“I think many of the old hymns, the ones that have endured–and plenty of the newer hymns too, actually–tap into a deeper reality than a lot of the more explicitly emotive stuff. In a strange way, the old gospel hymns affect us more emotionally by not dealing primarily with how we feel.”
The gospel is an old hymn. The gospel is sheet music printed in antiquarian typeface on a yellowed page in a dusty book. It’s the “old, old story” and the “old rugged cross.” It is four verses–and please don’t skip the third verse to expedite the invitation! The gospel is an invitation to a bygone time that feels new again, even in our age of ever-dawning progress and modernity. The gospel gets “dug up” and “trotted out” and sung ironically and apologized for by leaders too clever for their own good. But then it lands in the ears of those led as sweetly familiar, warms their souls like celestial comfort food, and it always gets sung louder than those Jesus-is-my-boyfriend ditties.
At first glance, the gospel of the kingdom is not much to look at. Too many evangelicals tend to take it for granted. It sits in the splintery pew rack of our imagination like some hallowed curiosity. And, when bored with the latest distractions, we happen to take it up again and turn to our favorite number, it’s like coming face to face with an old friend. It’s like we never neglected it. We pick up right where we left off.
I notice this phenomenon every time I hear audiences sing actual hymns during congregational worship time. It’s even noticeable at student ministry events, although you wouldn’t expect it to be so. It is young people, we assume, who find the old hymns most musty. “They only want the new stuff,” the common wisdom says. But I’ve spoken at more than a few student ministry events, and while most Christian teenagers seem engaged enough during worship music of all kinds, I hear the difference when some leader, immersed in the fog and lasers of newness, “dusts off” an oldie. The kids sing.
I notice this in plenty of other venues as well–at church services, men’s retreats, and Bible conferences. Why?
I don’t think it’s just because hymns are familiar. These audiences know the new stuff too. In fact, the new stuff dominates the worship scene for a reason. I think the persistent resonance of hymns does have something to do with the fact that hymns–for church folks, anyway–are historically familiar. These old songs take us back to simpler, more formative times in our life of discipleship, and few things beat nostalgia for warming the heart. But I don’t think it’s simply nostalgia that makes the hymns so affectionately singable.
I think many of the old hymns, the ones that have endured–and plenty of the newer hymns too, actually–tap into a deeper reality than a lot of the more explicitly emotive stuff. In a strange way, the old gospel hymns affect us more emotionally by not dealing primarily with how we feel. There are plenty of emotional exclamations in the old hymns, of course–“How marvelous, how wonderful!,” “Then sings my soul, how great Thou art,” “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” etc.–but these songs don’t make the emotional the primary point. They make the emotional the response to something much sturdier — namely, the gospel.
Most of these old hymns follow the gospel storyline. The first verse usually presents the problem of sin in some way. The second and third verses typically introduce Christ and his cross, the work of the Spirit, or some other proclamation of redemptive narrative of the gospel. And the last verse typically puts the Christian in heaven, focusing on the blessed hope of Christ’s return and our glorification.