26th Nov 2012

Hymns or New Songs?

By David Webber


Old Hymns vs. New Songs - Which are better?

As the church is a mixed-bag of people, with different backgrounds, tastes and personalities, there will never be an agreed answer to this question.

Some love the old hymns, with their Biblical depth and rousing tunes, while others find them old-fashioned, and not in keeping with the image of what a modern church should be like. On the other hand, what about newer offerings? Are they catchy, full of expression of our praise and love for God, or over-emotional, shallow mush?

Personally, I’d like to propose what is politics is called the Third Way. Dodging the original question, if you like, because actually it’s a bad question. I love some of the old hymns, and many modern songs also. They both have their strengths and their place - but they are not the same. To properly explain this, I’ll have to talk about the Journey of Worship. Briefly, this is the shape and direction of a worship session.

The purpose of worship is to come into a place where you can engage with God, praise him for who he is and what he has done. This is it. As a consequence, we can also hear from him and receive from him, and leave changed for the better, but we should never enter a worship session because of what we can get out of it.

Worship sessions can take various shapes, but a common one, of increasing intimacy, can be likened to the relationship between a couple, starting from the first date. The conversation at this stage is about establishing the facts: Am I attracted to this person? Where do they live? What do they do for a living? What are their interests?

Arriving at church on a Sunday morning, after maybe struggling to get small children out of the door (a task that can never be understood by anyone who hasn’t had to do it), having an argument with your spouse or whatever other stressful things come our way, we are not ready to enter straight into intimacy with God. Our heads just aren’t in the right place.

We start the journey, therefore, with the business of establishing the facts. This is called Proclamation. It is a good and useful exercise to state the facts about God, how great he is, and how great was his work on the cross which makes our relationship with him possible. Many older hymns and songs, with their multiple verses containing these truths are great for this time. Our worship is very much with our heads, and not yet that much with our hearts. Songs like He Was Pierced For Our Transgressions, It Is A Thing Most Wonderful are good examples. Incidentally, the hymn And Can It Be? came in for some harsh criticism when it was first written. At a time when it was normal practice to sing Psalms, it was considered by some among the establishment as over-emotional and watered-down mush. Sound familiar?

After Proclamation, we move on to our response. ‘Ok’, we say. If God is good, what are we going to do about it? Another type of song comes into it’s own here. Pretty much anything starting with Come, Praise or I will fits well (although others do too). This is where the experience becomes slightly more personal. We have moved beyond stating facts, and now declare what we will do about them. We are still using our minds, but we are also investing something of ourselves in the worship. Our emotions, our hearts, if you will, become involved.

The songs we are singing now don’t need to establish the facts, but can move us to a more intimate place. The couple we talked about on their first date have now moved on to a second or third date. They are comfortable with each other, and their conversations will be less formal, containing small-talk based on what they know of each other. Our songs can do the same. If they don’t follow a pattern of five verses full of scriptural truths, so what?

Finally, we are ready to enter a place of intimacy with God. We’ve given ourselves space to put aside our daily problems, we’ve reminded ourselves who God is, what he has done and why he deserves our love, praise and sacrifice. We can now express our feelings to him, and this doesn’t require any great intellectual exercise. If we use short songs with many repetitions, so be it. It is entirely appropriate when we are basking in God’s presence to want to express our deepest feelings to our God and Saviour, and this isn’t a cold, academic process. Our couple are now whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ear. The content of these aren’t cold facts, just expressions of feelings. This is where we wanted to get to on our journey, and we couldn’t just jump to the end. It doesn’t work that way. We don’t work that way.

Properly reaching that intimate place of worship is a wonderful thing, and we may not want it to end. But, we live in our real-life world, and real-life things mean we must. There are children to collect from their groups, dinners to be cooked, and a working week to contemplate. But if we immediately picked-up from where we came in, that would be a terrible shame, and a waste of so much potential for ourselves and everyone we encounter for the next week. We should be moved in our hearts, and renewed in our desire to serve God wherever we are in our ‘normal’ lives. Few of us are full-time church employees, but we are all full-time Christians. One small, last step can help focus our minds on this. Sometimes called ‘sending out’, sometimes ‘dismissal’, a song which reminds us of our part in the Great Commission, and our duty to reflect Christ to all we encounter can help transfer our experience in the presence of God into a meaningful change in our behaviour and attitudes.

If we are not changed and renewed, then perhaps our time has been nothing more than a self-indulgent feel-good session. We do not have to do anything to earn our salvation, but knowing what Jesus did for us in order that we can know this intimacy with him should propel us into wanting to serve him at every opportunity.

In conclusion to the original question, I heard about a Worship Leader who was struggling with which songs to include in a forthcoming service. He prayed to God “which songs should I choose?”. He got his answer: “I don’t mind - I like them all. You choose.


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Dave is priviliged to be a member of the worship team at SMBC, and passionately believes we can all use our gifts to worship to God.