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What I’m For

A Place for Hymnals in Contemporary Churches

In recent years a number of people have asked me why I would ever get involved with creating a hymnal. Among the many comments I received were these:

"Aren’t hymnals a thing of the past?”
“There are so many new songs. Why would we sing those old, irrelevant ones?”
“This is the digital age. Why get stuck with a book that’s out of date the moment it’s printed?”
“Why would a contemporary/modern church ever buy a hymnal?”

I appreciate the fact that my friends are open about their feelings. In many ways, I can understand where they are coming from. Over the years I too had similar thoughts. As a young person growing up in a church that sang traditional music, there were times when I felt disconnected from worship. Maybe it was my Southern California context, or maybe my pastors never explained well the elements of our liturgy.

As a high school student, contemporary music got me engaged in “big church.” It was the contemporary church movement, especially modern instrumentation, that drew me into worship. For me, the feeling of modernity came not only from updated music, but also from the use of everyday language, which brought meaning and heartfelt emotion to the rote and ritualistic worship that had confused me since my youth. In the worship wars characterized by that decade, I was as anti-traditional as I was pro-contemporary. As a result, my early years in worship leading and planning were characterized by what I was against. I was against traditional, “irrelevant” music. I was against rote and ritual. I was against anything that didn’t make sense to the average person.

Fast-forward two decades later, and I’d like to think that some perspective has settled in. After being involved in several church plants, entrenched in the “creative” contemporary church, and now helping revitalize a sixty-year-old church, things look different than they did twenty years ago. The biggest change for me as a pastor and worship leader has been recognizing what I am for instead of what I was against. The journey has brought me full circle, and I have come to appreciate much of what I didn’t understand as a student. I am still a big fan of contemporary music, but I’m letting what I am for inform the direction of worship. These values have brought me back to recognizing the importance of a hymnal.

I am for new songs and old songs.

The psalms tell us to sing a new song. Our souls are lifted when a new song captures in text, melody, and progression the truths of Scripture and the human condition. It warms my heart to hear songs of this generation that speak of what the church experiences today. That being said, songs of old are equally important. As I look back at the seasons when we sang few hymns and opted for an all-contemporary lineup, I see that we missed an important historic voice in our midst.

When I was growing up, two books were always together, whether on the piano or music stand: the Bible and the hymnbook.

It is often said that we can better understand the present when we look at our past. Hymnody is no different. Songs of the past give us insight into the issues previous generations faced. Hymns provide a rich landscape of songs that God’s people have sung for hundreds and hundreds of years. And like the sage in a church who speaks wisdom upon wisdom, hymns do the same for the congregation. Furthermore, they become especially important when people experience crises of faith. Time and time again I’ve heard how songs, both old and new, comfort God’s people in the midst of death, decision, or trial.

One could even argue that over the past decade the old has become new—or has been “re-newed.” The pairing of hymns with modern instrumentation is a growing trend in contemporary music that suggests the modern church longs to be more connected with her history. Music is one of the strongest ways to make this connection. Even modern worship labels like Passion have released contemporary arrangements of hymns because these are the songs of the church—yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

A hymnal like Lift up Your Hearts (LUYH) is a snapshot of songs sung by today’s church, including songs old, new, and global. There is something in this hymnal for everyone, and those who value songs new and old should strongly consider using LUYH.

I am for solid text.

One of my biggest quibbles with modern music has been its choice of texts. Recently a growing number of contemporary songs have exhibited increased theological awareness. But what the church needs is text that helps us see the Word of God in all its fullness. This is obviously one of the strengths of a hymnal. Whether we’re singing songs from the early church, the Reformation, or the past century, hymns broaden the church’s theology. They are instructional, and they become an important part of our Christian understanding.

When I was growing up, two books were always together, whether on the piano or music stand: the Bible and the hymnbook. The hymnal is an indispensable reference for all who desire a deepening faith.

I am for singing the entire story.

Today more than ever, I appreciate how the church I attended as a child stressed the entirety of Scripture. I remember hearing the words of my pastor, at a time when it was popular to have a travel-sized New Testament: “We are two-testament people; we believe that God’s Word is both Old Testament and New Testament.” Those words still ring in my head. Contemporary churches would do well to include songs that cover the breadth of the two testaments.

I’m not suggesting a return to childhood songs like “Father Abraham” or the “Arky Song.” But there are biblical subjects and themes that are surprisingly absent from CCLI’s top-100 list. Whether these themes are covenant, confession, lament, the prophetic voice, or even the retelling of the gospel, contemporary churches should look at what is missing from their “diet” of songs. Like any healthy approach to food, balance is key. Desserts and tasty carbs have their place in the food pyramid. However, good health comes from a steady diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and complex carbohydrates.

I am for singing the whole story, both testaments, because it is important to the liturgical health of any congregation. Further, it is my hope that songwriters of today will look to the hymnbook and compose in the fullness of God’s Word. In time, maybe this generation will write the whole story and lead the way to a healthier diet of contemporary songs.

I am pleased that LUYH is not only available in print, but in digital form. For churches that use projected songs exclusively, the breadth and depth of the hymnal is now more accessible than ever. But churches and congregants would still do well to have a hymnal in every office, building, and home as a companion to Scripture. Together the hymnal’s songs can be read, sung, experienced, and lived.

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