Recently, I unknowingly started a controversy at one of my churches. A few months back, my seminary had just built a brand new chapel, and I was attending the dedication service. Now, I attended a United Methodist seminary, and as many know, Methodism was founded by John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield. All of whom had great hymnology, especially Charles. In his lifetime, Charles Wesley wrote more than 6,000 hymns. If you were to check any Methodist Hymnal, I am confident the first hymn would be: “O for a Thousand Tounges to Sing.”
It was much to my surprise when we didn’t sing a Charles Wesley hymn during the dedication service; especially because in every class I took with the Rev. Dr. Scott Kisker, we sang at least one Charles Wesley hymn every class. After the dedication service, two weeks had gone by, and we still had yet to sing a Charles Wesley hymn. On this particular day, we sang a really bad and simplistic contemporary song during chapel service. In my annoyance of how worship was going, I posted something along the lines of: “When it comes to worship music, just give me a good old Charles Wesley hymn.”
Now, someone took this as a shot at my worship band at one of my churches without understanding the context of why I was saying it. I actually love contemporary music. It’s pretty much all my wife and I listen to in the car. However, there is a significant theological difference and reasoning behind hymns and contemporary worship music. So that’s the point of this post. I will be discussing the reasons why we need to rediscover hymns and what I meant by my Facebook post.
Since the beginning of the Church, hymns have been a major part of the Christian faith. Throughout his letters, Paul on multiple occasions included hymns in his writings to the churches he loved. Philippians 2:5-11 is often referred to as the “hymn of Christ.” Paul depicts Christ’s example of service in a stirring poem that traces his preexistence, incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God. In Colossians 1:15-20, we see another hymn from Paul about the preeminence of Christ. My point being, from the very beginning of the Church hymns played an important part.
Up until the modern era, illiteracy has played a prominent role in the Church. Not everyone throughout the centuries has had the access and ability to read the Scriptures like we do today. I have over 20 Bibles sitting on my bookshelf in different translations, plus all of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts at my fingertips with my iPad. We are very blessed with the resources we have today; however, the Church has never been so illiterate when it comes to the Bible. I would contribute, at least in part, to the loss of singing hymns in church.
Throughout the centuries, hymns were used as a way to teach theological truths found in the Bible. Hymns helped illiterate people become theologically sound in their knowledge of God without ever being able to read the Bible for themselves. It is much easier to remember something when it’s put into a rhythmic song. Example: sing Twinkle, twinkle little star; now sing your ABCs. It’s the same song. It’s easier to remember things when put to a song. So throughout the centuries, people have been writing theological truths and then putting them to music so that people learn these truths.
If you have access to a hymnal, at some time grab it and look up a hymn. More than likely, there will be two names at the bottom of the page. One name will tell you who wrote the words, and the other name is the person who wrote the music. In the UMH, many of Charles Wesley’s hymns are put to music composed by his grandson (some say illegitimate grandson), Samuel Sebastian Wesley. However, if you look at Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress, Luther wrote both the words and the music. Anyone who knows me knows that A Mighty Fortress is one of my favorite hymns, but many don’t know that my favorite version is a rock version done by Tim Bushong. Hymns were written to last the ages because God’s truth never changes. There is nothing wrong with updating the music or the instruments in which hymns are played too. It’s the words that matter most. Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee just put out a magnificent hymn album in which the hymns are played to contemporary style music.
In contrast to hymns, the relatively recent phenomenon of contemporary music in the Church has a theological difference in why they’re written (I do realize that’s a broad stroke and not true of everyone). Most contemporary music is written for an emotional response to the song, whether it be crying, happiness, energetic, or solemn. Contemporary Christian Music has become more about opening people’s emotions up before hearing the Word of God read and/or the sermon preached. For the most part, we have lost the art of using songs to teach biblical truths. One way in which I determine whether a contemporary song is actually a good song is by turning off the music and reading the lyrics by themselves. I ask myself, do these words by themselves teach me something about God and move me closer to Him, or are these words just shallow and when put to the right beat create an emotional response?
It would be my hope that there is a rediscovery of the need for hymns in our churches. Especially, for more Charles Wesley hymns in the Methodist Churches. If you want to become a better Methodist, start reading and singing Wesley’s hymns. They are saturated with great theological truths. I implore my musically talented brothers and sisters, please do not allow us to lose our great hymns of old, but give them new life. Hymns have been a part of our faith since the beginning, I hope that we never lose that tradition.
May the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with You!