Are we entering a “post-hymnal” age? As strange as it may seem, the answer for now appears to be a qualified yes.

It was Martin Luther who capitalized on the development of print and gave the German people the Bible and the hymnal in their own language. And it was this that allowed Reformation believers to hear God through his Word and speak to him through the hymnbook. Today, however, the hymnbook is being increasingly discarded as part of the church’s accommodation to the video revolution.

Many church leaders say traditional hymns are too hard to understand, too theological in language. Some have discarded their hymnals in favor of simple worship choruses sung from memory or with the help of an overhead projector. But these uncomplicated songs may in fact mirror the video age in which they were born: as short and encapsulated as news stories, and as repetitive as fast-food commercials.

Let us take a closer look at these “tiny hymns”—miniature both in length and in content—that threaten to replace our historic hymns. Their very title—“praise and worship” music—suggests they are principally texts of adoration and praise. This is surely commendable—despite their obvious limitations—and we should be grateful the movement has revived the ancient practice of singing Scripture verbatim. But labeling this new form suggests “praise and worship” texts are new, and that is surely not true—our hymnals are full of worthy “praise and worship” words.

These new pieces are short, often no longer than two lines. Their main characteristic is simplicity; usually only one idea is stated, and it may be repeated many times. Those having more than one “stanza” change only a word or two with each repetition. Nor is the music really contemporary in style. With a few exceptions (mostly borrowed from Jewish folk dances), the tunes and harmonies are ultrasimple in the gospel-song tradition.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is the popular chorus “Alleluia.” It repeats that word of praise eight times, using only four different melody notes and three chords. The second stanza repeats the words “He’s my Savior” eight times, with similar changes in the third, fourth, and fifth stanzas.

Before it appeared in print, the chorus was learned in a much stronger oral tradition. In it the words “He’s my Savior” of the second stanza were alternated with the word “Alleluia,” and so on. This version gave each stanza both unity and variety—an agreed norm for both a work of art and a folk hymn with its own artless charm. But then, it would not then be so simple—and today, simplicity is in!

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Nothing New Under The Sun

But choruses are not new. They are the logical successors of the refrains of gospel songs and the “spirituals” (of both black and white heritage) that emerged from the camp-meeting revivals of the early 1800s. Furthermore, those well-known forms were patterned after the alternation of stanza and refrain that has always characterized secular folksong. A refrain would contain or suggest the central message of a song; then it was interspersed with stanzas elaborating on that theme.

In nineteenth-century revivalism, the refrains or “choruses” of gospel songs were often sung without using the stanzas. Simple songs—like “Draw Me Nearer,” “At the Cross,” “We’re Marching to Zion”—became even simpler: only the central thought was expressed. And they could be sung spontaneously, from memory.

So, who needs a hymnal?

The next logical step was to omit the stanzas completely, and simply write the refrain, or “chorus.” This was common in the 1940s in the Youth for Christ (YFC) movement. Choruses were standard fare in the Saturday night mix of worship, evangelism, and entertainment. But those choruses were quite different from today’s. They usually expressed the same concepts as their gospel song antecedents—narratives of Christian experience or devotional expressions directed to Jesus alone. Typical of these choruses are “Gone, gone, gone, gone! Yes, my sins are gone”; “I have the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart”; “For God so loved the world”; and “Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before.”

These earlier forms were all products of renewal movements in the church—first in the highly emotional brush-arbor camp meetings of the early nineteenth century; later in the urban-centered “Second Awakening” under Charles G. Finney and the evangelistic efforts of D. L. Moody, R. A. Torrey, and Billy Sunday; and finally in the parachurch movements associated with Youth for Christ and radio evangelism. It should not be surprising that the new choruses first appeared as part of today’s charismatic renewal movement.

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It may be argued that these new expressions are stronger than the YFC choruses, since they express adoration and praise rather than personal testimony. “King of kings and Lord of Lords, glory hallelujah,” “We have come into his house and gathered in his name to worship him,” “Don’t you know it’s time to praise the Lord,” “I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice,” and “Sing hallelujah to the Lord” are good examples. Many of these texts abound in Scripture quotations, especially the Psalms. Some, like “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,” “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” “Thou art worthy, O Lord,” “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord,” and “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” are taken completely from the Scripture.

Praising Praise, Worshiping Worship

Take just one of these refrains and compare it with the worship hymns it may be replacing. For instance, “Let’s just praise the Lord” seems to express a casual approach to the holy service of worship. The problem may be with the word just—as in “Let’s just sit down and have a cup of coffee.”

The following exercise might be more revealing if the words were spoken audibly, which the reader may or may not choose to do:

Let’s just praise the Lord!

Praise to the Lord the Almighty, the King of Creation!

