I’ve been reading the book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns today. It’s a great little book. One of the few books written lamenting the lost art of hymn singing that wasn’t written by an IFB pastor and very insightful. Because it’s on my mind, I thought I’d give hymn singing a second post today.
As a former youth leader and Christian school teacher, I’ve had a lot of conversations with militant teenagers where I tried in vain to convince them of the importance of good Christian music. In some of those cases, I was wrong, and I’ve since changed my tune (no pun intended). But at the core, I still think that pop music genres (rock, rap, country, etc.) are inappropriate for worship and church. You can read more of my views on that subject here and here.
One of the arguments that was almost always made by defenders of Christian pop music is that the songs of yesterday, the songs that take up a majority of space in our hymn books, were at one time popular music. Some of the songs, they contend, were originally bar songs that were hijacked and reworded into Christian songs.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and I’ve come to this conclusion: Church music didn’t start going downhill with the advent of the Jesus People Movement, Sandi Patty and Amy Grant. Nor did it start its decent with the popularization of shallow Praise and Worship choruses. Christian music started its trip down the slippery slope way back in the late 1800s when upbeat “gospel songs” started to edge out old-fashioned hymns.
Many of the songs written from 1870–1950 are vapid, repetitive and unrealistically chipper. (Not to mention barely biblical.) The songs have a carnival, circus, merry-go-round feel to them. Close your eyes right now. Imagine you are on a merry-go-round. Hum the tune to Love Lifted Me (Without the Words). See what I mean?
So when defenders of contemporary music allege that much of what we sing was at one time contemporary music, they are right. But I would say the answer isn’t to open the flood gates to anything contemporary. Nor to admit that contemporaneity is a virtue. I’d say we need to develop better criteria of what is and isn’t good hymnody, and to realize that just because it was in the Baptist Hymnal 50 years ago, doesn’t mean it is canonized as forever acceptable. In other words, just because we sang it growing up, doesn’t mean we should have.
I think all our hymns should pass through the following criteria:
I think these are criterion that are equally hard on both old and new music. More importantly, I think these will help us to get back to the “songs and hymns and spiritual songs” that scripture tells us we should be singing in the first place.
What do you think? What are your criteria for picking hymns old and new? I’d love to know.