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Am I too traditionalist in my response to modern hymns at my daughter’s church, or missing out on something accessible?

October 2021 | by Jeremy Walker

CREDIT Shutterstock
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Let’s not confuse the question of antiquity versus novelty (the old as opposed to the new) with the basic question of quality and the related question of accessibility (is it any good and do we understand it?).

Assuming that we will sing hymns and not only psalms, every hymn (and every psalm, for that matter!) was new once. Many of the hymns we sing have been churned over time, and hopefully the cream has risen to the surface.

That doesn’t mean that every new hymn is worthless, or that every old hymn is good. Lots of our old hymns have been edited! We’re also not talking about accompaniment here, although it may be part of the package – that’s a question for another time! Let’s concentrate now on the substance.

Consider those questions of quality and accessibility. The New Testament doesn’t give the place and weight to singing in worship that modern debates might suggest. Its language is straightforward, simple, and very sweet.

One of the effects of being filled with the Spirit is having the word of Christ dwell in us richly in all wisdom, therefore speaking to, teaching, and admonishing one another, in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace and making melody in our hearts to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God (Ephesians 5:18–21; Colossians 3:16).

It is immediately clear that the fundamental content of our songs ought to be biblical truth. There is space for personal experience, but never to be divorced from the truth (as the psalms indicate, including sin, struggle, and triumph, with praise and lament). We avoid bad, shallow, imprecise theology, and songs intended to provide a merely temporary emotional lift. The content of our songs should be drawn from and governed by Scripture in all its wealth.

hymn singing (Source: Flickr / tcdavis)
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And so we are singing across to one another, bringing needed truth before one another’s minds and hearts, and singing up to the Lord, expressing all the realities of his being and doing and our relationship to him. Our motive is not to impress God nor to entertain men, but to thank and adore the Lord and to instruct and exhort his people.

So, that’s the question with regard to quality: does it pursue or attain this standard? With regard to accessibility, remember 1 Corinthians 14:15: ‘I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding.’ In context, the language in which you sing (or pray, or whatever) must be intelligible: it must be in a known language and, by extension, in a way that the typical person present can understand.

That doesn’t exclude precise, technical, or poetic religious language, but it does mean that we should try to make sure everyone can enter in in an appropriate way. That might mean something different for different congregations (think about second languages, education levels, and the like).

In short, I hope you’re not a thoughtless traditionalist, and I hope your daughter’s not a thoughtless innovator. Thinking primarily of substance over style, the question might be, do those hymns communicate divine truth in a way that honours God and blesses man, so that the congregation can enter in reverently and substantially, all singing together to the praise of our Lord? Up to that point, new or old doesn’t necessarily enter into it.

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