“When I became a man, I put away childish things” (I Cor. 13:11).
It’s a comment I’ve heard and read many times, one that distresses and saddens me. Often tossed out almost casually, it may reveal more than was intended. Referring to a particular hymn or gospel song, the person will remark, “Our church used to sing that when I was a child.”
What does that imply? That what has awakened memories of a bygone day has not been used for quite some time. Which begs the question, why not? And is it just that selection in particular? Or has a great deal of our traditional hymnody been set aside? The context in which the observation is made usually suggests the latter.
This blog currently has readers in almost two hundred countries of the world. I hear again and again from those who sorrow because their churches have abandoned the hymn book as being outmoded, and too out-of-date for the modern taste. Are those who set it aside saying our needs have changed, making the songs no longer relevant? That they’re a relic of the past to be abandoned like the horse and buggy? If that’s the reasoning, such a misguided attitude needs to be challenged.
For one thing, it is illuminating to see what has replaced the great hymns of the faith in these churches. Usually, it’s what are known as praise choruses, short, simple songs of devotion that commonly focus on subjective feelings about God. Some of them are fine, if they’re used sparingly. But too many times they have become the staple, and an almost unvarying diet, giving congregational singing the doctrinal depth of a puddle.
At the church my wife and I currently attend, a chorus or two may be used to introduce our Praise and Prayer Time, but the service overall will usually include four or five hymns, ones with plenty of meat on the bones. And we need that. After all, how else are we to teach and admonish one another with our songs, as the Word of God calls us to do?
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching [explaining and instructing] and admonishing [exhorting and warning] one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16).
It worries me that these contemporary-minded churches may have regressed to the point that their congregations “need milk and not solid food,” having become babes “unskilled in the word of righteousness” (Heb. 5:11-14). Continuing to be fed short and repetitive choruses that provide little in the way of spiritual instruction will not expose believers to the rich truths of the Scriptures.
Dip into our hymnody at any point and you’ll find devotional treasures worthy of serious meditation. These are definitely not childish things. In fact, they turn us from childhood’s naivete to seek more of God, and a greater understanding of the spiritual realm. With the hymn writer we confess, “Unnumbered comforts to my soul / Thy tender care bestowed, / Before my infant heart conceived / From whom those comforts flowed.”
And our hymns can be convicting. Looking back, we may say, “O the years in sinning wasted, / Could I but recall them now.” Or, in the words of another song, “Years I spent in vanity and pride, / Caring not my Lord was crucified, / Knowing not it was for me He died / On Calvary.” But blessedly, along with our own folly, we’re reminded in our hymns of God’s faithfulness and abounding grace. “Perverse and foolish oft I strayed, / But yet in love He sought me.”
And what of the troubles and trials of today? We can be assured that “E’en the hour that darkest seemeth, / Will His changeless goodness prove.” So, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, / But trust Him for His grace; / Behind a frowning providence / He hides a smiling face.” Finally, consider this startling prayer (cf. II Cor. 12:7-10): “Let sorrow do its work, / Send grief and pain; / Sweet are Thy messengers, / Sweet the refrain, / When they can sing with me: / More love, O Christ, to Thee.” (Nothing childish there!)
These brief quotations are sufficient to make the point. Casting away the heritage of the church in sacred music is major folly. Please, don’t do it! If we are to “present every man perfect [mature and fully equipped] in Christ Jesus” (Col. 1:28), we need what God can teach us through our hymns. If we are to put away childish things, let it be the notion that there’s nothing in this vast treasury that can minister to us today or enrich our worship.