Don’t forsake the old hymns

The decline of hymnody is harmful to the theology and music quality in many of today’s churches.


I am becoming very burdened about what I am seeing, feeling and experiencing in worship these days in many churches. Things are different, even unusual, and for a lot of people, very uncomfortable. One such area is hymns.

Hymnody defines a denomination. It determines and reinforces theology, faith and history. We are who we are because of our theology, formed in large part by the singing of our strong and beloved hymns. Hymns are memorized and cherished by many.

In his book, Songs for all Seasons, Chuck Swindoll said this:

“It’s amazing how those grand theological truths woven through each stanza of a hymn took up permanent residence in my heart and mind. Even today, I keep a dog-eared hymnal on my desk and in my times with the Lord, I often turn to one of those old standbys and allow the familiar strains to fill my heart again.”

Churches that do not include the great hymns of the faith in the worship experience are not allowing their people to learn and sing the basic truths of their church heritage — whatever denomination that is. For those churches that sing no hymns whatsoever, I feel sad for their people.

Many churches, however, just no longer use a hymnal, or the texts in the hymnals they use are contrary to the beliefs of their particular denomination. If a church uses a hymnal that is not from its denomination, the worship leadership needs to be absolutely sure the texts of these hymns gel with the denominational theology.

Then, I’m seeing a major decline of “harmony” singing in our churches. Most people can’t sing harmony to words on a screen. Part of the joy and fun in congregational singing is to sing harmony, and screens do not allow this when only the text is there. Both are available, however, as you probably know!

Middle and older adults — if they were downright honest — would say they are very uncomfortable being “made” to sing everything from a screen. Believe it or not, they do miss holding the hymnal and singing harmony. Some churches use the screen for choruses and the hymnal for hymn singing — which I think is a good idea! Why not try a combination of both?

And forget about a cappella singing, it is almost a thing of the past in U.S. church settings. Why? Several reasons come to mind:

(1) What we’re singing in our services is melody and very little harmony.

(2) We are led to believe that the praise band/team will “help” us sing better. Not true.

(3) Music that is fast and loud doesn’t sound good a cappella.

Someone told me recently that in his church, “If we can’t line-dance to it, we don’t sing it!”

People do not like to stand and sing for 15 minutes or more at a stretch — period! If you don’t believe that statement, ask your people. They will tell you quickly that it’s too long to stand. After a brief time, energy begins to wane and the singing becomes less and less enthusiastic. Take time to listen to your people. This is especially true if the congregation is largely composed of older adults. People can sing well when seated.

Worship services that carefully and thoughtfully blend choruses and hymns are reaching most of God’s people. Believe it!

In a Lord’s Supper recently, the leader allowed us to spontaneously sing for about 20 minutes, as we prepared our hearts and minds to take the Lord’s Supper together. It was amazing to me that we started with a chorus and ended with a chorus, but the remainder of the time, hymns were sung spontaneously, tearfully, with great emotion and confidence. It was a very moving experience.

I urge my brothers and sisters not to discard completely the hymns of their faith. Sing them regularly, even with the praise team/praise band, even with updated charts — but sing them. Allow your people to worship through the beauty and theology of the great hymns of the past and the new hymns of the present.

This article originally appeared on the ABPnews website on July 17, 2012.

Bob Burroughs

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About the Author
Bob Burroughs is a composer and arranger who directed the Florida Baptist Convention church music department until his retirement in 2002. He is author of What Think Ye?: Essays for Twenty-First Century Leaders, Pastors, and Church Musicians.

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  • PeggyHaymes

    Amen. In my church we have a program in which children memorize hymns, and I often think of what a huge gift  and resource they are storing up. Of course, I’m a bit partial to some new hymns as well.