I have been teaching a class on the Great Awakening for some teens from Christian families in our area. This last week, we looked at Charles Wesley. I gave them a list of some of his hymns and asked how many they were familiar with. Even after exploring some of the titles, the most any of them recognized was four. Four! Here are some of the titles from the list:
A Charge to Keep I Have
And Can It Be that I Should Gain
Christ the Lord Is Risen Today
Come, Holy Ghost, Our Hearts Inspire
Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
Depth of Mercy
Hail The Day That Sees Him Rise
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
Jesus, Lover of My Soul
Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
O For a Heart to Praise My God
O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing
Rejoice, the Lord Is King
Most were not familiar with And Can It Be or For A Thousand Tongues To Sing. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I know many churches no longer sing hymns. And yet, I found their ignorance of even the most well-known hymns incredibly depressing. We are losing our Christian heritage. The church I grew up in really never taught about the history of the church, but at least I had the great hymns. Many of the next generation don’t even have that anymore.
I’m not here to knock new choruses and hymns. There are some great new songs worth learning and singing for the rest of our lives. But there is a place for the old hymns too, for at least the following reasons:
1. The hymns connect us to our heritage, reminding us that we are part of something bigger than just today. The church didn’t start in my generation; it has been here for 2000 years, and the hymns help us connect with the wisdom of those who have gone before us.
2. Many hymns have incredible theological depth. In an age of theological shallowness and downright ignorance in the church, we need all the help we can get to teach the doctrines of the faith.
3. Many of the hymns have incredible experiental depth. They are not passionless theological treatises, but passionate responses to who God is, what he has done, and what he has yet to do. Many of the hymn writers had an experiential walk with God that puts ours to shame. We need to be reminded that our lukewarm state is not normal.
4. Over time, the best hymns have been passed on, while most of the chaff has fallen away. Wesley wrote 9000 hymns, yet we only sing a fraction of what he wrote. (I’ve read some of the hymns that rightly didn’t make the cut!) Perhaps there are some jems that over time were overlooked and lost. Undoubtedly there are some inferior songs that have somehow been passed on. But overall the old hymns in our hymnals today are the best of the best. Undoubtedly there are some new songs that will likewise stand the test of time and be sung down through the ages, but many will fall away like chaff.
5. We need to sing the same songs year after year so that we might memorize them. As we learn them, they can over time form us. Even more they can encourage us in times of trouble. And should our memories start to go in old age, those hymns we learned as children and sang all of our lives have incredible staying power. I distinctly remember my grandpa advanced with Alzheimer’s disease unable to remember much of anything but yet able to sing many of the old hymns from memory. And many have told me of similar experiences in older folks that they have known. What about the next generation that never sang a song more than two months before the moving on to the next great hit?
With all of the above in mind, I want to do my part to encourage the continued use of the old hymns. That means, among other things, that I am starting a new feature on this blog. I want to regularly feature a great hymn of the faith. Each feature will include the words, a link to the music, some commentary, and when possible some history behind the hymn. Stay tuned!