Posted by: rcottrill | January 27, 2013

Putting Away Childish Things

“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again and again from those who sorrow because their churches have abandoned the hymn book as being outmoded, and too out-of-date for the modern taste.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.


Responses

  1. Good morning, Robert! Thanks for a great, thoughtful post.

    As a church music leader in a Baptist church near a major American university, I experience the conflict between hymns and modern songs. To attract college young adults, I am expected to sing contemporary worship songs. Some of them out there are very good. Most of them are shallow. Our congregation is mostly above 50, and most members don’t listen to Christian music radio, so they don’t know the songs, which means that the number of people who sing with me are few. Still, I’m expected to use the music to attract our college young adults who do come.

    On the other hand, singing hymns by themselves do not necessarily enhance congregational worship. While I certainly get more singing, and more enthusiasm in the singing, from the older members when I pick hymns, it certainly seems to me that most of them are singing from rote memory, instead of being actively engaged in the hymns. This is most evident when I lead a 4-verse hymn and sing verses 1, 3, and 4, instead of the common Baptist tradition of singing verses 1, 2, and 4. Inevitably half or more of the congregation goes to verse 2, realizes they are on the wrong verse, and then moves to verse 3. To me, this indicates that the singing has not fully engaged the mind, that it is rote singing rather than singing from a mind and a heart engaged with God’s Holy Spirit.

    I also want to point out that there are contemporary hymnodists who are writing good hymns, not fluff. One such person is Stuart Townend. Although he is a bit too Calvinist for my Arminian sensibilities, he nonetheless writes deeply moving, thoughtful hymns that are popular among younger adults. Take a look at his hymns “Loved Before the Dawn of Time (Salvation’s Song)” and “From the Breaking of the Dawn (Every Promise)” (the former written with Andrew Small, and the latter written with Keith Getty). They are not shallow praise and worship choruses but are instead serious hymns. Townend and others also take our great old hymns and set them in contemporary musical settings that appeal to young people. I use these often. One very good example of that is “New Doxology” by Thomas Miller, using a rearranged version of Old Hundredth and Thomas Ken’s wonderful words of praise. Another example is “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” used in the movie Amazing Grace. This arrangement by Louie Giglio and Chris Tomlin preserves the words, and much of the tune that we so know and love, but make it contemporary and appealing to younger people. I have used it on several occasions.

    All this is to point out, Robert, that there are people who take hymns seriously in the Christian Church and who are putting them together in ways that sound fresh and contemporary to appeal to young people who neither know nor particularly like the old traditional hymns. Music leaders have to work hard to find such hymns, and older church members need to let go of the idea that the words of the hymn must be sung in a particular musical setting, but God can be worshiped deeply and thoughtfully in hymns today, even contemporary hymns, if we will but try to do so.

    As always, Robert, thanks for such a wonderful discussion on hymns, and may the Lord bless you and yours.

    • Some thoughtful comments as usual. Thanks for engaging in the discussion. I can identify with a number of things you’ve said. Let me offer a few more observations.

      Part of my emphasis on our traditional hymnody (and the lack of discussion of contemporary songs) has to do with the purpose of the blog. The treasure of old hymns is being neglected in too many churches. I want to reawaken interest in the old hymns, and show their worth. But I do know there are some fine songs being written today. One of Stuart Townend’s that you don’t mention is the very moving:

      How deep the Father’s love for us,
      How vast beyond all measure.

      However, when I’ve been a guest preacher in churches that use a lot of contemporary songs, I’ve found the majority of them ride a similar simplistic rail, not saying much at all. I’m not sure whether this reflects the overall quality of the genre, or simply the poor choices of the “worship team.” Often these are made up of young people–with the well-intentioned purpose of involving the youth. But perhaps they need more pastoral supervision in choosing the songs, as well as in platform behaviour.

      I think the whole worship team concept that’s in vogue today needs a rethink. (Again, I can only speak from my own experience.) If we turn the worship of Almighty God in our churches over to those who are spiritually immature, and lacking in a deeper understanding of the Scriptures, we are dishonouring the God we serve. In my article Sacred Music in the Old Testament, I show something of the reverent care this ministry calls for.

      I chuckled over your “Baptist tradition of singing verses 1, 2 and 4.” (I didn’t know it was the Baptists who are to blame for that. :-)) We have a service leader in our church who seemed to be in that rut, but I’m trying to educate him out of it–with some success. I’ve also had the experience you refer to, when visiting other churches, of seeing most of the congregation standing silent during the singing of some contemporary songs, then joining in enthusiastically when one of the older hymns is introduced. Both of these problems can be ameliorated with some care.

      There are several solutions I don’t particularly favour. 1) Giving up, and simply catering to the majority. 2) Tinkering with the old hymns (words and tune) to give them a more contemporary feel. Too often this seems to involve gutting the hymn and omitting most of the stanzas, while adding a repeated refrain sometimes of dubious quality. 3) Splitting contemporary and traditional parts of the service in two, with different service leaders is bad too.

      This last deserves a bit more comment. Some young guitar people come up to the front and lead the choruses. Then, an older service leader and pianist/organist come up, later in the service, and lead a hymn or two. The guitar people will say, “We don’t know those songs.” And the piano people we say, “We don’t know those songs.” So…? Learn them! This kind of split simply exacerbates the gap (often generational) between members of the congregation. What’s needed is a weekly practice in which all the songs are chosen prayerfully, and studied by all who will be involved. (The pastor should help with this, as I believe the songs should relate to the theme of his message, when possible.)

      A couple more thoughts, and then I’m done with my long ramble. First, old is good. There’s a value in singing the older hymns pretty much as written (rather than getting rid of all those “thee’s” and “thou’s,” because “We don’t talk that way any more”). The church is not a modern, pop phenomenon; it is many centuries old. I think we get a bit of a sense of the connection when we sing Watts as Watts wrote. I realize this can be overdone, but that continuity with the past is important to establish and emphasize.

      Finally, regarding the congregation skipping verse 3, even when instructed otherwise, because “that’s what we always do, and the problem of singing by rote with little thought of the meaning–both of those can be dealt with by using more creativity on a consistent basis (see the article 30 Ideas for Promoting Hymn Singing.) Get the congregation out of its old rut and all will be more alert, watching and listening for what comes next. And introduce the hymns in a way that focuses attention on their meaning.

      It’s a small thing, but I rarely if ever announce what stanzas we’re going to sing when introducing a hymn. I do that during the hymn. For example, as the last note of verse 2 is being sung, I’ll simply say, “Verse 4.” With a bit of practice, and an alert accompanist, it can be done smoothly.

      If you have read all the way to here, I commend your patience. 🙂 God bless.


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