Why We Still Need Hymns

The Formative Power Of Worship

by Rev. Kevin Twit (April 2002)

"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Matthew 6:21

"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." 2 Corinthians 3:18

Worship is formative. That means it has power to shape us. We are what we sing (as Mark Noll writes in a recent article in Christianity Today .) Our hearts are drawn from other "treasures" as our eyes are opened to see Jesus for who He really is. Thomas Chalmers 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 Lane’s wonderful phrase!) 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 God’s favor and manipulate Him to do whatever we want.

If we have a limited view of who God is and what the gospel is, our experience of it will be limited as well. Hymns stretch us and teach us. 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? The payoff is well worth it, I think. A hymnal is one of the best devotional books you can find!

Hymns tend to engage our imagination, intellect, and will. Many praise choruses go directly for the emotions, but good hymns (unlike many of the melodramatic gospel songs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries), give us rich language and images that require us to think and imagine as the way to stir the passions. While praise choruses do use imagery, many times they are stuck in the same limited number of clichés that no longer engage our imaginations. But the scriptures are full of diverse images and our songs should reflect this creativity too! For example, "I trace the rainbow through the rain, and feel the promise is not vain" (from "O Love That Will Not Let Me Go" by Matheson) recalls the covenant with Noah and applies it to our current situation in a rich way.

Hymns tell a story and walk us through the gospel. I would say modern choruses are often more like "images" that flash on the television screen for but a moment. They do stir us, but they don’t take us anywhere. (Although I will say that a skillful worship leader can string together choruses to take us from somewhere to somewhere. Unfortunately though because choruses are rather limited in the themes they address, the journey is more restricted and often less interesting.) In a good hymn, the writer offers their story and invites you to try it on and see if might be your story too! (Example: Anne Steele and her hymns of trust in the midst of suffering like "Dear Refuge Of My Weary Soul.")

Hymns offer a more full emotional range of expression. Dan Allender (author and Christian counselor) has said that if we sang more Psalms we would have a lot less need for Christian counselors. I think a similar thing could be said for hymns because they help us work through emotions and they cover a wider range of emotions than modern choruses. This is often a surprising point because we associate hymns with a lack of emotion and modern choruses with emotional excess at times. But a careful study will reveal that the emotions touched on by modern choruses are really very few and have mostly to do with "Lord I’m broken and I want to see your glory."

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 Toplady’s "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! 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.

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 modern choruses. The idea that we only approach God as Christians through the blood of Christ is (I hope) assumed but is 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 God’s face and His glory, but the cross is the way we see God’s face and it is the fullest expression of His glory! 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 don’t look at the cross enough! Because if you really look at your sin without seeing the cross as huge – it will devastate you!

Hymns remind us that the church is bigger than the people we know, or even who are alive today! Through hymns we can connect with believers who lived centuries before us! We can have "mystic sweet communion, with those whose rest is won." (from "The Church’s One Foundation" by Stone) When I introduce people to Anne Steele’s hymns (like "Dear Refuge Of My Weary Soul") for instance, they are struck by the powerful way she dealt with her immense suffering and find that her cries can become their cries, and her tears can join with their tears, and that her faith can encourage their faith. To see that we can connect with an English lady who lived in a small village 300 years ago and feel what she felt is powerful. All of the sudden the kingdom of God grows much bigger! Thus it really helps to study the stories behind the hymns and the lives of the hymnwriters!

Hymns are theology on fire! We need solid theology rather than just a constant diet of fluff and fads. Hymns are a great way to wrestle with theology because they connect theology to life and worship rather than allowing theology to just puff us up as disconnected truths that we memorize to confound our friends! J.I. Packer says it is vital for us to turn what we know about God into a basis for praising God (in the intro to Knowing God) and hymns are wonderful vehicles for this!

We grow by feeding on God’s character revealed and by feasting on His promises. 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 God’s love for us as 1John 4:16 says ("We know and rely on God’s love for us"). We need to recall Rock of Ages: "Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone, thou must save and thou alone!"

But we must beware of worshiping tradition and hymns themselves. Hymns are not beyond critique, though many of the poor ones have dropped out of sight. I find that putting old hymns to new music allows us to connect with the hymns and yet still be relevant and authentic to our own culture. And by putting familiar hymns to new music often people slow down and think about what they are actually singing and the meaning takes on fresh life for them.

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