The Enduring Power of Hymns

Much ink has been spilled over the worrying statistical reality that millennials are leaving their parents’ churches, and a lot of them don’t make a return appearance. Mega-church strategists everywhere are no doubt feverishly putting their heads together to figure out how this can still be happening (even after they installed that sick light show and put all their youth pastors in skinny jeans!) Some of these discussions are probably revolving around worship music. Maybe (some of them are still wanly hoping), we can keep tweaking our music formula until it’s so cool our kids will never want to leave, cause they just gotta have their weekly dose of worship band.

Of course, you know and I know that if anything, the mega-church strategists’ fever dreams are part of the problem, not the solution. I propose that this is because with all their bumbling good intentions, they fail to see there’s something fundamentally transient about turning church into a product. They’re hoping to keep kids in church by breathlessly trying to keep up with the latest trends in pop music, culture, etc. But kids don’t need a fad. They need a foundation.

That foundation should take a number of different forms: doctrinal, apologetic, and even musical. One of the most shameful gaps in the foundation for many of our young people is a firm grounding in how to defend their own faith, but that’s a discussion topic for another day. Today, I want to talk about building a musical foundation for our young people. In particular, I want to focus on the enduring power of hymns. 

There are two major qualities that set hymns apart from contemporary worship songs: The lyrics are denser, and the melodies are more tuneful. Strategists tell us this makes the hymn a bad candidate for keeping young people’s attention. So many lyrics! Melodies that move around instead of sticking with just a few simple notes! Young people can’t focus on that. They want something minimal and hooky.

But I’d like to ask these strategists a question: How do you know that your prophecy isn’t self-fulfilling? How do you know that millennials will just inevitably outgrow hymns? Are you sure they’re not losing interest in hymns because everyone is telling them, “Hey young people, since you don’t like hymns anymore…”?

Recently, I sang hymns at an evening service surrounded by a mixed crowd of old and young people. The boy next to me wasn’t more than 14 years old, but when we got to “Because He Lives,” he closed the book because he knew it by heart. (Okay, “Because He Lives” is Gaither, not technically a hymn, but whatever.) When we got to hymns that were more vigorous, he was eagerly motioning for the crowd to get on its feet. We closed with “Amazing Grace,” and he told me he was laughing at himself for still having his book open. Now granted, his father was the music pastor, but it doesn’t appear that he’s suddenly viewing his dad’s favorite music as un-hip now that he’s reached the magic age of 13 or 14. Quite the opposite.

This tells me something important: Parents, if you invest the time in teaching kids to love hymns when they’re young, chances are good they will still love them when they are older. Children are very pliable. They can store vast amounts of information. (That’s why my own music tastes are so wildly eclectic today: Mom and Dad programmed everything from Handel to The Imperials into my little brain when I was just a toddler.) So teach them hymns! Get some classy recordings and play them in the car. Plink or pluck them out on an instrument if you play an instrument. Take them to concerts where the artists incorporate hymns into the set list. Take them to hymn sings at church. Teach them that hymns are fun, and wonderful, and grand.

Why have hymns endured for so long? Why are we still singing “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” or “It is Well With My Soul” centuries after they were written? It’s because they still have something to say, and they say it well. In a day when the English language has been cheapened and splintered into pathetic, bite-sized portions, the power held by a master wielder of language such as Isaac Watts strikes us fresh every time. We may have forgotten how to rhyme two lines together without fudging it, but we still recognize the immense satisfaction of singing through an entire verse of nothing but perfect rhymes.

The tunefulness of hymns like these is no less vital to their enduring appeal. Let me give another example: I know of a woman who struggles with memory loss, but she can immediately pick up and sing along with old hymns. This despite the fact that her own church is relatively contemporary. But clearly, these old songs were planted in her brain when she was much younger, and with a nudge, they can be unlocked once again. Contemporary songs simply don’t have the same effect for her. I think one simple reason for this is that hymn tunes just stick in the memory better. There are some very nice worship songs out there, but melodically, pretty much none of them can hold a candle to the classic hymn format. (That is, unless the writers are actively trying to model their songs after it and have the skill to pull it off, like the Gettys.)

