Ignorant. It’s a harsh word. A kind of put-down to say, “You’re ignorant!” Perhaps it’s that word “ignore” that lurks suspiciously in the opening letters. To ignore something is to willfully disregard it, to fail to take adequate note of it. Thus, to be ignorant is to be an ignorer, unaware of some important things–perhaps through a lack of exposure to them, or through carelessly turning away from them, or both.
It is not difficult to see how this relates to the traditional hymns and gospel songs of the church. In his book, Elements of Musical Notation and Conducting, Ernest O. Sellers makes a pertinent comment. And Mr. Sellers (1869-1952) knew whereof he spoke. A gospel song writer, a song leader for many well known Bible teachers and evangelists of his day, and a music teacher at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, his observations were based on wide experience. And he makes this statement, as applicable today as when it was written in 1938:
One great difficulty in the way of good congregational singing is that so few pastors, conductors [i.e. worship leaders], or congregations really know the contents of the book they are using. We have met pastors who confessed they did not know the name of the book in their own church (p. 82).
And how much more has this been compounded in a day when so many churches have chosen virtually to ignore the hymn book, opting instead for contemporary choruses, or the occasional contemporary rewriting of an old hymn that merely borrows and few lines of it here and there. (Rarely is the latter an improvement on the original.) As noted elsewhere, C. S. Lewis called this abandonment of older things “chronological snobbery.” (Ouch!)
It’s an argument I’ve heard many times–that we can’t sing those old hymns because they have no meaning for the young people. They can’t understand them. My answer to that is usually: don’t capitulate; educate! It’s possible to teach and explain the great hymns of the faith. But a friend gave me another slant on the issue.
An older gentleman, I was talking with him about this the other day, and he said it’s nonsense. Back in the 70’s he was the drummer in a rock band. “Hair down to our shoulders, we were into the likes of Jimi Henrix and Led Zeppelin [a precursor of heavy metal rock]. But one night, five of us went to a Salvation Army meeting, and we got saved. And immediately the old hymns had meaning to us. We loved them. They seemed to echo what was happening in our lives.” One person’s testimony.
When being invited to speak at a church, I usually ask what hymnal is used, with a view to suggesting a song or two that would fit my message theme. My experience has duplicated that of Mr. Sellers many times. The pastor will sometimes express uncertainty even as to the name of their hymnal, and when hymns from the church’s own book are suggested the response may well be, “But we don’t know that one.”
Recently, I communicated with a church where I was to preach, suggesting (a couple of weeks in advance) the following hymns would be appropriate: Jesus Calls Us, More Love to Thee, and O Jesus, I Have Promised, as well as the little gospel song I Have Decided to Follow Jesus. They were each included in the order of service. But the service leader met me, on my arrival, expressing some dismay that they were all unfamiliar to her!
The responsibility for this state of affairs has to be assigned at several different levels.
1) Certainly, it should be the desire of the individual believer to learn as much as possible about the hymns of the church, and their authors. If you have a computer, you can always call up the Cyber Hymnal, and sing along as the melody is played for you there. Or check out my Article about Singing Through the Alphabet.
2) Like other areas of Christian teaching, that knowledge should be gained not simply in the services of the church, but in the home where it is shared with family members. Family devotions is an ideal place to discuss a hymn, and learn more about how it came to be written. (And hymns do not always need to be sung. Many of them can be read with profit too.)
Perhaps Dad or Mom could obtain enough old hymn books so each family member could have one. Family Devotions could then include a time of singing. Good books are available (such as those by Ken Osbeck) that provide interesting stories behind our hymns. Learning this information could be part of the experience too. Hymns and hymn singing should not be relegated to Sunday services!
3) The local church must share the blame if the people are uninformed on the subject of Christian hymnody. To concentrate on the newest and latest misses centuries of rich blessing. And to always sing “something we know” does not expand the musical vocabulary of the congregation. Even worse is letting the hymnal remain in the pew, unused Sunday after Sunday, or removing the books altogether to some dusty cupboard. (See my article 30 Ideas for Promoting Hymn Singing.)
4) Where there are Christian elementary schools and high schools, they should have a part in teaching hymns to children and young people. (I myself taught a course in hymnology to Grades 7 and 8 with profit.)
5) Finally, there are the Bible colleges and seminaries. As one who taught in two different schools for some years, and served as the Academic Dean in one, I believe I can speak with some awareness of what takes place in these institutions.
There is a tendency–I will not say always, but often–for schools to adapt their programs, beyond the academic essentials, to what will attract the most young people to enrol as students. And music is considered one of those areas that should be tuned to contemporary youthful tastes. I’ve seen schools, almost overnight, begin to use raucous rock bands in their advertising, and blaring rock in their chapel services–even sometimes over the objections of staff members and alumni. Why? Too many times it is mainly to put more warm bodies in the desks, in order to pay the bills.
This is tragic. It amounts to an abandonment of the heritage of the church. And a failure to educate–which is the mandate of the institution. Students who graduate from such schools, after a steady diet of contemporary stuff for several years, may know of nothing better to share with the congregations to whom they will minister. Thus the problem is perpetuated. Graduates should leave these institutions thoroughly equipped and educated, not ignorant!
Let me say it as strongly as possible: If a school does not teach this subject, it is failing the church of the twenty-first century. I believe that every Bible college and seminary ought to have a course (or several courses) in Christian hymnology. It is an area that relates to music, theology, and church history, and could be covered in any or all of these departments (not to mention that of English literature).
The trend in local churches to replace the great hymns of the faith with repetitious, meaningless fluff could be reversed in four or five years, if this were done. And churches would be greatly enriched by the spiritual treasury found in the hymn book. If you have influence in any or all of the levels indicated, please do your part to awaken individuals to the need.