I have been what many would call a “worship leader” for close to two decades. When I first became involved in “worship ministry” in an Assemblies of God youth group we sang such songs as The Name of the Lord Is a Strong Tower, As the Deer, Lord I Lift Your Name on High, and others of the era of the 1980s and 90s. Ours was considered a stylistically progressive church since we used almost exclusively contemporary songs.
This meant that if I were to visit a “traditional” church, not only would I be unfamiliar with the hymns, I would also likely cringe when they sang them and in my heart ridicule them (the people rather than the songs) as being old-fashioned.
It was during these formative years in my experience as a worship leader that I began to introduce even more contemporary songs to our youth group. It was then that I discovered artists like Delirious, Darrel Evans, Matt Redman, and Vineyard Music with their songs Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble, Trading My Sorrows, Heart of Worship, and Hungry.
As a young musician who desired to honor Christ, I found these songs to be particularly compelling. I felt different when we sang them. The way Nirvana gave voice to the angst of Generation X, bands like Delirious were giving voice to a generation of young Christians who didn’t feel they could relate to the songs of their parents and grandparents.
Over the years when I would occasionally hear a hymn, the language was always strikingly foreign, with Ebenezers and bulwarks, diadems and fetters. Which only served to confirm my bias that hymns were simply out-of-date. They had served their purpose. They had run their course.
The problem with my youthful logic only began to dawn on me about seven years ago. I had come to recognize that these ancient hymns accomplished something that the new songs weren’t. While contemporary worship seemed to take the listener on an exciting and emotional roller coaster, the old hymns engaged the mind with deep and glorious truths that when sincerely pondered caused a regenerated heart to humbly bow before its King.
When I accepted my first post as a paid member of a church staff in 2007, I began the practice of singing one hymn each week. There were times where my peers would teasingly ask what an “Ebenezer” was. What I found was that when I gave them a basic definition of these seemingly obsolete words we were singing, their response was usually something akin to, “Oh? Cool. I never knew that!” I think when they asked, they half expected me to say, “I don’t know! Weird word, huh?” Instead, they were being challenged to learn, not merely a new word, but how to ponder the things of God deeply when we sing His praises.
Nowadays, I still choose songs for our congregation to sing that had been written recently, but they are becoming increasingly the minority. And the criteria for selecting them is becoming more and more thorough. Hymns have begun to take precedent in my song selection for two reasons.
First, hymns have been sung by the giants of the faith who have gone on before us over the last two millennia. When we sing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, we join with Martin Luther who wrote it, and with Calvin and Spurgeon and Edwards who invariably sang and cherished it. When we sing It Is Well With My Soul we are encouraged by the faith of Horatio Spafford who wrote the hymn in the wake of the tragic death of his four daughters. And while many contemporary songs have certainly been written by wonderful brothers and sisters in Christ who have surely endured trials, the fact that we can join with generations past and be reminded that the Church is vastly larger than our local congregation, farther reaching than our town or state or country, and much, much older than the oldest saint living today is something we should not take lightly. Indeed, this should birth in us a desire to sing the songs that our Family has sung together for two-thousand years (and beyond when we discuss singing the Psalms).
Second, the content of hymns is almost always vastly more theologically rich. When I say rich, I don’t necessarily mean every hymn recounts the Gospel in its entirety, or that all hymns clearly teach the Five Points of Calvinism. Rather, the theology in the hymns is typically more sound or healthy than much of contemporary worship music. As I said earlier, contemporary songs engage our emotions more often, where the hymns engage our hearts by way of the mind.
By way of example, one of the top ten contemporary songs being sung in American evangelical churches right now is called One Thing Remains. While there is nothing in the song particularly bad (in fact, much of it is pretty good), it seems to me that the purpose of the song is to work the listeners into an emotional state. The chorus is:
“Your love never fails / It never gives up / Never runs out on me / Your love never fails / It never gives up / Never runs out on me / Your love never fails / It never gives up / Never runs out on me / Your love / Your love / Your love.”
With the repetition of a simple lyric like that, it isn’t a stretch to say that the composers’ goal was not to engage the listener’s mind.
Whereas Augustus Toplady’s hymn Rock of Ages is doctrinally sound, it also is a very moving song of our dependence upon Christ our Rock:
“Rock of Ages cleft for me / Let me hide myself in Thee / Let the water and the blood / From Thy wounded side which flowed / Be of sin the double cure / Save from wrath and make me pure.”
So I make this plea to my fellow ministers, do not neglect these milestones from ages past. In fact, I would make the case for the abandonment of most contemporary songs. If you choose a song for congregational worship based on its content (say you have chosen a contemporary song because of its focus on the Cross), do the hard work of finding a hymn that more than likely addresses the same topic or doctrine in a much deeper way. If, on the other hand, you have chosen a song because of the way it feels or the emotion it evokes, ask yourself whether you are depending upon the Holy Spirit or your own skills to engage our brothers and sisters in singing to our King.
UPDATE 10/24/2015: Your comments are more than welcome, but before you add to the (as of now) 540 comments, please take the time to read these two follow-up pieces as many of your objections are addressed therein: