Last Sunday, along with several more modern worship songs, we sang “It is Well with my Soul”. We are a contemporary church with a contemporary music program, but I received more positive comments on that song, and, while we are a church that usually sings well, we absolutely raised the roof with that little slow hymn sung with only piano.
There seems to have been a very unnecessary “war” over musical styles for the past 30 years in the evangelical church. “Unnecessary” because God never said the church should only sing modern or only sing ancient songs of faith. I believe a healthy church will utilize songs from all eras of church history including our own. How that balance is struck may vary from church to church, but like the age demographic of a church, if only one era is represented, that church is going to be missing something.
I love a lot of new modern worship music being written today, but I have found three reasons to keep including some of the ancient hymns of the faith…
Ancient Hymns have History. The church has history. That seems like I’m just stating the obvious, but if you asked the average evangelical to give you even a simple timeline of the 2000+ years of church history, it would probably sound something like this: Jesus, Apostles, monks, Billy Graham, Amy Grant, and Hillsong. That may sound a bit exaggerated, but unless your church makes a concerted effort to teach God’s providential work through history to preserve His church and His Word, this won’t be far from the truth.
Hymns not only point to events in the past, but also take us back to a time in our own lives when the truths in that hymn helped us through a trying time or taught us an invaluable lesson about who God is and what He has done.
Ancient Hymns have Theology. For centuries, many Christians would carry with them two books: The Bible and the Hymnal. Not that the hymnal was ever considered inspired, but it acted as a systematic theology as well as a songbook for the whole family. The best way to learn truths is to put them to a good melody and hymns did just that. If I said, “Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say…” you could probably finish the phrase. Have you ever recalled that line of “It is Well” when sorrows like sea billows rolled in your life?
Or can you finish the verse: “When we’ve been there 10,000 years bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise…” The eternality of God and of the life He has given to us going forward is taught in that simple verse. Many modern worship songs also teach rich theology, but just because something is “old” it does not make it useless. When used in conjunction with each other, both modern and ancient hymns can give us a well rounded theology in song that we can carry with us for our whole lives.
Ancient Hymns have Singability. Not all melodies are created equal, and I know it sounds like “survival of the fittest”, but if a melody is not natural or singable, the song will not last. The great thing about a collection of hymns is that the publishers tend to weed out ones no one wants to sing. That leaves us with a collection of tried and true melodies that act like glue to bind the truths to our hearts.
Psalm 96 and 98 both command us to “Sing to the Lord a new song”, and I’m all for creativity in the church. I’m a song writer myself, but let’s not totally abandon what God has used, and still uses to bring Himself glory and build and edify His body simply because of a date at the bottom of a piece of music. Let’s seek to bring God our best, regardless of when in the history of God’s people it was penned.
Bill Itzel has been a worship leader and singer/songwriter for over 30 years and is based in Westminster, MD. His family tours and leads worship around the country. Bill and his family attend Belcroft Bible Church in Bowie, MD. This is a blog about congregational worship and the latest news in the The Itzel's ministry.