09 February 2011

Before You Throw Away Your Hymns

I don't like all hymns. Let's just get that out there right now. Some are lame and had to be lame even by the standards of the day in which they were written. Most, however, were written out of tremendous challenges and suffering, real life situations that made/make them so relevant to life. Here's one example, "Near to the Heart of God," written over 100 years ago (taken from 101 More Hymn Stories):

"Near to the Heart of God was written and composed by Cleland B. McAfee, in 1901, while he was pastoring the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago, Illinois. He received one day that diphtheria had just claimed the lives of his two beloved nieces, and while in his saddened, shocked state, he wrote this hymn as a comfort for his own soul as well as for the other members of his family. He first sang it with choking voice just outside the darkened, quarantined house of his brother, Howard, the day of the double funeral. The following Sunday, McAfee's choir repeated it as a communion hymn at his own church service. Another brother, Lapsley, was so impressed with the simple buy comforting message of the hymn that he carried it back to his pastorate, the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California. From that time to the present, it has continued to be a source of great encouragement to believers everywhere."

A lot of Christians today don't like hymns simply because they are old. Because they are old, they have an old sound, don't work well with clapping and jumping (at least if you don't play them to an upbeat tempo). More sophisticated critics would argue that such "old music" isn't relevant to today's seekers because "if they don't like the music, they're probably not going to come back, even if the message is good. It has to connect to the 21st-century people you're trying to reach."

What I think lies behind such thinking is a false choice: either play hymns or be relevant. Can't there be a third option: play hymns (in an exciting, modern way) and help people understand the "old" lyrics? Sharing the stories behind the hymns, explaining archaic lyrics, and providing the biblical context that inspired many hymns is not a waste of time or too much work to be worth it. We need modern songs, but not at the cost of excommunicating something because it's old. Progress is not to abandon the old, but to help people worship better and more from the heart. Helping people understand the enduring quality of hymns IS progressive; ditching them just because they are old is chronological snobbery and lazy.

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