Guarding the Deposit of Hymnody

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The congregation of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, pastored by Mark Dever, is known for its robust hymn singing.

This weekend is the 498th anniversary of Martin Luther’s infamous act of nailing the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Door. Rather than celebrating Halloween, many Christians will recognize Reformation Day this Oct. 31. On Sunday, Protestants around the globe will commemorate the rather simple but bold act of a solitary man, taking a stand against the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. Many congregations will sing the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation”, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott; or as English speakers know it, A mighty fortress is our God.

I took this picture of Luther's 1527 anthem "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," the Summer of 2012, while I was in Wittenberg, Germany. It was found in the first edition of Joseph Klug's hymn book, but this 1533 second edition is the only known copy of the hymn.

I took this picture of Luther’s 1527 anthem “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” the Summer of 2012, while I was in Wittenberg, Germany. It was found in the first edition of Joseph Klug’s hymn book, but this 1533 second edition is the only known copy of the hymn.

bored-churchRecently, I had a visitor to our church comment, “You guys sing a lot of hymns, you need to get with the program because young people don’t like that stuff.” I could have been offended by the comment (which I think this gentleman was trying to do), but I thought to myself, “actually, as a congregation that sings hymns we stand in line with the historic program of the Church, and I’m good with that” (and as an aside, we have a lot of young people in our church I think would take offense at his comment).

Rather than get defensive, I’d love to express why I love to hear our congregation sing hymns (both historic and modern).

1. It’s Biblical (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26; Acts 16:25; 1 Corinthians 14:26; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). Really, I could stop here. It’s hard to argue with Scripture, in addition to the fact, if it was good enough for Jesus and the disciples to sing hymns, it’s probably good for me too. Now we have to understand what constitutes a hymn? Just because it’s in the hymnal, does not make a song a hymn. And just because it’s old, does again, not make it a hymn. I could go into a long diatribe, but I like the succinctness of this helpful article.

2. Hymns connect us to history. We live in a society that is about the here and now. The 24-hour information cycle has created an attention span of 20 seconds, where people need the latest and greatest. We quickly forget where we came from because Y.O.L.O. and Carpe Diem have been so engrained as the highest virtue in society. Yet Psalm 90 reminds us to remember from where we came. When we reflect on the faithfulness of God throughout history, we rest in the knowledge that He will continue to sovereignly control all things. When we sing a hymn from the 8th century, like “Be Thou My Vision,” we remember that God has not changed in an every changing world, and remains faithful to His promises. As fickle people, we must constantly be reminded that we stand on the shoulders of many who have gone before us, and we have been entrusted to, as Paul encouraged Timothy, “guard the deposit entrusted to [us]” (1 Timothy 6:20). Singing songs rooted in history, gives us that wonderful connection to saints who have gone on before, and serve as our great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1).

Modern hymns in turn, connect us with saints who will follow after us. We take Paul’s admonishment to Timothy mentioned earlier, as leaving a legacy that will withstand cultural shifts and musical turns. “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” sounds just as relevant today as it did in 1780, and I believe that a hymn like “In Christ Alone,” written only in 2001, will endure long after this generation passes away (should the Lord tarry).

3. Hymns connects us to each other. I like to visit church websites and sometimes they have their services recorded from beginning to end, including the music portion (I sometimes wonder if they have the copyright permission to broadcast these recordings, and churches need to seriously look into this as an issue of integrity).batmanslapsrobin2 I watch these services to get an idea of the things going on outside the walls of our church (both the good and bad).  One thing I notice in more contemporary settings is the congregation often participates in the dark, gazing up at performers on stage like in a concert setting. The congregation serves their role a kind of karaoke, sing-along participant, while the team on stage is pristine and showcases the vocal abilities of the soloist. Everyone stands as an solitary observer, participating only if they want, but mostly they are consuming what is being given to them.

However, stand in a congregation who sings hymns and the collective voice should be lifted because everyone is held accountable to the task. If they’re singing parts it’s a glorious sound. In my humble opinion, a congregation that can learn to sing 4-part harmony is one of the best representations of how the body of Christ is described in 1 Corinthians 12:12-20. They also demonstrate that they want to engage all their heart, soul, mind and strength.

4. Hymns connects us to theology, and teach complex truths in a succinct and understandable fashion. Children can be taught theological truth through song, 7965866f14161e3c24903d3ff3d918c6.jpgand adults are no different. Hymns are often borne out of a writer’s experience as understood through the lens of Scripture.  William Cowper wrote about the atoning blood of Christ in times of deep depression to bolster his faith. He needed to write to express the hope of what he knew, rather than wallow in what he felt. Horatio Spafford famously wrote It Is Well during the tragic loss of his daughter’s. Contrast this production with the modern worship scene where labels pressure artists to write in order to fulfill contracts and sell albums that will make money. While I can’t judge the heart of the artist, the goal of record labels is business. Other than the rare exception, the goal isn’t the need to express the truth of Scripture, but rather sell albums.

5. Finally, hymns direct our thoughts to eternal things of God. Holy, Holy, Holy, which is based upon scriptures found in both Old and New Testaments (Isaiah 6:2-4 and Revelation 4:6-10; 15:4). The prescription for singing the praise of the great majesty of the triune God is cosmic in its scope. Rather than focusing upon myself, what a wonderful focal point to worship God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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Hymns are not dead and out dated. Sure, they can be presented that way, but so can any form of music. I’m not advocating for boring music, but just the opposite. John Wesley gave wonderful instructions for congregational worship. I also want to be clear that I’m not saying choruses should be completely discarded. When people know what they’re singing, and why they are singing, the majesty and glory of Christ’s name prevails over personal preferences in musical stylings.  Hymns have endured a lot longer than Christian boy bands and girl groups from 5 years ago, and it would be a shame to see our generation drop this treasure passed down to us.

[One phenomenal hymn resource is Capitol Hill Baptist Church music ministry, where you can download some great live recordings for FREE. Described as “Some of our favorite hymns, recorded November 23, 2014, at a service of thanksgiving to God for Mark and Connie Dever’s 20 years of service to the Capitol Hill Baptist Church.”]

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