These days, people are talking about “hymns” in the same way they talk about things that are “vintage”. They think of hymns as being more authentic and countercultural — mostly because they’ve been around longer than ten years. But do they really understand what hymns are or where they came from? Probably not.
I have no beef people who are sincerely attempting to return to the roots of their faith through a worship expression grounded in Christian history (history they may not be aware of) and tradition. I go to church with many of those people. I love and am encouraged by those people. And, to a certain extent, I am one of those people. I’m a church history geek, growing up on at churches where hymns and liturgy were the only expressions of worship. And while I did make a shift in my teenage years to the sort of churches that had legit late 90s, early 2000s, contemporary praise music — “This Is The Air I Breathe”, anyone? – I’ve never lost my deep love for traditional hymns like “The Wondrous Cross.”
So why is it that the hymn is making its way back into so many of our church services?
For many Christians in their 20s and 30s, a point has been reached where the worship-in-a-vacuum approach of the “seeker-sensitive” movement isn’t working anymore. Perhaps there was a time when it was attractive to discount tradition and put hyper-emotionalism and personal experience at the forefront of our expressions of worship. But now that candle is burning out and is being replaced with the incense of traditional hymns mixed with contemporary instrumentation. And I’d say it’s probably for the better.
But a good number of people still aren’t clear on what constitutes a hymn. Which, in my humble opinion, is a great loss. Here is where Isaac Watts’s story can help provide a bit more depth to our understanding of what most people mean when they say “hymns” these days. Isaac Watts was a preacher and musician in the late 17th century who observed and actively responded to the poor state of worship in the English Protestant Church. At the time, people were singing direct translations of psalms with awkward musical structures, and consequently, had little idea what they were singing. That, and they were bored out of their minds.
It was here that Watts’ formation of the modern English hymn began: a song of praise written in the 17th or 18th century directed to God, rooted in the theology of the Bible and contextually expressed within that time and place — people singing praise to God in ways that are spiritually, logically, and emotionally engaging.
What followed in Watts’ wake was an explosion of hymn writers who used the new worship style to give new voices to the powerful truths being preached during the evangelical revivals. Watts trail-blazed the way for brilliant hymns from individuals like Wesley, Cowper, Newton, and Crosby.
Responding to my own condensed history lesson, I can’t help but think we are entering a period of worship reformation, whereby hymns combined with contemporary instrumentation will become the primary expressions of worship. This generation of Christians are searching for excellent expressions of music that reconnect us back to the origins of our faith and engage all facets of our life in Christ.
So does this mean we abandon contemporary praise music altogether and only sing traditional hymns in our churches? Does it mean we ditch our current places of worship for places that are more liturgical? No, I don’t think so.
As Christians we should be informed, not controlled, by the traditions and history of the universal church. We should seek to do what Watts did within his own context: write and sing excellent music to God, for God. We should seek to be the true worshippers with timely expressions of the heart and mind, characterized by God’s Spirit and truth.
Now that is a worship reformation I’d like to see.
Flickr photo (cc) by theirhistory