed them yesterday and today.

“Old-fashioned” is one thing – “fashioned in the days of old” is another and the wise traveler through time knows the difference.

What are your favorite hymns and why? What contemporary songs move you and inspire you to worship? Let’s discover some new songs from one another and rediscover some of old. What creative ways has your church found to incorporate all styles of music for worship? Do you attend a church that sings the Psalms? I’m eager to hear from you.

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8 Comments

    The Conversation

  1. Sondra says:

    I still remember hearing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” for the first time as a young adult. How can those words not have meaning in hearts today? I always seem to hum “This is my Father’s World” as I enjoy the changes of each season. I love so many. But I hum Toby Mac too.
    Thanks, Lori

  2. Betty Wasson says:

    Lori, we sing the old hymns and also some contemporary praise songs. Also as I choose songs I stick in some old hymns in a newer arrangement, from Crowder, Selah, or other artists. My favorite contemporary songs are Bless the Lord Oh my Soul,(10,000 Reasons), Matt Maher’s version of Because He Lives and his Lord I Need You, as well. Crowder’s well, many… Come as you Are; I Am; and Here’s My Heart, Lord. Also many of Chris Tomlin’s praise library. Our hymns run the gamut of choruses and songs like When the Roll is Called up Yonder, Amazing Grace, and Are you Washed in the Blood. You are so right that we cannot worship as well with music which we do not know. I put a big variety in each week so that everyone can be encouraged and strengthened.

  3. Cyn Rogalski says:

    I didn’t grow up in church, I discovered Southern Gospel music when I was saved at age 28, pregnant with my son. My husband Jack & I discovered we could & have sung many songs together for special music events. Those are the songs I lean on when fear or trouble strikes.
    Music from the Couriers, Palmetto State quartet, & the Travelers are favorites, along with many hymnal selections-Victory in Jesus, In the Garden, Great is Thy Faithfulness, The Old Rugged Cross…these reach my soul in times of insecurity. I also happen to love LeCrea, TobyMac, Tait, & Cross Movement (& blast them according when I drive with the roof down! ?)
    But for comfort, I return to the hymns.

  4. Pam Halter says:

    I grew up singing hymns in the Episcopal church. Beautiful, deep hymns. Didn’t discover contemporary praise and worship music until I was 35! I couldn’t believe there was such music and that it was being sung in church! And people clapped and raised their hands!! I felt like a child seeing Disney World for the first time. Ha! I still love a lot of praise music – when it points me to God and who He is. Some of it is self-centered. And I still adore hymns. The blending of both makes for wonderful worship. So thankful to be living in such a time!

  5. John McCutcheon tells the story of that World War I Christmas truce https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJi41RWaTCs

  6. Paul Taylor says:

    This is my story. This is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long. Doesn’t get any better than that and it is well with my soul.

    Include also anything by Second Chapter of Acts.

  7. Jen says:

    I love how the Truths of God through the hymns never get old. Love it is well, tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, be thou my vision, nearer my God to thee, blessed assurance, and so many of them that are foundational and strengthening.