Good question, considering we will do just that tomorrow in our service. And it’s not just because our chief musician is out of town. Though normally we use a style of music more reflective of the age we live in for purposes of our mission, periodically we employ the genre of traditional church hymnody, and that exclusively, in a service for a variety of reasons.
First, hymns are biblical. Jesus set the example for us with his disciples in Matt. 26:30 after the institution of the Supper. Paul prescribed the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in Eph. 5:19 as part of the means by which believers manifest the filling of the Spirit.
Second, hymns are doctrinal. We teach what we believe when we sing to each other. The ESV uses the phrase addressing one another with respect to using the three genres in Eph. 5:19. And yes, I do distinguish between the three as opposed to seeing them essentially synonymous. Many hymns, not all mind you, but many shine when it comes to the theological depth contained within the various verses. Consider, for example, just the first two stanzas alone of Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise, our first offering tomorrow:
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise.
Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, Thou rulest in might;
Thy justice like mountains high soaring above
Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.
When we sing such truth-saturated lyrics to one another we remind, even instruct one another, as to the magnificent character of the great God we worship. That is not to say that modern hymns written by the likes of Getty, Townend, Kauflin and others don’t do the same thing. Singing In Christ Alone should convince one of that quite quickly. But compared to much of the content coming out of the modern worship song movement over the last several decades, most great hymns of the church take us to a level of biblical understanding and God-centered praise that knows not many rivals.
Third, hymns are missional. They often rehearse redemption’s story. They preach the gospel. Consider these verses of O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, which we will also sing tomorrow (though I regret not the last two stanzas since they do not appear in our hymnal):
He breaks the power of canceled sin;
He sets the prisoner free.
His blood can make the foulest clean;
His blood avails for me.
Look to the Lord, who did atone
For sin, O fallen race.
Look and be saved through faith alone,
Be justified by grace.
See all our sins on Jesus laid;
The Lamb has made us whole.
His soul was once an offering made
For every human soul.
Fourth, hymns are singable. I know, that’s not a word. But it works for my purposes. Hymns, especially the church’s favorites, have passed the test of time of lyrical beauty and artistry that make them especially suited to congregational singing. Their music lends itself well to the average voice and their lyrics turn phrases and lines and stanzas in such a way that the worshipper knows he or she has just the right song for such holy purposes.
Fifth, hymns are historical. They tie us to centuries past in Christian history, even as do our creeds and confessions. They remind us of the great company of saints who have gone before us. They protect us from what C. S. Lewis, in Surprised by Joy, called “chronological snobbery” – the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual [might we insert artistic] climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.
At OGC we don’t disdain the past; we insist on prizing it. How else shall we guard ourselves from going off a modernist deep end either in spirit or in truth? Jesus told us that true worship consists by necessity of both (John 4:24).
So as we gather tomorrow and sing in a manner uncharacteristic for us as a rule, may we do so with all these reasons in mind and failing that, choose to prefer those among us who treasure these songs for all those reasons and more, even as they do those who more often than not get the modernized version of hymnody on any given Sunday.