Sunday, June 27, 2010

In Defense of Hymns (Performed in a Classic Way)

In Defense of Hymns (Performed in a Classic Way)

I went to a church the other day and it was not much different than a rock concert. Might I say, it was a very well done rock concert. Electric guitars, drums in their own sound area, smoke, lights, and two or three people singing the latest in contemporary worship music. There was a part of me that enjoyed it and another part of me which sighed. Another church I attended had a mixture of some of the classic hymns along with some contemporary worship. No smoke. No flashing lights. But the sigh was still there. It just had a different sound. It was lacking something.

There is hardly a place you can go anymore and hear the classic hymns of the faith sung in a classic way. Nine out of ten times, churches have quietly changed their tune. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against contemporary worship music. In fact, I really like it. But more and more the great hymns of the faith are being ushered out. Now, even when they are played, their sound is contemporary. It is not really the same. The best way I can express it is that hymns are epic and epic songs need an epic sound.

I like the word “epic.” It fits when it comes to the great hymns of the faith. Hymns are epic as God is epic. Hymns played in a traditional way, with the traditional sound, are even more epic.

I don’t wish to beat this thing to death. I am 37 years-old. I just caught the tail-end of the transition to contemporary music. Think of this as an opinion piece rather than an informed theological argument. I am not saying that God is more pleased when we play hymns. I am not saying that this is the “right” way to worship. I am just saying that there is a defense that can be made for hymns.

Hymns enter the church into a saga. While I think church can and does take these kind of things to far, there is something to be said for tradition. When I attended an Eastern Orthodox church not too long ago I remember thinking about all the things that they did wrong to the detriment of the Gospel. However, there is something that I believe they get right: they allow people to experience the church. No, not the building they are in or even their congregation, but the historic church. Because of their liturgy, which goes back thousands of years, they join hands with all the saints of the past. Other traditions do this as well in their own respective ways. This is one aspect of the value that the great hymns of the faith sung and played in a classical way have. Of course most of them don’t go back to the earliest church. In fact, most only go back a few hundred years. But when we sing, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” (pipe organ, trumpet, choir and all), their is a sense in which we take the hand of Martin Luther and the reformers expressing our solidarity with them.

I know I have said in the past that I don’t like the organ. Really, I don’t like to sing with it. It drains me. However, I do love to hear it. It is not simply that it has a classic feel, but that it has an historic feel. Big difference here. The same thing with the choir. Not a quartet. A choir. People everywhere are going retro with everything. Retro cars. Retro shoes. Retro movies. Retro restaurants. Why? Because in our fast-paced, technology-doubling-every-four-years, society we are losing ourselves. We no longer feel our heritage as it has disappeared out the rear-view mirror a long time ago. Now we are groping for something to hold on to. Something that remindsreal ties—to the past? informs us of who we are. Why do you think so many church goers are exiting the back door of pop-Evangelicalism in search of something with ties—

This type of stuff is simply hard to replicate.

The classic hymns also have wonderful theology. You know I was going here. Please don’t hear me saying that contemporary praise does not have good theology. So much of it does. But classic hymns are classic for a reason. They have stood the test of time and the test of a thousand theologians. Though “It is Well With My Soul” only goes back one-hundred and fifty years, its theological depth combined with the historic circumstance into which it was written make it epic.

For me, there is a time for songs with great theological depth and there is a time for songs that are outbursts of praise and petition. There is a time for everything (didn’t someone already say that?). But let us not forget the value, educational and doxological, of the more didactic hymns.

I am not saying that we should jettison everything contemporary with a self-righteous smug on our face. Don’t sing only hymns. In fact, if you were to only sing hymns, it would detract from what I am saying. We need to respect the overwhelming power of hymns. Too many of them would be exhausting. Just as I don’t want to hear multiple sermons every Sunday (I would end up forgetting them all), I don’t want to hear too many hymns. I would be happy with just one hymn that came across as an epic performance that gave us pause, caused us to joined hands with the historic church, and was rich enough for us to reflect on for days. “And Can it Be” would be fine this week. For the rest of the time, let’s sing the catching worship stuff.

Am I the only one who likes the classic hymns sung in a classic way?

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22 Responses to “In Defense of Hymns (Performed in a Classic Way)”

  1. Leslie Jebaraj on 26 Jun 2010 at 2:38 pm #

    No. I too like hymns sung in a classic way.

