I grew up going to Congregational Church in a classic New England town. Not only was it a “traditional” Church, but a Church with a history of over 365 years. I found every Sunday to be old, traditional, and rigid. You can probably already tell, I detested going. Even more so, I detested what we did: from listening to the preacher, to singing “dry” old hymns. After coming to Christ, I chose a church that didn’t sing hymns, in part because of these past experiences.
I am reminded of this story, because last Friday’s Hymn Sing was like walking into the attic of your house and discovering a case of gold bricks. This chapel has been one of many experiences leading me to see how my past disdain for hymns was wrongly placed. Hymns, I am realizing, are wrongfully understood to be outdated. As a result they have become an underused resource for worship.
To say that other styles of music are not engaging is daft, but I would argue hymns have a certain quality that is uniquely engaging. It is not often that I get to hear my voice rise and ring with the multitude of other voices in the air. I usually only notice this effect when singing hymns. Most contemporary forms of worship are often “led” in such a way that is hard to hear the next person over. When it comes to singing hymns though, I can hear the people as a whole worshiping behind me, in front of me, and next to me. Every voice can be so tangibly heard that not only is it spiritually bolstering, it is communally unifying.
During our hymn sing, Bil Mooney-McCoy had each side of the chapel sing a different part of the song. We took turns listening to and singing for one another. It reminded me of when Paul told the Ephesians to “encourage each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” Within a few minutes of singing this hymn, we were able to do exactly that—giving and receiving, encouraging one another with our songs.
The hymns I speak of have a history often shaped by struggle and trial. For example, in chapel we sang The Church’s One Foundation, which was written by Samuel J. Stone (1839-1900). This hymn was written when John William Colenso sowed conflict by challenging the Church of England’s views on the authorship of Joshua and the teaching of eternal punishment. The same can be said about the hymn A Mighty Fortress by Martin Luther. Much has been lost on what prompted him to write it, but it is presumed that it came out of a darker period in his life around 1527-1528. During this time a follower of his was martyred, a plague had broken out in Wittenberg, and his daughter died. Through deep spiritual anguish he clung to the Psalms and trusted in Christ, leading him to write A Mighty Fortress, also titled A Hymn of Comfort. These are just two of the many stories that formed so many of the songs in our chapel hymnals. They form part of a rich church tradition that is so often ignored.
That brings me to my very last point: hymns were written with a purpose in mind. The trials that inspired these hymns have an abundance of rich theology packed into each verse. Hymns were not simply written to be melodically beautiful, they were written to be theologically beautiful. Many express the struggles of the Christian life, encouraging the worshiper onwards and teaching theological truths about God found in Scripture. They have been “time-tested” by much of the church throughout the centuries. And the church has kept singing them for a reason. I would argue their reasons are just as relevant for us now.
That little boy who hated singing hymns thought he hated them because they sounded boring. Now I realize why. He did not understand what had formed them, nor to Whom they were written.