It’s ironic, since today’s monotonic worship menu is being proposed as easier to remember because it has so few notes, but this is a shallow way of thinking about melody and memory. Some of the richest tunes we love are also some of the most memorable ones. To pick another category, look at some of the old Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes. “Do Re Mi” is playing with the entire scale, but all I have to do is say the title and you’ll start humming it. “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” ripples and rises and falls like a corn field in the wind, but your brain remembers it, because your brain wants to remember it.

The sad fact is, even smaller churches are stunting and patronizing their own young people when they move the kids into the youth service room and leave the old people to listen to hymns. By closing them off from the rich tradition of American and British hymnody, they are closing them off from the combined power of great language and great music.

Parents, don’t wait to plant hymns in the fertile garden of your children’s minds while they’re young. And mega-church strategists, please consider this question: What does it profit a church if it drives away its entire senior population and doesn’t even get to keep its teenagers in the bargain?

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6 thoughts on “The Enduring Power of Hymns

  1. Randall E. Murphree

    Most churches have two services, an early service for the young people in which they have guitars, drums, contemporary. Some is understandable and okay, but some of it is like being in a loud night club. Most of the time it is just the people on stage singing and you can’t understand the words being sung. Sometimes I want to take the singers off to the side and make suggestions and say you might want to try to sing that in a lower key where you can reach the high notes. I ask the question why don’t you purchase the music to put up on the wall also? The answer was it cost too much. The 11:00 service or traditional is hymns which has mostly retired people which in 15 years or so will all be gone including the pipe organ. I spoke with another well known organist and musician, Jr. Marsh, who sold organs and pianos for over 60 years and he said most new churches are not built for organs meaning the acoustics. I was a music major and I enjoy all types of MUSIC. Being from Alabama my parents took me to singing schools all the way to Dallas to the Stamps School where I met people like L.D. Huffstutler, Frank and Sally Stamps, Curtis Doss, CC Stafford, O.A. Parris, Arthur Watson, Joe Roper, J.D. Sumner. My parents and these people inspired me to appreciate music. In closing, I can’t leave out my last teacher, James D. Walbert or Jim to me. Singing Schools were fun where you would meet other young people to socialize with.

    Thank God Bill Gaither took his knowledge and pushed Southern Gospel as well as hymns through his television shows and videos or Southern Gospel would already be dead. I hope someone steps up to the platform when he retires and takes his place.

    1. Fans have been speculating for a while about who will replace Bill. I think the answer is no one person can wear all his hats. It will probably be divided among several people. Maybe Lowry will take over MC duties, Phelps the hiring and firing, Gloria the business, etc.

  2. JimT

    Interesting you should mention the Gettys. I agree with everything you have written in this post, but our church sings a lot of Getty’s stuff (of course, I don’t get any music on the wall – just words) and most of it I find no better than the rest of the contemporary junk. The lyrics are especially lame, often not rhyming or with very awkward structure to force a rhyme. I read an article which said he writes the melody first, then tries to find lyrics that fit. It shows. And most of the melodies are pretty forgettable as well. Despite having sung some of them several times I can’t bring a single Getty melody into my head at the moment. At least he tries, though.

    1. Well, I think NO better may be a bit of an exaggeration. I certainly agree with you that it’s easy to tell they’re still contemporary as opposed to actual hymns. The main reason, as you point out, is that the lyrics sometimes fail to rhyme and may contain peculiarly contemporary usage problems. But I still think the lyrics are a huge improvement over simplistic worship material. Yes, perhaps they could be more polished, but they’re still making a serious stab at putting substantial content in there. I do agree that “In Christ Alone” has a pretty weak melody, but I think some of their other melodies are strong. Which other ones does your church use?

      1. Jim Tice

        Actually, as I was writing my comment, I was trying to remember if “In Christ Alone” was one of his. I actually like that song, and consider it an exception to my “contemporary junk” assessment. As far as which other ones our church uses, I really don’t know. I just notice, when a song is being projected on the wall (we don’t do it all the time, just with the newer stuff that isn’t in our hymn books) and is grating me, who the writer is by checking the credits at the bottom. A lot of them are Getty’s. None of them are good enough for me to remember them.

      2. That’s funny! I thought it was a better example of your specific complaints than some of their others. I recommend giving their recorded work a shot on YouTube. In particular, I like “O Church Arise,” “The Power of the Cross,” “Jesus Draw Me” and “When Trials Come.” In fact, googling “Jesus Draw Me” brought up a video where Kristyn sings the last two as a medley.

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