  2. Alden on 26 Jun 2010 at 2:46 pm #

    Many hymns are wonderful, in the way they were written. I’m pretty tired of “rocked-up” hymns, mainly because they’re usually not done well, and the impact of the words is lost. And, many contemporary worship songs are sorely lacking in truth, and heavy on emotion. As I wrote on my own blog this week, “‘Jesus, I love you’ is a pretty weak worship line. It says nothing about Jesus, it merely reflects the writer’s emotional state.”

    Hymns are wholly devoted to truth (and often sung to really exceptional music). I often attend an Episcopal church that has an exceptional music ministry. I’ve sung hymns to an organ, an orchestra, a folk band, a jazz band, and a brass ensemble. The music is all great, and the truth still shines through.

    Though I’ve been a contemporary worship leader and love many of the songs, I’m still addicted to hymns.

  3. Richard on 26 Jun 2010 at 3:22 pm #


    You’re 37? Looking back over my 59 years, I don’t know whether to be envious of your age or feel sorry for you–and thank God I’ve passed those days successfully :) That said, most people seem to think I’m a very youngish 59. With that in mind, my friend, there are two hymns the church has somehow neglected to canonize: 1. “Breathe” —a modern hymn (lyrics by Micael W. Smith) and 2. “Be Thou My Vision”—An Old Irish hymn probably written around the 6th century (Called “Rop tú mo Baile” in the original Irish–just to show off my smarts). I don’t like most hymns (especially those popularized in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s). But I do think that God must be sad that neither “Breathe” nor “Be Thou My Vision” were included in the Psalms :) I have (very seriously!!) begged a very shy friend of mine–with a voice like an angel–to sing both of these songs at my funeral…assuming, of course….well, worst case stuff (No plans here!)
    Thanks for the opportunity to direct people to these two beautiful songs. Listen with tissues, and God, nearby.

  4. C Michael Patton on 26 Jun 2010 at 3:31 pm #

    Richard, “Be Thou My Vision” was my graduation song from DTS. Very special to me. Katelynn, my oldest, used to say “Be thou my bision.”

  5. cherylu on 26 Jun 2010 at 3:41 pm #


    At sixty, I really miss the old hyms when they are not sung. As you said, there is often very good theology expressed in them. But I also agree with you that it is a connection to the past that is often missing when they are not sung. And for me, I am old enough that it is not only a connection with the saints and the faith from hundreds of years ago, but it is a connection with my own youth. Things have changed so much in the last years that a connection like that is really needed, IMO. As you said, it is something to hang on to.

    We know that God is the same–He never changes. However, it is comforting to know that there are a few other things in this world that are stable too! Reckon my age is seriously showing here!

  6. Richard on 26 Jun 2010 at 4:12 pm #


    Thanks for the memories I have two recently married daughters who went from 2 years old to 25 years old in one week. They both married great guys–who will never be good enough for them! Be forwarned! :)
    I’m listening, at this moment, to “Breathe”. Just curious if you–or anyone “out there”–passes this song on to their children as well.

  7. mbaker on 26 Jun 2010 at 4:44 pm #

    Love that song! One of my favorites. Always tear up when I hear it, even though it isn’t technically a really old, old hymn but a 80-90’s one I think

  8. tyler m taber on 26 Jun 2010 at 6:30 pm #

    I personally like the older, traditional hymns because they are theologically rich. I enjoy singing songs that are distinctively Christian–those which celebrate the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, etc.

    Christians sing a lot of songs that are so shallow–something along the lines of “God thank you for being so good and for being in control of my emotions.”

    Those type of contemporary song lyrics–which are at the same time both needed and truthful–are lyrics that a Muslim or a Jew could sing as well.

    We need to sing songs that are distinctively Christian.

  9. mbaker on 26 Jun 2010 at 7:04 pm #

    Here’s a great one for you Tyler, and from the 1980’s:!v=GBLXcrFndm0&feature=related

  10. C Michael Patton on 26 Jun 2010 at 8:02 pm #

    Also, just a pet peeve. Let the “conductor,” if there is one, hide. I don’t want to see him. It detracts from the “epicness” of the moment!

