I recently came across an online post that listed what are, in the author’s opinion, the fifteen best Christian hymns. It made me think how much I miss traditional church music. I clicked through the post with interest, wanting to see how many of my personal favorites made the list. It turned out the list was more or less equally divided into three components: hymns I love, hymns I do not love, and a few hymns whose names were familiar to me, but that I have never sung. The list of hymns I love was the longest.
I grew up in a traditional Lutheran church that was founded in 1770. The sanctuary, constructed between 1795 and 1806, is historic and gorgeous. There are carved wooden pews topped with velvet cushions. There is an altar dressed with cloths that change according to the church calendar, with colors and symbols that correspond to Holy Days and periods including Pentecost, the Ascension and Advent. There are stained glass windows by Tiffany lining the chancel. There are mosaics under a vaulted arch. There are fat hymnals whose pages are edged with gold. And there is a pipe organ whose voice is powerful, poignant and heartbreakingly beautiful.
When I was growing up in the church, the only microphones were to amplify the voices of the clergy and the lecters. On special days we might have brass or strings or timpani. Handbells on Palm Sunday. Triumphal trumpets on Easter. Harps and acoustic guitars on Christmas. Sometimes the children’s choir was accompanied by a piano. There were no electric guitars or drum kits. There were no amps or wires. The front of the church did not resemble an arena just before a rock band takes the stage. There were no lightshows.
In so many churches now, this is not the case. The music is not so much a part of the worship as it is part of the entertainment. I don’t know how everyone feels about this, but I, personally, do not go to church to be entertained. Nowadays there seems to be so much loud, electric music that there is little time for anything else. No readings from the Scriptures. No order for confession and forgiveness. Prayers that do little to ask for God’s intercession in our lives and in our troubled world. Instead we refer to God over and over again as “awesome,” with the implication that He is more “cool” and “neat” than He is glorious and almighty. We seem to address Him now as if He is a next-door neighbor, our bro, our bestie, our equal.
I suppose I could take the path of least resistance and declare that my words are not meant to diminish, demean or belittle contemporary Christian music. To say that it has its place, or to excuse it by saying it’s what the younger generation wants, or it is the magic bullet that will have potential new members flocking to church doors. But I’m not sure I believe that. During the several years I have been exposed to contemporary Christian music, I have found a few songs that I can tolerate, and only one that I truly love. The key difference between the songs I dislike and the one I love is, predictably in the lyrics and the message. It acknowledges the pain of human existence, the power of God, and the reward for faith. Its message is true and sound, the language is grown-up, and nothing is dumbed down. I appreciate that.
The songs that I dislike are repetitive and simplistic. And when I’ve finished singing one, I feel depleted, exhausted, and strangely empty. When the songs sung in church are reduced to a handful of words, they become repetition and in repetition we see the loss of meaning. Words repeated ad nauseam, growing louder and louder with each iteration, aren’t delivering any message that anyone particularly needs or wants to hear. Where are the songs that are rich in emotion, that declare the true glory of God, that are unmistakable in their praise? Give us a few words and a catchy tune and it is nothing but spectacle. It is a show. And it is a distraction. If music is meant to set the mood, then the mood is irreverent. How I miss sitting peacefully during the Offertory, listening to the choir sing, or the organist play, calm and relaxed, feeling myself drawing to closer to God. My belief is that traditional hymns make worship a more personal experience, and a thousand times more meaningful.
We might sing to God about how He numbered the stars or can hold back the floodwaters, but He already knows that. As much as songs should be about worship, they should also be a way for us to connect with God, to come to a deeper understanding of His power and might. And to remind us that the path to salvation was not an easy one, riddled as it was with the pain and suffering that God’s son took upon himself, for our sakes. The contemplation of such unimaginable and undeserved sacrifice merits dignified language of beauty and grace, and a dignified presentation.
The old hymns have much to recommend them. Through their words, we remember everything that God has done for us, and we celebrate his remarkable love and sacrifice. Children learn, not only about their God, but through hymns, their understanding of Christianity is enhanced and their vocabulary grows. How many seven-year-olds are regularly exposed to words like bulwark, sphere, tribulation, prostrate, successive, cleft, almighty, and so on. I don’t know whether J.K. Rowling’s wizards go to church, but I always suspected that if Harry Potter’s best friend Ron Weasley had ever been to youth choir, he never would have had to ask, “What’s a diadem?”
And personally, I feel that’s the way it should be.