Songs God wants to hear: danger — don’t overkill hymns!

[notice]Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.[/notice]

Yes, God wants to hear us sing all genres of songs in our churches. He listens carefully to make sure we obey His instruction: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).

Those who are people-centred will choose to sing the songs they and their congregations enjoy, but those who are God-centred will choose to sing the songs that God enjoys. Among them will be hymns.

In the 70s and 80s there was an over-reaction to hymns, as “praise and worship songs” became popular. So that today in many churches hymns are not sung any more. They are regarded as old-fashioned and boring. God is not pleased with such lopsided congregational singing that ignores hymns.

But it is equally wrong to fall off the other side of the log! Beware of overkill! Singing hymns exclusively, and ignoring psalms and spiritual songs. If your church has been singing only contemporary worship songs (CWSs), then strategise with wisdom how to introduce hymns into the song list mix.

If you were to suddenly switch from CWSs to hymns, there would probably be a revolution. Colossians 3:16 pleads for “wisdom” in our congregational singing, and this applies to wise strategy as well as wise songs.

Wise strategies
Don’t choose a heavy selection of profound, heavyweight Hymns. Eight verses of The God of Abraham praise (SoF 530) followed by four verses of Jesus, Lover of my soul (SoF 297) and then by all five verses of And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood (SoF 21) and ending off with Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God (SoF 127). Although each of these hymns is excellent in itself, and will actually use up fewer minutes than many CWSs, they will seem like an eternity for the congregation that is used to singing lighter songs three times over.

Think for a moment of the phrases found in these four hymns. I sample these: “Ancient of everlasting days and God of love” … “He calls a worm His friend” … “He shows His prints of love, they kindle to a flame”.

“Cover my defenceless head with the shadow of Thy wing” … “Freely let me take of Thee” … “Spring Thou up within my heart, rise to all eternity”.

“ ’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore, let angel minds inquire no more” … Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light” … “Alive in Him, my living Head”.

The metaphor of “Zion, city of our God” is lost on most millennials today. “Round each habitation hovering, see the cloud and fire appear” – this sounds weird, and most people don’t know the bible well enough to connect this with Israel as a ‘type’ of the Church traveling through the wilderness led by cloud by day and fire by night.

These are rich metaphors, profound poetry, worthy of meditation. But most people won’t ponder them. Some of these phrases mix up the usual order of words, with the verb preceding the noun-subject. They will find the hymn confusing and boring. It will reinforce all their anti-hymn prejudices. That’s the last thing we want to do!

Five integration strategies
How can we use hymns in a way that will give an appetite for them? How can we avoid being counterproductive? I suggest:

1. Mix the genres: Don’t sing a block of CWSs and then a block of psalms and a block of hymns. Sing a CWS and a hymn and a CWS and a psalm and a hymn. Some worship leaders think the service must start with CWSs and end with a hymn. Get out of such ruts. Let the theme determine the sequence, overriding the genre.

2. Encourage the worship leader to use the skills of a continuity announcer, giving a few words that connect the psalms, hymns and songs as they flesh out the theme. Where there are obscure metaphors, such as “Zion = The Church”, explain them. Don’t follow the common custom of stringing songs together without comment. Show their interconnectivity in the flow of integrated worship.

3. Choose classical hymns that have been re-worked into contemporary language. Avoid using Christianese, the language which only the initiated insiders understand. Sing words that an unchurched visitor can relate to. (Check out recent Worship conversation with Hugh columns for practical ideas here.)

4. Choose some hymns that are lighter in vocabulary, yet not trivial. God’s profound truths are often expressed in simple language and descriptions. God sent His Son … Because He lives I can face tomorrow (SoF 736); When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound … when the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there (Mission Praise 759); Crown Him with many crowns (SoF 77). An occasional ‘heavyweight’ hymn which mature Christians appreciate should be included in the song list, but not too many. Ask yourself: Will an unchurched visitor understand this? Is there a less complicated hymn that conveys the same message?

5. Show the relevance of a hymn to the human circumstances with which the congregation can identify. ***In today’s stressful environment, sing Dear Lord and Father of mankind (SoF 79) with its themes of reverence, trust, rest, hush, strain and stress, coolness, balm. ***In today’s greedy environment, sing Our life is like Monopoly, amassing stuff for all to see. But when it’s over, Satan mocks as we put all back in the box. (6 verses, to the tune The Water is deep, LLL 36 zc). ***In times of political uncertainty and turmoil, sing Great is the darkness (SoF 742) with its remedial prayer “May now Your church rise with power and love …”. ***Noting today’s epidemic of child abuse and abortions, sing Who can sound the depths of sorrow? (SoF 604). Sing its challenge: “In an age of cruel rejection, who will build for love a home?”

There are hymns for every contemporary situation, which somehow are seldom addressed in contemporary worship songs. Ask me for samples of ‘relevant songs’ by emailing me:

As a child I didn’t like pumpkin. So I was made to sit at the table until I had finished my pumpkin. “It is good for you” I was told, as I poked around on my plate. This overkill had the opposite effect. Now that I have adult choice, I don’t eat pumpkin at all. Don’t do this with hymns! Introduce them wisely and appetisingly.

Because God wants to hear us sing hymns, and because hymns are most effective to “teach and admonish” in the scriptures, please don’t overkill hymns! Use them wisely to proclaim Christ and to nourish the congregation. Keep the balance which God prescribes in His word: Ensure a balanced musical diet of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs!

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