Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On learning hymns...

Over at the Gospel Coalition James Grant has written a very helfpul piece on intruducing contemporary congregations to the richness of Christian hymnody.

I occasionally get questions about introducing hymns to congregations that do not sing them. Should a pastor introduce old hymns? And if so, how should we go about the process?

First, make sure to explain and teach to your people the importance of theological expression through music. Help them see the depth of a hymn like, “For All the Saints,” or another one listed below.

Second, help them see that as Christians, we have to lean against the “arrogance of the modern.” We are people who are connected with brothers and sisters from the history of our faith, and we should not ignore that. Learning hymns is a way to participate in the church universal and the communion of the saints.

Third, develop a practical method for introducing the hymns. I suggest you introduce a new hymn each month. I used this for introducing the Psalms, but it works just as well for a hymn. At significant points in the church year (Advent, Christmas, Easter) introduce a powerful hymn. If you start in March around the time of what some observe as Lent, you can introduce a hymn like “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” which is a hymn that emphasizes the passion of Jesus Christ. Then for Easter introduce a hymn like “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

Fourth, develop a long-term plan. By this I mean you should know the main hymns you want to introduce over the course of the next few years. That means if you want to plan out two years, pick 24 hymns. Put the appropriate hymn in the month relative to the major event of the church year.

Read the entire piece HERE.

I resonate with Grant's statement that Christians ought to push back against the "arrogance of the modern." Many younger evangelicals have abandoned their protestant church in favor of a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox communion. This trend has less to do with theology than it does with a desire for connection to something which is reverent and enthusiastically embraces its history. My rule of thumb is something like this: The older something is, the greater likelihood that it is right. The newer something is, the greater likelihood that it is wrong.

Perhaps the chief reason the church is losing so many of our young people once they go off to university is that they have not been equipped with a robust faith. Their concept of God is often sentimental and this in no small part because of the woeful condition of Christian worship. It offers a romantic but substance-less vision of God. Our understanding of worship is often limited to music while ignoring or minimizing the public reading of Scripture, the sacraments, prayer, and the preaching of God's Word as vital elements of corporate worship. What is more, we often sing about our love for God and our emotional longings for Him but who this God is and what He does has gone largely ignored. Thus our faith more romantic than substantive.

This can be addressed by a thoughtful consideration of how the church has worshipped through the generations. Certainly there were practices that needed (or still need) to be jettisoned. Certainly the Church of Rome is full of extra-biblical rituals. However, the content of great hymns is something that needs desperately to be recovered by the contemporary church. Certainly, candy is much easier to eat and digest than steak but sugar is no substitute for protein. Let us not give our young people a bowl of porridge in place of their magnificent birthright.


Anonymous said...

I agree younger folks are searching for something more substantial.
How would you introduce these elements to the younger crowd and potentially bridge and blend the generation gap?

Todd Pruitt said...

I think we begin, at least in part, by explaining why the Christian church has developed liturgies that were meant to ensure that coroporate worship is conformed to Scripture and focused on the glory of God and the gospel. So, I would try to explain the importance of having an intentional structure to our corporate gatherings and why that structure is not meant to rob our worship of life but to ensure that it is fitting for God.

I would also want to begin introducing historic hymns in a very deliberate way, explaining their history, content, and continuing relevance.

I would also begin introducing younger worshippers to the church's historic creeds and confessions of faith. This would 1) help ground them in the Scriptures and 2) affirm the historic roots of Christianity.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see that start happening at The Vine.

Todd Pruitt said...

Well, we are going to start having those conversations.

Mike said...

While the previous posting "The Evangelical Liturgy?" displays some of the excesses of the post-christian church of today (yes I have seen lasers and smoke machines used in church services!) we also must remember that there are some truly awful hymns that those of a previous generation have come to cherish that should be forever banned...bad music, bad lyrics, bad theology. So when we talk reclaiming our rich heritage, let's selectively reclaim. If I never hear "In the Garden" again it will be too soon!

Todd Pruitt said...


No doubt. "In the Garden" is a terrible hymn as were many of the hymns that arose during the "romantic" period. Give me Watts, the Wesleys, and Newton!

Bradley James said...

What are your thoughts on hymns put to contemporary music? Is doing that undermining the composers of the original hymn, and if so, is that acceptable, as long as we're singing the original words?? I'd like to hear your thoughts.

Todd Pruitt said...

I can't think of any reason to call it "wrong" to put great hymns to new melodies. Often times it can be helpful to reintroduce those great songs. The key is to remember that singability is one of the key strengths of hymns. Remember that hymns and spiritual songs are for the congregation of God's people. They are not meant for a worship leader to "shine."