I love old hymns. I keep a stack of hymnals on my nightstand, and have an ever-growing collection in my library. I cut my teeth on Charles Wesley and John Rippon. I hope to write academically on the pastoral theology of hymns. I even have a dog named Watts.
While I certainly don’t think that historic hymns are the only thing we should sing in corporate worship, I am concerned that omitting older hymns in our gatherings silences the rich voices of church history. Some churches seem uninterested in any song that is more than two years old, much less two hundred years. Yes, the church will continue to write and sing new songs (Psalm 96:1), but it is also good and helpful for us to sing old songs.
What’s New Is Not Always Best
When I mention historic hymns, maybe you cringe as you recall a “worship war” in your local church. Maybe you’re eager to only sing the old hymns. Or maybe you wonder why it is important at all. My aim is not to renew local church disputes or bolster mere sentimentality, but to commend something else altogether — to encourage younger churches to remember their history by joining with the countless men and women who have shared these songs over hundreds of years.
Our society is fixated on what’s new and what’s next, but hymns remind us that what’s next is not always what’s best. Singing the historic hymns of our faith reminds our congregations that we are not the first generation who have wrestled and prayed, asked and believed. We are not the first to write hymns of praise to God. We walk gladly in the footsteps of our fathers who have written praises to Christ that have stood the test of time.
With a steady diet of merely new choruses, we can develop both modern idolatry and historical amnesia. Perhaps we should adopt this paraphrase of C.S. Lewis? Sing at least one old hymn to every three new ones.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
Praise him all creatures here below,
Praise him above ye heavenly hosts,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
–Thomas Ken, 1674
Hymns Teach Us
Hymns are portable sermons that articulate, exegete, and pronounce biblical truths. They shape the way we view God, man, Christ, and how we are to live in light of the gospel. The truths they communicate preach to us throughout the week following the style of Deuteronomy 6 — at home and away, when lying down and waking. As R.W. Dale famously said, “Let me write the hymns of the church and I care not who writes the theology.”
Singing is a form of teaching that uses poetry to open to us the word of God. When Isaac Watts published Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, his intention was not to sing Scripture line by line, but to create poetic and emotive renditions of Scripture that enabled the church to sing the truths of Scripture.
Singing for the Christian is formative and responsive, and therefore must be informed by Scripture. We learn what we sing.
The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord,
She is His new creation
By water and the Word.
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy bride;
With His own blood He bought her
And for her life He died.
–Samuel Stone, 1886
Hymns Admonish Us
Throughout the week, other things call for our praise, attention, and affection. Singing hymns of God’s character reminds us of his greatness. Singing hymns of our sin reminds us of the role of confession. By singing hymns of the atonement, we remind one another of the efficacy of the work of Jesus. Hymns of consecration remind us of the dependence of the Christian upon the steadfast grace of God.
We sing to admonish the weak and weary that their salvation is in God. We sing to admonish the doubting to believe and be renewed. We sing to admonish the suffering that they have a hope that is unwavering.
Begone unbelief, my Savior is near,
And for my relief will surely appear:
By prayer let me wrestle, and He wilt perform,
With Christ in the vessel, I smile at the storm.
–John Newton, 1779
Hymns Inspire Worship
We should choose historic hymns that provoke thankful hearts. The aim of singing hymns is engaging both the head and the heart. Just as we read and meditate on the Scriptures to see and worship God, so we choose songs that teach robust theological truth that cause our hearts to erupt with praise. The chief end of theology is doxology.
In choosing historic hymns for corporate worship, we should choose those that make our hearts sing. From the content of the lyric, to the movement of the melody, we want beauty and transcendence to come together and serve the people of God. In our pursuit of theological precision, we must not neglect the pursuit of heartfelt response.
A church’s hymn-singing — whether old or new — is not simply an opening act for the sermon. It is not obligatory filler-time to warm up a congregation. Singing is a holy practice. We sing because God has commanded us, and our songs should fill our hearts with thankfulness and delight in God.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
–Martin Luther, 1529
The New in the Old
Surely the hymns recorded for us in Scripture are meant for our singing today. In these songs of praise and prayer, contrition and confession, we see the breadth and inclusiveness of the hymns the church has sung for ages.
Regardless of the median age or church experience of a congregation, when I lead in worship by singing these historic hymns together, a sense of identity and reverence seems to rest upon the people. These songs unite the body of Christ as they have for generations, joining the youngest and oldest of our congregation and everyone in between, as they consider and hope in the same truths of God and his grace.
Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.
–Isaac Watts, 1719