Sunday morning, I led the congregation in singing Victory in Jesus.My wife grew up singing this hymn in the Free Will Baptist church, as did my pastor. I grew up singing all the old Presbyterian hymns. And now we sing the Methodist hymns. Between the two of us, we know hundreds of old hymns. And although, this one is a new one to me, it’s one of my favorites.
And so after worship, as I shopped for groceries, I whistled this song heartily. It’s very catchy. In line, an older woman asked if I’d sung that in church that morning.
“Yes we did. I’m the music minister so I had to lead it. It’s good stuff.”
I’m not sure why I felt compelled to say that I was a music minister. Maybe I wanted to raise my status as an authority on hymns, for what purpose I do not know why.
She nodded and grimaced a little bit. “Yes. It is.”
I’ve been a little manic, so I yammered on a bit until I said. “Well it’s really stuck in my head, it will probably be stuck in your head by now!”
“No,” she said, “I have another song stuck in my head.”
“Oh yeah? Which one?”
I expected her to talk about another old hymn: Blessed Assurance or Rock of Ages. I assumed because of her age and demeanor that she was an old-timey hymn gal.
She began to sing a phrase from the song. I did not recognize it.
“It’s a new song,” she said. “I like the new songs now.”
Wow, I thought. Am I the last one in town to prefer the traditional hymns?
She said that she knew someone from my church. I said that I knew her well.
I said that our church did some new hymns, but mainly old. “We don’t have a praise band or anything”
She grimaced again and said, “Well, I was thinking about coming to your church, but I really prefer the new songs.”
My heart sunk at the thought of having deterred her from visiting, but I knew it was useless. “Well, we believe that there is still a place for traditional worship in Norman. There are plenty of contemporary services. Perhaps we’re a dying breed.”
But I don’t believe we’re a dying breed. I’ve read several articles that indicate that the younger folks are not finding meaning in contemporary services and like the idea of worshiping in a way that’s been done for centuries. Something with history and ritual and character and deep meaning. They perceive contemporary worship as a form of entertainment. They’ve spent their whole lives being entertained by adults, and they’re tired of it.
Of course, I want to believe that that is true. I don’t dislike praise services. They are emotionally satisfying, but liturgy and hymns are satisfying in deep ways as well; ways of praying and confessing and singing together which are as old as Christianity itself. I don’t think it is likely that many of the songs sung in modern praise services will last centuries or even decades, and perhaps that’s not the point of them. They come in and out in a matter of a few years, just like any top forty hit. There are few exceptions, Sanctuary for instance.
I’m willing to admit that I have my biases, in no small part because this kind of music is what I’m trained and paid to lead. I would not have a professional place in a contemporary service. I’ve led them as a singer and as a keyboard player, but I definitely wouldn’t hire me.
A praise song is simple for a reason. It’s not generally about theology, ideas, poetry, or scriptural illumination. It’s about the act of praising, surrendering, and confessing. This is good, but there are old hymns that do this as well, and they don’t stop there. They teach, they present ideas, and new ways of thinking about the scripture and theology. There is powerful poetry to meditate on for a lifetime.
The truth is that a lot of these old hymns were contemporary praise songs at one point. Victory in Jesus has a very simple praise chorus that people love to sing which expresses the notion that with Jesus’ help, we can conquer life’s battle’s. I feel this deep in my soul. I know what it is like to struggle and battle. I know what it’s like to hand it over to God to do the fighting for me. I know what victory in Jesus feels like.
Perhaps some of these old hymns should be discarded. I’ve heard very compelling arguments for this; hymns like The Old Rugged Cross who’s treatment of the Cross borders on idolatry. But I see it a little differently.
I have this kooky idea that human ritual creates power. The more we do something together the more powerful it becomes. These are songs which have been sung for so long by so many people that when we sing them, they ring powerfully with the voices of the saints who have passed long before us. We hear our grandmothers’ voices and through them, their grandmothers’ voices. Can you imagine your great grandmother singing Lord I Lift Your Name On High with its difficult syncopated rhythm? I can’t, but I can imagine her singing It is Well With My Soul (1873). It sings so easily. Straight forward rhythm, easy range.
The song was written after a man’s family drowned at sea. He returned to the spot and this is what he wrote
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well with my soul
It is well with my soul
Think of the power of singing this song on the shoulders of people who grieved and found profound comfort while singing it. I have done it, not just in church. I have done it alone at night when I had no words to express my sorrows. And when I did it, I could hear a chorus of voices singing it with me, because we sing it in church.
I write this not as a rebuke of new songs. All songs were new once. There are new traditional hymns being written, too. John Bell’s The Summons is a very fine example. A few of the contemporary praise songs will probably stick, but let’s not abandon the ones which have proven the test of time. We do sing newer songs at my church, and there are some good ones worth considering, but I want to be connected to the Church of centuries old. I want to speak the Apostle’s Creed. I want to partake in the Great Thanksgiving before we take communion. I want to hear the old benedictions. And I want to sing A Mighty Fortress is Our God (1529). New is not necessarily better. Ask any wine enthusiast.