The Problem with Hymns
We are blessed to have a treasure trove of old hymns in the history of the church. So why do so many sit dormant in dusty hymnbooks?
One way in which I serve my church family at Gabalfa Baptist Church is by overseeing the music. I decide what we should sing along with my legend of a pastor, Lee Jones.
We sing some Hillsong and Chris Tomlin-y stuff. We sing many unaccompanied psalms - Free Church of Scotland style! But mostly we sing hymns.
Old hymns and new hymns. I love the hymns!
But when it comes to the singing of old hymns in church, I fear that there’s an elephant in the room.
Why pastors love hymns
It seems to me that pastors who love Jesus, their church, and the word of God also (almost always) love hymns. The reason for this should be obvious.
Pastors love hymns because hymns are pastoral.
Just think about it.
Who were the hymn writers of old? They were nearly always pastors of local churches. Who were their hymns written for? Their local church family.
As a millennial Christian, my initial reaction to this is “Pastors...writing hymns?! Lol” but it is in fact the case!
I believe this is exactly why old hymns are still so valuable today. Pastors surely have the greatest insight into the needs of their church family. They are best equipped to identify the spiritual illnesses of their members and then to speak, teach, write, and (perhaps) sing truth into those issues.
Take the likes of hymn writers such as Martin Luther, Augustus Toplady, John Newton, Horatius Bonar, or Welsh hymn hero William Williams - all pastors and teachers of God’s Word.
It’s clear as you read their hymns that their primary aim in writing is not to coin a global worship hit - the temptation for the modern hymn writer in the internet age. No, they were aiming for something far greater.
They wanted to write hymns that would encourage, rebuke, and build the faith of normal church members - by which I mean believers who love Jesus but are weighed down by all kinds of troubles and burdens without and within. Their hymns were for church families like mine and like yours.
Do you see why we are so blessed to have a treasure trove of hymns in our history? They are (and always will be) a continual blessing for the Bride of Christ in every age.
The real problem with hymns
So, what about that elephant in the room that I mentioned earlier?
I am sort of ashamed to admit this, but I have a problem with many an old hymn. In fact, I believe a lot of people share this problem: their melodies.
Many hymn lyrics are eternally valuable. Many hymn tunes are not.
Whether it’s for the sake of ease, nostalgia, or some belief that hymns are sacred objects never to be touched or tampered with (we can treat hymns as if they are the Ark of the Covenant!), there are many hymns we sing where the words may be 10/10, but the tunes are a more like a 4/10. And our congregations know it.
There are many hymns that we don’t sing anymore at all for this reason. They’ve fallen by the wayside not because of the lyrics but because of the (lack of a decent) tune put to those hymns historically.
So at Gabalfa, we’ve started a bit of a project. We find great old hymns that have fallen by the wayside and we try writing new tunes for them (this helps when Lee will sometimes quote hymns in his preaching that we don’t sing anymore!).
Nothing original here
Of course, this is not an original idea.
I noticed a few years back that many of my favourite songs that we sing as a church are exactly this: old hymn, new tune. Much of the time you may not realise this is the case.
Hymns like He Will Hold Me Fast (Matt Merker), Before the Throne of God Above (Steve and Vicki Cooke), Glorious Day (Casting Crowns), and Heal Us (Indelible Grace Music) are all old hymns put to new tunes. Those tunes are so good they have got us singing those words again. Words that had long lay dormant in a dusty hymn book (or hymnary.org website).
Personally, when I read the lyrics to Martin Luther’s Christ The Lord In Death Bonds Lay, Horatius Bonar’s I Lay My Sins On Jesus, and Joseph Hart’s Great High Priest We See Thee Stooping (to name a few), I wanted my church family to sing them too.
I thought I could give some tune writing a go, trying to find new melodies that fit these wonderful old words. So now, some of what I do is renovate old hymns for our church family.
House renovation for hymns
Renovating an old hymn is very similar to renovating an old house:
- You do it because you love it and desire to use it to bless others.
- It’s worth doing because the house itself is beautiful with so much potential.
- You need to do it because it's been years since it's had a freshen up.
- You want to keep everything that gives the house its unique character and not throw out more than you have to.
- Some houses need to be totally gutted and replastered, others just need a touch-up.
- Sometimes everything works out and the outcome is great, often things don’t go to plan and you move on (these mistakes are more costly with house renovation than hymn renovation I believe!)
Of course, some hymns are like houses which, though old, need no work done to them at all. Hymns such as Be Thou My Vision, How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace, and others have a mysterious timelessness to every aspect of them and we thank God for this.
For others, perhaps some renovation is in order. Maybe there are people in your church who would be gifted at hymn renovation if given the opportunity?
Giving it a go at Gabalfa
At Gabalfa, we’re just giving these things a go!
You can watch or listen to our podcast Hymnology 101 on YouTube or Spotify where my fellow church-member Aron Williams and I chat about a hymn that we have tried renovating, discuss the original hymn writer’s story, and at the end we sing our take on their hymn.
Maybe they’ll encourage and benefit you and your church. Or maybe you’ll think the songs are completely average!
If that’s the case, I take comfort from the hymn writers of old. All they considered was “what will best serve my church family? Will this hymn bless them?” That’s all I desire to be concerned about too!
Regardless, may whatever songs we sing serve our church families and bring glory to Christ Jesus our Lord!