By Emily M. Akin
“Why sing songs with words that are a hundred years old?” A friend asked this of me, making his case to dispose of traditional hymns in worship. My response? “Ignoring old hymns would be a tragedy for the church. Why deny the next generation these treasures passed down from their Christian forbears?” My impromptu defense did not convince my friend, so I mused further on the subject.
Hymns connect us to our Christian heritage.
Hymns are the testimony of our faith ancestors, the voice of the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Jewish tradition gave us the psalms. Chants and responses in the early Catholic Church laid the foundation for singing in services. After the Protestant Reformation, hymns came into their own. Using memorable tunes, verse structure, and simple rhythms, hymns were easily learned and sung by average people.
Singing the old hymns helps us identify with the spiritual experiences of saints and sinners alike. Hymn writer Fanny Crosby was blind, but she wrote of things she saw spiritually. In “To God Be the Glory” she said: “But purer, and higher, and greater will be our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.” John Newton, slave ship captain turned minister, wrote “Amazing Grace.” He shared his personal experience with God’s grace: “‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home!’
Hymns point us to the Bible.
Hymns motivate us to explore God’s Word because many words and images in hymns come straight from the Bible. As a young adult hearing “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” I wondered what “here I raise mine Ebenezer” meant. My Bible dictionary revealed that an ebenezer is a “stone of help or remembrance” (referred to in 1 Samuel 7:12). I never sang that song the same way again.
A favorite hymn of my home church was “Holy, Holy, Holy.” This phrase appears in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8, but it was Revelation 4:8-11 that inspired the hymn writer. As a child, the imagery of the saints “casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea” fascinated me. Now when I read these Bible verses, I sometimes break into song using the words of the heavenly beings: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.”
Hymns are timely.
Some say the old hymns are no longer relevant. Yet they fulfill our need to connect with God, just as they did for their contemporaries. Older hymns do contain dated language, but their message is eternal. The writers of the hymns worshipped the same triune God we worship today. As Hebrews 13:8 says: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
Hymns adored by some people may not resonate with others. As a church musician, I’ve played and sung numerous hymns over the years. Some I liked. Others I didn’t. In some cases, I’ve experienced a change of heart. I did not like “The Old Rugged Cross” as a sophisticated young adult. The archaic language and emotional tone turned me off. Yet when I recently heard a soloist sing all four verses, the third verse brought tears to my eyes. “For ‘twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died, to pardon and sanctify me.” Me. He suffered for me—to pardon and sanctify me. So even if you think you don’t like a hymn, give it a chance. Listen, learn, and sing to absorb the message.
Let’s hang on to the hymns. Like an antique jewelry box, our hymnals contain a lot of stuff that appears outdated. But the treasures are there. Let’s rummage through, find the treasures, and use them for God’s glory.
Emily M. Akin is a freelance writer and church musician living in Union City, Tennessee.