Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us. Martin Luther
So, as we close this 34-session blog series on the Great Hymns of the Faith, what can be written that we’ve not already spoken about concerning these thirty musical masterpieces of the Christian faith?
To be totally honest with you, my dear reader, when I first felt the urge to undertake this writing project, I thought I was pretty well versed in the great hymns of the Church. I’ve been in and out of Protestant churches my entire life (64 years at the time of this writing). I’ve sung most of these great hymns of the faith as a young man growing up in the Presbyterian Church, and I’ve even done a lot of reading about many of them and the amazing stories behind each one. But quite honestly, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional and spiritual roller-coaster ride I experienced as I spent the good portion of six months delving deeper into the life of each of these thirty classics. So, as I close this blog series, let me share a few personal thoughts with you. Thoughts I want to take with me as I move on in my continual journey with Jesus.
First and foremost, I’m thankful for the rich musical heritage we, as followers of Christ in the twenty-first century, have been given by past generations of men and women who cared so deeply enough about their faith that they responded to the strong unction to sing about it. As a trained musician, I’m fully aware of the amazing power of a well-written song, and as we said at the beginning of this series, I’ve found through my own personal experience as a pastor for 30+ years, that there have been times too numerous to mention when I knew the people I was preaching to would remember the song we sang earlier in the worship service long after they forgot the words I was speaking.
Great music leaves a powerful impression in people’s lives. And it’s this fact alone that helps me understand why nine generations of American Christianity have insisted that these specific hymns keep being published year after year every time a hymnal is updated. As Robert Coote rightly entitled his article (from which we found 27 of the 30 hymns we used here in this blog series)… these are The Hymns That Keep on Going: The 27 Worship Songs That Have Made The Hymnal Cut Time And Again.
So what keeps a hymn like these alive? Why have these particular hymns endured while countless others fall to the wayside? Some may say it’s simply tradition, but I beg to differ. As I’ve now spent a good deal of time pondering over these 30 great hymns, re-reading the stories behind them, and praying over their content; I’m convinced of the following five factors that breath life into each one of them.
Factor One: The words of each hymn are biblically sound and are full of God-presence. I encourage you, if you have time, to go back and re-read aloud the lyrics of each hymn. The words are strong words. Sound from beginning to end. They speak words of truth. No fluff. No waste. No nonsense. Most of the lyrics are based in Scriptural truths, speaking of eternal beliefs held dear by the whole Church (Protestant, Catholic, Western or Eastern, etc.) for countless generations; yet the words also flow in a language that has been easy for the common man or woman to embrace.
Factor Two: The music of each hymn blends perfectly with the lyrics, making each song both singable and memorable. Melodies can penetrate deep into the human heart. Many of the tunes that have eventually become associated with the lyrics of these great hymns can touch a soul even without the use of words! Yet when the powerful text is combined with the beautiful music, we are left with melodies that are very singable by the common, untrained voice, yet memorable enough to remain in our hearts forever.
Factor Three: The origin of each hymn has an amazing God-story behind it. Just as we believe the Holy Scriptures to be ordained by the hand of God, it’s obvious that the birth of each these thirty hymns each contain a certain amount of God-activity that simply can’t be explained away. Some songs were written during times of revival and renewal. Others were composed during times of great turmoil or hardship as the composer sensed God breaking in during those difficult times. In other words, these hymns seem to be birthed in the right time and for the right purpose, and while not comparable in weight to the Word of God, they still have the amazing fingerprints of God’s handiwork within each of them.
Factor Four: The singing of each hymn brings faith, hope, and love to the individual singer. Each of these hymns was not written for a professional orchestra to play at a concert, or for trained vocalists to perform on a stage. These songs were written by and for the common people of the Church to sing and enjoy. And yes, while these hymns sound absolutely amazing when performed by a massive pipe organ and a 500-member orchestra and choir in magnificent cathedrals and decorative orchestra halls, the presence of God can be equally felt when a small group of Jesus-followers gather around a piano or stand up in a wooden pew, lifting their voices in praise of God.
Factor Five: The corporate singing of each hymn builds oneness of faith and community. Just as the early Reformers learned, there is power in the individual priesthood of each believer, but even more power when the gathered Body of Christ comes together to sing our corporate praises to God. Thus, these hymns have been successful as personal favorites to individuals over the last 150 years, but more importantly, they’ve been used to bring the often-scattered Body of Christ together to sing with One voice to our One Lord, celebrating our One Faith, and One Baptism (Ephesians 4:5).
So there you have it. Thirty magnificent hymns that should endure until the return of Christ. Some are so good; I’m thinking we’ll be singing them even over on the other side!
But here’s the rub.
My generation of baby-boomers has pretty much set the stage where most of these hymns are no longer being used in church settings. I’m guessing that anyone reading this blog under the age of 30 won’t be familiar with very many of these thirty hymns we covered. To me, that’s sad. But, on the other hand, I’m not one of those traditionalists who say we in the church should only be singing from hymnals that contain these amazing hymns. No. I say, let’s find a place where it’s both/and. Let’s find creative ways for reviving some of these ancient hymns, but maybe in settings and in ways that help them become truly meaningful to a 21st century people.
I’ll leave the way we decide how to do that to a younger generation, who hopefully will be much like the young Isaac Watts, who once complained to his father, “The singing of God’s praise is the part of worship nighest heaven, and its performance among us is the worst on earth.” And then that same young Isaac Watts went off and spent the rest of his life writing over eight hundred hymns that eventually changed the course of Christianity for generations to come!
My prayer: Father God in Heaven, when we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun; we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun. For Your name’s sake. Amen.
My questions to ponder: What role might I play in keeping these ancient hymns alive for future generations, and in what ways might I contribute to a new song unto the Lord, one that might encourage others to enter freely into God’s presence, standing in worship of Jesus, our Savior, through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit?
So what is God speaking to you today as we ponder together 30 Great Hymns of Faith?
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