“It’s not about the music, just the words”
“We’re just singing”
“We need to be careful about emotion in worship. It is the flesh and must be suppressed”
All of these christianese expressions are well-meaning, but discouraging and naïve. In many places, singing is not really treated with regard or used as a teaching tool. In fact, singing is often just something that aimlessly happens in between the elements of worship. Why do we need hymns to teach when we have sermons, devotionals, Bible classes, and readings to do this? I don’t know, but if the Spirit commanded through Paul to teach through song, it must be important (Ephesians 5.15-21; Colossians 3.12-17). Could we be designed to learn through song and be powerfully moved by it? Unquestionably, yes!
A good hymn is a fascinating thing. Not only is the music stirring, but the message teaches us more about God and His truths. After all, what use is a hymn if it doesn’t have any spiritual content? How much content it should have is a matter of judgment, and more is not necessarily better. You may be thinking about some of those five verse 2-pagers, which could really stand to have an intermission for a small meal. A good hymn uses just enough content to make its point, which may look like a half pager or a 2-pager.
A skilled composer doesn’t just write a tune that works, but one that helps us connect with the message and remember it long after singing it. It could be said that a tune actually illustrates the lyrics brilliantly, and evokes powerful emotion. Some of the very best hymns have a way of transporting us to a land and time far away, and choking us up at the climax. However, a captivating tune alone doesn’t make a great hymn. Biblically rich lyrics with music that compels people to sing–these are the core elements of a good hymn.
For fear of some sort of an emotion-based faith, some run to a stoic extreme that tries to suppress all emotion, making worship a purely intellectual exercise. Allegedly, emotion is “the flesh”, and though great hymns stir up the heart, this is somehow temptation and weakness, and must be avoided at all cost. It’s no wonder that where this type of thinking thrives, souls are not thriving. The singing is unsurprisingly lifeless and these churches are dying on the vine. What a shame!
The other extreme finds an obsession with music to the neglect of content, and this equates to worship music that is junk food. It doesn’t draw people to God, just to the music, which usually isn’t very participatory in nature. Sadly, these groups are also declining, losing their youth and millennials to trendy mega churches that take them even farther from God. Experiential worship is an idol and is equally unhelpful.
Why must we be such creatures of extreme? And yet, we are. Emotion is not a bad thing. Not at all! We were created with it. Jesus Himself said that the first and greatest command is that we love the Lord with all of our being, including our heart, soul, and mind. This means the emotion, the intellect, and our volition, and none of them are to be kept from God. Good hymns appeal to all of these, for just as good music evokes powerful emotion, rich lyrics do too. When we experience the combination in a way that causes us to connect with them, the result is life changing. After all, good music softens the heart and opens it to be nourished by the Bread of life. The resulting emotion is the remorse for sin, the regret of the cross, the joy of the resurrection, and the hope of Heaven. If we discourage and suppress emotion in worship, we have none of those things. What DO we have? Certainly not motivation or change. Our hearts become cold and hard.
A good hymn preaches a sermon and a half in just a few short words. Consider the lyrics of the timeless piece, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
Save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them through his blood.
See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
In just 110 words, Isaac Watts spoke countless volumes. Considering that a good sermon is usually 2,500-3,000 words, each verse had to be skillfully authored and meticulously pithy to achieve a similar effect. Good hymns are homiletic–they make great sermons and vice versa. Each verse could be a bullet point in a 4-point sermon.
Verse 1 – When I reflect upon the cross, I can’t help but be crushed and humbled by it, despite even the greatest of accomplishments. I am nothing.
Verse 2 – How can I boast in anything but Christ? All my goodness was learned from His perfect and humble example. Material things may try to reign in my life, but I sacrifice them to my God through Christ who strengthens me. My life belongs to him.
Verse 3 – The scene of the cross is vividly played and replayed in my mind. It is shockingly bittersweet. While on the one hand, I see blood, sweat, and tears, yet on the other I also see the sorrow and love beautifully manifested.
Verse 4 – Were I to inherit the entire world and all of its riches and attempt to repay the Father for His mercy, it would be paltry and even insulting. No, the only response that will do is devoting my whole life to Him and His service.
This kind of message is the kind of sermon we could spend our lives applying, and it is packed into 110 short words. Fascinatingly, we can memorize this entire sermon and play it back in our heads over and over again. I’m not aware of another sermon quite so pithy, save for the Sermon on the Mount, and even it is a few more words than that. Music has a way of sticking with us. God designed us this way. Sometimes, obnoxious music bounces around in our heads like a broken record, but if we are feeding ourselves rich spiritual hymns and songs, these earworms can be tremendous in dwelling on things above.
Hymns are the sermons that keep on preaching. Treat them with regard. Choose GOOD hymns. Get them singing. Witness the change that ensues.
“If you’re not changing, you’re not worshiping.” – John Kilgore