I write in praise of the hymn as a tool for worship in the Christian church.
My youngest son was baptized a few months ago in his mom’s church, and I attended. I was thrilled (in tears, really) to see my son baptized. But the worship featured a rock band and a slate of songs I’d never heard before. I tried to sing, but struggled to discern each song’s melody and structure and so managed only a few feeble mumbles. Even though I’d been to church, I left feeling like I hadn’t fully worshiped. (I’m sure God understands.)
This isn’t about condemning the modern rock-band style of worship, although it doesn’t work for me personally. This also isn’t about reverting to the old days of pipe organs and choirs. It’s about making it easy for everyone, especially newcomers and visitors, to participate in worship.
Participation means more than just showing up. The word worship means to express devotion to a deity, which implies actively doing. Now, I can’t sort out scripture from tradition in modern Christian worship. The Bible tells us to sing praises to God, and I assume this is why worship services have included singing for a very long time. When the music plays, participation means singing along.
I love to sing, so singing in church is particularly important to me. Thanks to some natural ability and many years of school choir, I learn songs quickly, by ear. Ask my sons, who are subject to my constant singing in the car. But that choral training also taught me that songs with a predictable, repetitive structure are the easiest and fastest to learn.
Most praise songs are structured like pop or rock music, starting with a verse-chorus structure but adding bridges and key changes. You have to hear the whole song a number of times before you feel that structure and can anticipate the melody. I think many of these songs are truly great. I especially like this one: It Is You by The Newsboys. I chose a video of it that shows the lyrics much as you’d see them projected on a screen in church. When I first heard it, I had to try to sing along with it it probably twenty times before I could sing it through.
Hymns, on the other hand, usually feature three or four verses sung to the same melody. If you are visiting a church and they sing a hymn you don’t know, with each verse you become more able to sing along. If you have a good ear, you might even be singing out by the last verse. Simply put, hymns make it easier for you to participate. Here’s a modern hymn, a reflective and mournful piece called In Christ Alone, which was written in 2001. Even though this hymn is complex, by the end I’ll bet you will at least be humming along to the melody.
It Is You sounds more like the music I listen to outside of church. I wouldn’t play In Christ Alone in my car or around my house. But when it comes to worship, especially when songs I don’t know are involved, I’d rather sing a hymn like In Christ Alone any day. Then I can really give my voice to God.
I once belonged to a church that sang a cappella. It was beautiful! Read about it.