O my soul, praise him, for he is your health and salvation!

Let’s just praise the Lord!

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing,

Our helper he, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.

Let’s just praise the Lord!

Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty,

God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

Let’s just praise the Lord!

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,

In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.

Let’s just praise the Lord!

O worship the king, all glorious above,

O gratefully sing his power and his love.

Let’s just praise the Lord!

Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father,

There is no shadow of turning with Thee.

The constant repetition of phrases such as “Let’s just praise,” or “Come, let us worship the King,” or “Don’t you know it’s time to praise the Lord” sounds more like an “invitation to praise” than praise itself. An Assemblies of God leader from India recently said his American friends seem to be “praising praise” and “worshiping worship.” But the larger hymns not only call us to adoration; they describe the excellence of God and recount his promises and mighty deeds—stating the motivation for worship.

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The New Testament Standard

Some Christians prefer to be called “restorationist” because they believe they are returning to the worship and ministry experiences of the apostolic period. But how closely do they follow the early church’s standards for worship music?

The apostle Paul mentions three distinct types of song: “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). We believe these were different types of music—in origin, in text, and possibly even in the way they were performed.

Psalms no doubt included all the psalms and canticles common to Jewish worship—the historic, classical worship expressions known to all Jewish Christians who had grown up hearing them in the temple and the synagogue: songs of praise and thanksgiving to Yahweh, didactic psalms, witness psalms, psalms of petition and lament.

Hymns were probably new songs that expressed the Christology of the new sect. A number of these hymns appear in Paul’s letters, written in the patterns of classical Greek poetry. Like many of the hymns of Martin Luther and Charles Wesley, they were written to express, and thus teach, Christian doctrine. One is in the form of a simple creed, or statement of faith:

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion:

He was manifested in the flesh,

vindicated in the Spirit,

seen by angels,

preached among the nations,

believed on in the world,

taken up in glory.

(1 Tim. 3:16)

In another example, the poetic (and possibly antiphonal) form is obvious:

The saying is sure:

If we have died with him, we shall also live with him;

if we endure, we shall also reign with him;

if we deny him, he also will deny us;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful

for he cannot deny himself.

(2 Tim. 2:11–13)

The patristic fathers and modern musicologists both agree that spiritual songs described ecstatic singing that was either wordless or had unintelligible words—singing in tongues. It is the one type of New Testament song that belongs exclusively to modern-day Pentecostals and charismatics. But it is still fair to ask: How does the new music measure up to the total spectrum of New Testament musical practice?

The new chorus literature is—according to its title—exclusively “praise and worship.” But many would contend that if this is the church’s only song, praise becomes both simple and simplistic. On the one hand, we ought to rejoice that the movement has reinstated the practice of singing the words of Scripture. But Scripture choruses are but snippets of Holy Writ; their use may be compared to singing “proof texts.” On the other hand, Roman Catholics, by comparison, today sing or say major portions of a psalm in every celebration of the mass. Over three years, in just Sunday observances, over 150 different psalm passages will be used. Furthermore, modern choruses pointedly omit all the expressions of the didactic, the penitential, and the petitionary psalms, and contain nothing comparable to the psalms of lament. Nor does the new music make an effort to teach the doctrines of our faith.

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Moreover, except for the Scripture fragments used, this type of contemporary worship tends to ignore the traditional forms that express the continuity of our faith and the perpetuity of God’s covenants with his people. The early Christians knew they were still the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—but also of David and Solomon and the prophets who left their songs to be sung in worship. The sixteenth-century followers of Luther understood that they had the same heritage, and they added the patristic and medieval hymns of Ambrose of Milan, Fortunatus, Gregory the Great, Francis of Assisi, Rhabanus Maurus, and of the two Bernards—one of Clairvaux and one of Cluny.

Until recently, evangelicals acknowledged in their music their identity with the same family tree, and we added the hymns of Luther, Gerhardt, Calvin, Wesley, Newton, Bonar, and many others. When we stood to sing their songs, we were joining our own spirits and voices with theirs and the thousands of believers who followed in their train, exulting in the glory and redeeming love of God. And our faith was strengthened. Today, some of our family of faith seem to be willing, even eager, to discard this heritage for a simpler fare that may disappear as suddenly as it has flowered.

It is probably true—especially in our less-literate day—that many worshipers have difficulty finding their way through the phrases of a standard hymn. But should we reduce our liturgical statements to those that every person, of any age, will understand immediately? The answer, of course, is no. Like the ancient creeds of the church, like many passages in Scripture—like even the Lord’s Prayer—we repeat them because the historic and continuing church has found in them its understanding of our faith. Their meaning comes to us slowly, but surely. And in the meantime, their truth has been preserved for us and for our children. It is still true, as C. H. Sisson said, and Brian Morris quoted in Ritual Murder: “There is no such thing as passing on profound truths in superficial speech.”

