A week ago, my brother D. J. Bulls posted an article about the high-church standard “All Creatures of Our God and King” on his blog. At the beginning of the article, though, he said something even more interesting than his analysis of the hymn. He reported that according to his observations (and D.J. is vastly more knowledgeable about worship trends than I am), we are in the middle of a worship shift away from Christian contemporary music back to. . . traditional hymns.
Frankly, I find this astounding. My worship tastes are moderately conservative, but I figured that in holding those tastes, like Elijah in 1 Kings 19, I alone was left. Instead, I learn that rather than being a voice crying in the wilderness, I am part of A Trend.
It’s almost disappointing. I enjoy being a solitary prophet of doom, equipped with sandwich boards bearing “Abide With Me” on one side and “Sun of My Soul” on the other, proclaiming, “The end is near!” Except apparently the end isn’t near. The beginning is.
If indeed this is the case, if people are beginning to look back in order to move forward, here is what I would like to see from the worship of the church in the decades to come.
As I’ve spent the past 20 years learning through painful experience, some hymns and tunes sing easily in a congregational setting, and others don’t. At times, this is due to the innate complexity of a hymn. Generally, though, it’s the result of poor writing.
As a rule, the following characteristics will lead to congregational train wrecks:
- Broken Lyrical Meter. Hymns that set up a pattern of syllables per line and then break it (for instance, a hymn with a meter of 22.214.171.124.8.9) typically will cause problems. Ordinary Christians are pattern-followers rather than musical rhythm-readers. As a result, they will follow the old pattern even when the lyrics break the pattern, which results in musical confusion. A good hymn will sing intuitively as written.
- Excessive Range. Most brethren don’t have operatic vocal range. Also, there are an awful lot of baritones and high altos, worshipers who don’t slot neatly into any part (I’m one of ‘em). As a result, a hymn that is optimally suited for congregational four-part harmony will have a bass line that does not go below G2, a tenor line that does not go above E4, an alto line that does not go above Bb4, and a soprano line that does not go above E5. Exceptions to these rules had better be exceptional!
- Jumps into Discords. Brethren who sing harmony mostly sing by ear. They listen for the musical relationship between their part and the other parts, and they’re aiming to be a third, a fifth, or an octave away from those other parts. They can use these intervals to find their note even if they’re moving more than a single step.
However, some chords are discordant. They contain notes that aren’t the root, the third, or the fifth. It’s harder to sing a discordant note by ear because the surrounding notes in the chord don’t help you lock in on your note. As a result, singers who are asked to move more than a step onto a discordant note are likely to miss it. They can’t tell from the musical context where it’s supposed to be.
Eliminating these from new hymns (or eliminating new hymns that contain them) will eliminate most of the unnecessary struggle in learning a new hymn. However, we should also be wary of hymns that are gorgeous but irreducibly difficult. I adore “Ah, Holy Jesus!” (for those who don’t know it, listen to Track 19 here, but it’s not a good fit for congregations without a core of good singers in all four parts. We all have to know the limitations of our churches and introduce new hymns that are neither unnecessarily difficult nor too difficult.
In worship, content is king. Music might give us the feels, but Biblical truth leads us to glorify God. All other things being equal, a hymn with better content is a better hymn. The role of music is to support content and put it before the congregation as effortlessly as possible.
As a result, our hymn selections should be content-driven rather than music-driven. We should be concerned with what a hymn says, rather than what how it sounds. Otherwise, we’re mistaking the gravy for the roast beef.
This approach will lead us to be suspicious of pretty praise songs that sound great on YouTube but don’t say a whole lot. I think it should also lead us to be suspicious of new tunes to lyrics that are already in the repertoire. For instance, for as long as I can remember, I’ve known “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”—a fine hymn. The tune to which we commonly sing it is named ZION. However, the hymnal Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs also pairs “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” with the tune CWM RHONDDA.
Though I think CWM RHONDDA is beautiful, I don’t see the spiritual upside to learning it. After all, even if the congregation goes through the pain of learning the new tune (which should not be underestimated), they’re still singing “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”. They aren’t singing any more content than they were before, which looks to me like a zero return on investment.
In addition to the other problems they create, the worship wars tend to polarize. They split Christians into new-song champions and old-song champions. This is a silly argument. Old is not good; new is not good. Good is good.
Baby boomers famously have been the generation that loves to throw everything out and start over. Indeed, this approach has been one of the causes of the worship wars. An awful lot of people thought it was appropriate to round-file a hymn repertoire crafted over hundreds of years and replace it with a praise-song repertoire generated in a few decades.
That can’t possibly go well. It’s like pitting this year’s NBA All-Star team against an all-star team of the greatest basketball players of all time. A starter on today’s squad may not be good enough even to make the roster of the all-timers.
As a result, the pursuit of cultural relevance has led to a decline in worship richness and depth, and probably also to a decline in worshiper spirituality. This is regrettable. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” may not be culturally relevant, but it is something far more important—a hymn of such quality that every Christian who considers it thoughtfully will relate to it. Great hymns are universal, meaningful in our time as well as in any other.
However, neither should we pull a Revelation 22 and insist that the repertoire should not be added to nor taken away from. It’s foolish to sing a hymn simply because it’s new, but it’s equally foolish to reject it because of its newness. If a 2018 praise song measures up in terms of singability and content to the best of the old, let’s sing it too! Conversely, older hymns that truly have been surpassed in quality (I’m looking at you, “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere”) should be allowed to fade.
There won’t be many new hymns that do measure up. Only the best hymns from previous centuries have survived, and we can’t expect more than a tiny percentage of today’s work to be as good. However, if we find and adopt the best of today’s best, we will leave behind us a heritage of hymns that is even richer than it was when we found it.