  11. Shawn Yoder on 26 Jun 2010 at 8:04 pm #


    I’m a worship leader at my home church so I appreciate discussions like these. Hearing what people that are in the congregations are thinking. As a worship leader I struggle with this issue quite a bit, I love the hymns, although not always the “popular” ones that people like just because they grew up singing them. But I struggle with knowing how to incorporate them in to our corporate singing time, because many people who like the hymns feel like you do when we put them to music. Which, to be honest, is quite frustrating. What should be important is the words right? I mean, as a worship leader my goal is to teach truths through the songs we’re singing. I want my congregation to find themselves singing the Gospel to themselves throughout the week because the tunes stuck in their head. So to me, the words are the important part.

    Another thing that has been interesting to me in this discussion is that when the hymn writers were writing the songs, most of the time the ones writing the words were not the same ones writing the melodies. And, correct me if I’m wrong on this, many of them got put to standard melodies and often times that melody would vary from location to location. Over time one melody would stick with the song. But again my point is that whats important are the words.

    Just some thoughts from a worship leader who is trying to lead a multi-generational church in worship. the way I do it is usually try to do 2 hymns a week, one done somewhat jazzed up with a modern sound and one done basic with mainly a piano.

  12. C Michael Patton on 26 Jun 2010 at 8:10 pm #

    Shawn, thanks so much.

    You are exposing my ignorance and inability to speak to this issue with precise knowledge, which is good (and expected!).

    I think that my point with the “classic sound” is not so much just the classic sound that is tied to the hymn, but a classic sound in general. Again, I can’t take TOO much of this either. But when the organ, trumpet, and choir are together, it has the historic feel. And the feel is what I am getting at. A feel that makes you pause and understand that this is a difference genera with a different kind of message.

    It is like the smell of incense to the Roman Catholic. It has a feel that what they are doing is not novel. I am trying to get the feel of “roots” not outdated music that people just can’t let go of. Hope that makes sense.

  13. Susan on 26 Jun 2010 at 10:01 pm #

    I had Be Thou My Vision sung at my wedding by a classical male soloist. It was very rich and meaningful to me. I wanted it to represent what would be important to us as a married couple.

    I love to sing the hymns which are rich with strong doctrine (the gospel). I do like them best sung in the traditional way. I want my children to grow up knowing these hymns, but they aren’t exposed to them until Middle school when they finally join us in the service. More than half of what we sing is contemporary. I want my children to know the hymns with staying power, which will in turn be sung by their children. The sense of heritage and tradition is very valuable.

    We visited a Reformed church while on vacation in Leeds, New York once. The church building was 200 years old, made largely of river rock. It was beautiful. The sermon was nothing but a man’s opinion about things of little importance. The pastor didn’t teach from God’s word. It was hard to sit through. At the end we stood and sang a hymn. The hymn was the only truth from God’s word which was heard that day. I sang it heartily.

  14. Cory Howell on 26 Jun 2010 at 10:33 pm #

    I am only a few years older than you, and I am Director of Music at a very small Methodist church in West Nashville, TN. I grew up Lutheran, and we always sang hymns. I always liked them. Between my teens, when I went to church regularly, and my late twenties, when I returned to church after several years away, I found that many churches had embraced the contemporary worship paradigm. I must say, even though my church choir does some pop arrangements, I detest pretty much everything there is about contemporary worship. “Detest” may seem like a strong term, but let me explain. When I was growing up, we used hymnals; part of how I learned to read music in the first place was singing from a hymnal. Now, many churches, including even the small Methodist church where I now work, use Powerpoint projections, almost to the complete exclusion of hymnals. Very few people learn how to read music, because all they have is lyrics projected on a screen. In the more contemporary churches, the highly trained and amplified worship team “leads” worship, which usually means that they sing while others dance along. Most research indicates that amplified music actually discourages congregational participation in the music. Worship becomes a spectator-oriented activity. Sure, people feel really good about “worshiping,” but their actual participation is stifled, precisely because of the “rock concert” atmosphere you mentioned above.
    Not only have we lost the theology of the old hymns, sung together by a participating congregation; but we also have turned worship into an activity that is essentially a bunch of individuals watching a performance. All that Protestant evangelicals gained in their liberation from a clergy who performed Mass while the faithful watched is quickly being lost in this performance based worship paradigm. We often lose everything that evangelical worship could be.