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Using The New Music Well

An increasing number of church musicians admit they have reluctantly added this music style to their worship resources. They felt compelled to do so by the large number of folk who heard “praise and worship” music in another “successful and rapidly growing” church, and came home with glowing reports of its significance. Competition, after all, is a factor in church life today: If you don’t give people church music they want, they may go down the street where they can get it.

In a recent article, “What to Do with Church Hoppers,” William Self, pastor of Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta, said: “I’ve been hammering my folks with the need to be steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord—not a popular theme in these days of rootlessness. Somehow, we have to make disciples instead of inspiration junkies.”

Disciples, of course, are people accustomed to discipline. And how many of our folk understand that the central requirement of worship is not “getting a blessing,” but giving God an acceptable sacrifice of praise? A true sacrifice is always a costly thing, not a demand for instant gratification of our pleasure needs.

Even so, it may be wise to use the best examples of the new music. It is surely an appealing form in our day and probably an example of the folkish styles that tend to appear in times of spiritual renewal. The “tiny hymns” are quite ideal for an informal service in the home or on the beach, for Sunday evening worship or the prayer meeting. In regular worship, these choruses can be used much like the historic antiphons, preceding and following a more serious, more didactic hymn.

For instance, “Let’s Just Praise the Lord” could provide an introduction and coda to the chorale to which we compared it—“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” The chorus “He Is Lord” would help prepare the congregation for the biblically based, theologically rich hymn by F. Bland Tucker, “All praise to thee, for thou, O King divine, didst yield the glory that of right was thine, that in our darkened hearts thy grace might shine. Alleluia!” Others would serve well as preparation for, or a response to, the pastoral prayer.

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Some churches are using this music as “preparation for worship.” In our evangelical tradition, the organ prelude is, unfortunately, not used as an aid to quiet meditation, serving merely as background—even as competition—to the noisy “fellowship” that seems to be the first priority for many. So in some churches, these “tiny hymns” are sung for about ten minutes before the service begins. As a result, conversation ceases and there is opportunity for a gradual quieting of the spirit and focusing of the mind in preparation for the meeting with God. When the service begins, using the standard hymns of the church in good liturgical design helps to make their meaning clear.

Must Our Worship Be Nonliterate?

We cannot expect this generation to respond to hymns that are rich in content unless they are taught carefully and used convincingly. The shallow-but-pleasurable emotional response to worship choruses is derived from the repetition of a few simple phrases. Those who expect worship to be more reasoned and rational must patiently and lovingly introduce their people to the deeper emotional resources of words that will truly challenge and stimulate the imagination. Texts of great hymns have done this since the sixteenth century, and they still have the power to do so—even in this post-Gutenberg era. Perhaps we can use our new nonverbal languages to clarify the meaning of words, and vice versa.

It may also be argued that the younger generation is “turned off” by certain classic hymns that contain obscure and/or archaic language. Hymnal editors are encouraged to revise the texts of older hymns to match the new Scripture versions and modern prayer language, so that God is addressed as “you” instead of “thou.” Many churches would also insist on the elimination of sexist language pertaining to people; for example, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” is easily changed to “Good Christians All, Rejoice.”

Church musicians and ministers should also get to know the rich new hymns being produced today. It is ironic that many churches overemphasize ephemeral, simplistic materials and ignore the “explosion” of exciting new hymns being produced in Great Britain and North America by Timothy Dudley-Smith, Bryan Jeffrey Leech, Margaret Clarkson, Fred Pratt Green, Bryan Wren, Christopher Idle, and others.

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Turn Off The TV!

A recent public-service announcement aired on NBC Television offers some sound advice. In it, Steve Allen, the gifted musician and comedian, appears and says: “Don’t let television dominate your life. Walk over and turn the … thing off. Get a good book and read it!” Perhaps, for us, that book might be a hymnal, a stimulus to aid our personal worship.

This practice was common in earlier times, when worshipers carried the hymnbook, as well as the Bible, to church. At home it was used for singing in family worship and for reading in personal devotions.

A good hymnal contains many paraphrases of Scripture and is a compact handbook of Christian theology in poetic form. It also includes noble examples of all the forms of prayer with which we respond to God’s self-revealing—adoration, confession, thanksgiving, petition, supplication, surrender, and dedication. It can supply thoughts and words to express our devotion when we have difficulty finding our own. Used regularly, it enlarges and enriches our personal vocabulary of worship, and—when we meet in church on Sunday—helps us sing the hymns with joy and understanding.

Donald P. Hustad is senior professor of church music at Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, and author of Jubilate! Church Music in the Evangelical Tradition.

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