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The power of a great hymn

By Bill O’Connor

In recent years many churches have nearly replaced hymns with praise and worship choruses. The idea isn’t all bad. Choruses help meet the need for greater spontaneity, depth of emotion, and congregational involvement. I for one, however, do not want to see the traditional hymn entirely displaced. Here are 10 reasons to keep hymns in our worship services:

1. Great hymns keep us in touch with our Christian heritage.

"A Mighty Fortress" takes us back to the Reformation and allows us to hear the words of Martin Luther. "Joyful, joyful" exposes us to the music of’ Beethoven and allows us to revel in the melodic mastery of one of the great composers in church history. The hymns of Charles Wesley immerse us in the spirit of the Wesleyan revival. Hymns remind us of our founders, our history, and our doctrinal distinctives.

2. Hymns expose us to some o the greatest music ever written.

"Joyful, Joyful" is Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy." "Be Still, My Soul" is

Jean Sibelius’ melody, "Finlandia." Our hymns set before us music from past centuries, from the turn of the century, and from the present decade. Choruses lack that rich, broad musical variety.

3. Hymns expose us to poetry.

Hymns’ words are some of the most beautiful ever penned. For example, consider one stanza of "Be Still, My Soul" by Katharina von Schlegel:

"Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Thro’ thorny ways leads to a joyful end."

4. Hymns give our worship a sense of majesty and beauty.

Great cathedrals were built to convey a sense of God’s greatness and majesty. Their vaulted ceilings were designed to direct attention upward. The acoustics gives one the feeling of being part of a heavenly choir. Many of the early hymns were written to complement the feeling inspired by those cathedrals.

Though we seldom build cathedrals today and our worship has become more personal and intimate, there is still a place for being deeply moved by the majesty of our Creator. Though some choruses achieve this goal admirably–such as Jack Hayford’s "Majesty"–who can forget the sense of God’s greatness evoked by such hymns as "How Great Thou Art" or the deep appreciation summoned by "Great Is Thy Faithfulness."

5. Hymns embed Christian truths in our minds and hearts.

Many Christians who can’t quote 10 verses of Scripture can easily sing the verses to a dozen hymns that are based on or directly drawn from Scripture. Christian concepts are tucked away in our minds, ready to be pulled out when we need them. Many were put there by the repeated singing of the great hymns. Our hymns have taught us that God is faithful, that He provides a firm foundation for our lives, that His love will not let us go, and that we should "Take Time To Be Holy."

6. Hymns are one of the most effective ways to teach Christian doctrine.

If you announce you’re going to preach a series of sermons on the attributes of God, most people will yawn and express a silent ho hum. If you build a thematic service around each of the attributes of God and let the great hymns do the teaching, people will learn about God without realizing they’re being exposed to systematic theology.

7. Hymns contribute to the depth of our Christian experience.

Most choruses appeal to the emotional side of the worshiper. Hymns excite our minds as well as our emotions and may result in deeper emotional response. Consider the deep eternal truth and understanding of God expressed in Walter C. Smith’s "Immortal, Invisible":

"Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise."

8. Hymns help us lift our hearts to God.

It is impossible to sing words like those of "Immortal, Invisible" (and really think about what we’re singing) without sensing God’s presence. Such hymns take us out of ourselves, out of our problems, out of the pressures of the moment, and into the throne room of heaven.

9. Hymns exalt and magnify the Lord Jesus Christ.

Hymn writers had an experience with Christ that had to be explained, an encounter that had to be shared. They put the heart of their experience and encounter into their hymns. Consider the intensely personal nature of the first stanza of Wesley’s "And Can It Be?"

"And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?"

10. Hymns do more than any other resource to help us worship God.

The power of the great hymns is such that you can’t be exposed to them with an open heart without worship taking place. Hymns carefully planned and scheduled in worship pave the way for the sermon and give the message a better chance of making a lasting impact. The key to a well-rounded worship experience is a balance of both choruses and great hymns.