The church I go to is old and Baptist—it even has that old-Baptist-church smell. I go to this church because it’s healthy and alive, but it’s also old. So when something is new, everyone notices.
Several Sundays ago I noticed we had new hymnals—which might seem like an oxymoron. Hymnals are supposed to be old and tattered, right? Even better if the pages are brown with age. But our new hymnals are unworn and chic with smooth red binding. They also have a hip copyright date: 2008.
I was surprised to see Matt Redman’s, “Blessed Be Your Name” and Chris Tomlin’s, “How Great is Our God” in these new hymnals. These are good songs with biblical, God-glorifying content, and I’m glad that our churches are singing them. But I admit that when I saw them, I frowned.
“These aren’t hymns,” I thought, “these are chart-toppers.” Almost in fear that my favorite traditional hymns had been retired, I scoured the book to find something old. I was relieved to see that “Be Thou My Vision” and “How Great Thou Art” made it in.
At first I was miffed to see the newbies encroaching on the old-timers’ sacred space. But I soon realized that my initial aversion was unfair. I was presuming certain criteria for a hymn: Written before I was born, and fit for an organ.
St. Augustine says that a hymn is “singing to the praise of God.” Carl F. Price, who wrote several books on the study of hymns and worship in the early 1900s, offers a more robust and I think very helpful definition:
“A Christian hymn is a lyric poem, reverently and devotionally conceived, which is designed to be sung and which expresses the worshiper’s attitude toward God, of God’s purpose in human life. It should be simple and metrical in form, genuinely emotional, poetic and literary in style, spiritual in quality, and in its ideas so direct and so immediately apparent as to unify a congregation while singing it.”
One criterion you will not find in that strand: Must be written before 1950. The only thing that intrinsically divides an old hymn from a new one is its composition date.
So it’s now my opinion that a hymnal from 2008 ought to include the hymns people were singing in 2008. These are the hymns of our generation. They are springing up in our hymnals like young flowers in an old garden, and this is good.
Yet while we celebrate new contributions, we also must be responsible. Writer Jean Rhys said that “All of writing is a huge lake,” and good writers must feed the lake responsibly.
Modern hymn writers have the weighty task of feeding the hymnal. But not everyone agrees on what is healthy. Some campaign for substance, others for sing-ability. One 20something fights to focus on the droning seven stanzas of a dense hymn; another is swept up by the wind and fire of a rock song, heavy with “oh’s” and “la-la-la’s” but light on the cross and empty tomb. Neither benefits.
An old hymn may soar above our heads, and a new one may take our hearts soaring and leave our heads below. A good hymn—young or old—captures both in rapturous worship.
A good hymn is singable doctrine. I don’t think anyone is put off by the “sing-able” part of that—no one wants a song they can’t follow. But some may be put off by the “doctrine” part because doctrine can connote dogmatic, theological jargon.
Systematic theology books need not be funneled into four stanzas in order to achieve “good doctrine.” Doctrine, simply put, is truth about God and what He has done for us. This is why a good hymn is both theological and personal—the theology concerns us. Scripture attests to this. Read through the Psalms and see how David’s heart rejoices at the work of the Lord. See how often the Israelites point back to their exodus and then respond in praise to God. Look at the chapters of doctrine in the epistles and how often they end in a doxology.
Doctrine leads to praise, and the better the doctrine, the deeper the praise.
But sing-ability also factors into the making of a good hymn. Not everyone likes the same songs, and we don’t have to. It’s unrealistic to assume unanimous approval on music preference. If I like every song my music minister chooses, it probably means someone three rows behind me doesn’t.
While this could be an opportunity for a church split, it’s an even better opportunity for unity. This, after all, is what the hymnal is for: Singing together about the God who brought us together.
If the Millennial generation were to fill a hymnal, what would it look like? Perhaps a blend of the traditional with the innovative would be a healthy balance. The mix of old and new reminds us that the hymnal isn’t yours, neither is it our grandparents’—it’s part of a rich legacy made up of many generations of faith.
Maybe you can’t track with the archaic tune of an older hymn, but you can still sing in recognition of its truth in honest praise. Or maybe you aren’t moved by the lyrics of a contemporary song, but as you look around you and see others deeply focused in worship, you can join them in seeking the Spirit.
The hymnal belongs to the church. Its place is on the altar of the Lord, not in our list of personal preferences. It is a garden for all, grown for One: The risen Lord. Let our hearts grow with its fruit, old and new, and our voices rise as one with its fragrances to the Lord.
Let’s fill the Millennial hymnal with songs for the Church. I call for a shaking of hands—between old and the new, between substance and sing-ability. When writing hymns, let’s remember that doctrine is the diamond and music is the setting. When singing them, let’s look for the substance and savor it. Let’s encourage our church’s music directors towards multi-generational hymn selection. Let’s tend the garden well.
Throughout college, Matthew Boffey performed with a sketch comedy group that poked fun at the Christian subculture, as a way to suggest how things could improve. Having developed an eye for cultural criticism, he is now developing his mind at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in hopes that the eye and mind together can give his mouth something thoughtful to say.