  15. Dave on 26 Jun 2010 at 11:25 pm #

    “Hymns are epic as God is epic.”


  16. kwilson on 26 Jun 2010 at 11:27 pm #

    A group of us (from several different churches) now get together on Friday evenings to simply sing hymns (and read some passages of Scripture aloud in between) because the old hymns are wonderful. This is, of course, because the churches don’t do this any longer. And, like you, I also like many contemporary worship songs, but…

  17. Lisa Robinson on 26 Jun 2010 at 11:31 pm #

    So I bet you miss chapel then sometimes, although on occasion there will be a contemporary song done classic, which is…different :)
    Then there’s the acappella classroom singing; rich. I can always count on the Baptists to carry the tunes.

    I like how my former church struck this balance. There would always be one hymn with just the piano as accompaniment, followed by 2-3 contemporary praise tunes with full ensemble. Of course, they still do that but I just don’t get to experience it now.

  18. Delwyn X. Campbell on 26 Jun 2010 at 11:56 pm #

    When is the last time any of you have gone to a black church where they sing Gospel songs? There is a song written by James Cleveland – No Greater Love – which brings tears to my eyes everytime I hear it, even now.

    Still, Gospel music is so different from what you guys normally listen to, and it reflects such a different experience, that I’m not sure if we can even put the two together.

    Another area of music hat is distinctive to me is the music of Keith Green. Hw wrote such powerful songs, and I wish our church praise band (I now attend a Lutheran church), sang some of his music.

    As far as it goes, the organ that I think about is the Hammond B-3, and I don’t think thqt ia what you are talking about. I wish we had one, because when I was a young preacher, a sermon wasn’t really preached until the B-3 joined in :) .

    It’s a black thing, I guess (lol).

  19. Mike the Mad Theologian on 27 Jun 2010 at 12:30 am #

    I go pretty much the whole spectrum from traditional to contemporary, but I think it would be a mistake to throw away our heritage. The doctrinal richness and majesty of many of the old hymns is something that should be preserved.

  20. Jeff on 27 Jun 2010 at 5:59 am #

    Michael … I thought you would have wanted country music to be sung in churches ;-) Have you listened to those Merle Haggard tunes I recommended yet?

    I personally like most of the different styles of music sung in church these days … Gospel, Hymns, contemporary, country, bluegrass, even the blues (although some folks think that’s the devil’s music ;-) , … I think its crazy when churches get so wrapped around the axle about playing only one type of music (either contemporary or classic). People actually getting angry … I wonder how many churches experience this problem. Mine does.

    Different people … different tastes … I like a church that will mix it up a bit. That said, I think we’re all nostalgic for what we grew up with from time to time … but I would surely like to experience the Hammond B3 sermon that Delwyn is talking about one of these days.

    Which brings up another question … why are many churches still so segregated even today? As long as we’re together on the essentials, I think we should encourage diversity in music and theology and people. If we dared, surely it would ultimately strengthen the church. Who knows, maybe we’re modern day reformers … not just those guys in the 1500s.

  21. Wilson Hines on 27 Jun 2010 at 7:43 am #

    When I am in church I like “church music.” Hymns, please. I don’t even like to swing out into chorus music.
    Traditional hymns are deep in doctrine. Not only did every line mean something, but every word.
    I will leave a church over the music in a single heartbeat. Our church started doing a lot of chorus music that was leaning on contemporary music. The music guy made this transition over a year and a half and basically “boiled the frog”, the pastor. He noticed a difference, but not a big difference. I brought out some of the big differences and he was surprised. Over the next few weeks, we got our hymns back! LOL!

    I want my children to know how to navigate a hymn book. I want them to have hymns as a tool. I have both albums of Page CXVI Hymns albums ( and my daughters are addicted to them.

    I play some Casting Crowns, and they like it. I play some Brian Free and Assurance and went to a concert a few weeks ago with BFA. But, I wouldn’t want them at my church. Maybe that’s hypocritical, but I don’t think so.

  22. Lee H on 27 Jun 2010 at 3:02 pm #

    I’ve never sung a hymn (I don’t think) but you can get some ‘epic’ new songs. Maybe hymns do have a place, but I don’t see why a rock sound of music should cause a ’sigh’ either.

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