Faith, Music

In praise of the hymn

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.)

Inside Bethel

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.

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Faith, Music, Stories Told

The old songs

On this Good Friday, I’d like to repost a story from a few years ago. I’m now a member of the little church in this story, and we will observe this Good Friday just as described here.

I went to an evening church service last Friday, Good Friday. I’d never done that before.

My Christian heritage has its roots in Restoration Movement churches (Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Christian Churches). These churches’ original goal was to restore Christianity as practiced in New Testament times. They mostly ignore the liturgical calendar. The ultra-conservative Churches of Christ ignore it altogether; they don’t even observe Christmas and Easter. (The Bible, they reason, doesn’t explicitly authorize those holidays.) So while we’re all aware of Good Friday, it’s often not held up any higher than any other day.

West Park Christian Church

My Christian Church congregation hasn’t had a Good Friday service while I’ve been a member. Other congregations in our fellowship do, however, and one of them invited us to join them this year. West Park Christian Church has served its Westside Indianapolis community for more than 100 years. 1910s and 1920s neighborhood photos hanging inside the church show tidy new working-class homes; today the houses are dilapidated, the residents are poor, and the streets are unsafe after dark.

We began by walking the neighborhood. A couple men hoisted a large wooden cross onto their shoulders and we headed out, about a hundred of us, calling out greetings to the people sitting on their front porches and out in their front yards enjoying an unusually warm early-Spring evening. We stopped at the homes of several ailing church members and of community leaders to ask them out so we could pray with and for them. We stopped at the community center and at the neighborhood park and prayed over them, too. There’s no way this neighborhood doesn’t know about West Park Christian Church and what it stands for. This church is clearly in a ripe mission field. I envied them their opportunity to serve.

West Park Christian Church

When we returned to the church we shared a pitch-in meal, and then we entered the sanctuary for an evening service. We sang, took communion, and heard a short message.

So many modern churches today have rock bands and sing nothing but upbeat praise songs. I understand why; it reaches so many younger people. I’m all for what’s effective. But while I was in the Church of Christ, we sang the old hymns and spirituals a cappella in four-part harmony and I really loved it. I came to have a deep affection for many of those old songs – It Is Well with My Soul, When My Love to Christ Grows Weak, Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?, I Surrender All, When All of God’s Singers Get Home, and many others. I have missed them. We sang the old songs this Good Friday night. A pianist accompanied us through five or six songs, but after the first verse of Onward, Christian Soldiers, he stopped playing. Everybody was really singing, raising their voices to God, almost clamoring to be heard. I heard a few voices in the back singing the bass and tenor parts, emboldening me to do the same. Then the pianist played the opening notes of When I Survey The Wondrous Cross and, as we began to sing, again let his hands rest and our voices carry. After the first verse I was so moved by our blended voices lifting so powerfully to God on this day we specially gathered to observe Christ’s death that I began to cry.

The joyless work of selling our church building and planning to build a new one as we try to keep a financially challenged congregation afloat has taken me away from the real point of service. I was reminded of it on Good Friday night. We are to go bring the lost to God and turn our faces to Him in worship, giving him ourselves to use for His purposes. And it was the death of Christ on the cross that makes it all possible.

See a 1914 photo of West Park Christian Church and its congregation here.

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Faith, Music, Stories Told

The old songs

I went to an evening church service last Friday, Good Friday. I’d never done that before.

My Christian “heritage,” if you can call it that, has its roots mostly in Restoration Movement churches (Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Christian Churches). These churches tend to lack the usual trappings of Christendom as part of the movement’s call to return to the kind of Christianity practiced in the first century. Those churches that observe the liturgical calendar do so loosely at best. The old-line Churches of Christ, the most conservative churches in our brotherhood, ignore it altogether and don’t even observe notable holidays such as Christmas and Easter. (They reason that the Bible doesn’t explicitly authorize those holidays.) So while we’re all aware of Good Friday, it’s often not held up any higher than any other day.

My Christian Church congregation hasn’t had a Good Friday service in at least the six years I’ve been there. Other congregations in our fellowship do, however, and one of them invited us to join them this year. West Park Christian Church has served its Westside Indianapolis community for at least 100 years. 1910s and 1920s neighborhood photos hanging inside the church show new, tidy middle-class homes; today the houses are dilapidated, the residents are poor, and the streets are unsafe after dark.

When I survey the wondrous cross

We began by walking the neighborhood. A couple men hoisted a large wooden cross onto their shoulders and we headed out, about a hundred of us, calling out greetings to the people sitting on their front porches and out in their front yards enjoying an unusually warm early-Spring evening. We stopped at the homes of several ailing church members and of community leaders to ask them out so we could pray with and for them. We stopped at the community center and at the neighborhood park and prayed over them, too. There’s no way this neighborhood doesn’t know about West Park Christian Church and what it stands for. This church is clearly in a ripe mission field. I envied them their opportunity to serve.

When we returned to the church we shared a pitch-in meal, and then we entered the sanctuary for the evening service. We sang, took communion, and heard a short message. I smiled when I heard the preacher say that he had grown up in a congregation that didn’t observe Good Friday or Easter; I knew exactly where he was coming from.

So many modern churches today have rock bands and sing nothing but upbeat praise songs. I understand why; it reaches so many younger people. I’m all for what’s effective. But while I was in the Church of Christ, we sang the old hymns and spirituals a cappella in four-part harmony and I really loved it. I came to have a deep affection for many of those old songs – It Is Well with My Soul, When My Love to Christ Grows Weak, Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?, I Surrender All, When All of God’s Singers Get Home, and many others. I have missed them. We sang the old songs this Good Friday night. A pianist accompanied us through five or six songs, but after the first verse of Onward, Christian Soldiers, he stopped playing. Everybody was really singing, raising their voices to God, almost clamoring to be heard. I heard a few voices in the back singing the bass and tenor parts, emboldening me to do the same. Then the pianist played the opening notes of When I Survey The Wondrous Cross and, as we began to sing, again let his hands rest and our voices carry. After the first verse I was so moved by our blended voices lifting so powerfully to God on this day we specially gathered to observe Christ’s death that I began to cry, and could not sing.

The joyless work of selling our church building and planning to build a new one as we try to keep a financially challenged congregation afloat has taken me away from the real point of service. I was reminded of it on Good Friday night. We are to go bring the lost to God and turn our faces to Him in worship, giving him ourselves to use for His purposes. And it was the death of Christ on the cross that makes it all possible.

Though I miss the old songs, I haven’t forgotten that our form of worship is less important than carrying out Jesus’s mission for us. That’s what really counts.

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