It seems that every church I visit, every ministry I experience, and every camp/retreat I have attended over the past 10 years has almost exclusively used praise choruses or praise songs during their worship service. Hymns, both old and new, have all but disappeared in vast swaths across the evangelical landscape. Sure you can find churches that still sing them. Heck, even my church still sings them. But, in my personal experience it seems that there is not only an indifference to hymns, but an ignorance toward their significance that is far too common. Generations past may have had their own battle of types of music in church, but the hymn has always survived. The question is, will it (or should it) survive this generation?
The first question that we must answer if we are going to take action is: “Should it even matter if hymns are sung?”
In the 80s and 90s, it was trendy to bash hymns and associate them with a section of the church that didn’t understand youth culture and balked at any changes the up-and-comers in the church tried to make. Most church commentators called this friction the “worship wars”. Although some churches are still fighting over musical styles, the war is pretty much over. The big, influential churches are almost uniformly pro-praise music and anti-hymns. Smaller churches and church plants have been following suit ever since. Nowadays, most young people who grow up in church will not grow up regularly singing hymns. The repercussions of that fact are just now being felt. The result is that young Christians will not understand what a hymn is, why it is important that we sing them, and what is the consequence if we don’t. But, to answer my first question in short: It should matter because singing hymns is commanded by God. (more on this later)
The second question we need to answer is: What is the chief cause of the decline in hymn-singing in churches today?
There are lots of theories I have heard over the years, some of which I have personally experienced. Although I don’t think there is one single smoking gun, I do think there are some easily observable reasons why there is a decline of hymn-singing in churches:
1. Hymns are seen as being out-of-date with modern culture. Charles Finney was the first to implement choirs as a staple part of a revival services. A community choir was a spectacle to see back then, so Finney used it as a way of attracting people who normally did not attend church. During the days of D.L. Moody and his famous sawdust tent revivals, the songs that were sung were done in a way that was palatable to the average attendee. Moody hired Ira Sankey to lead the music and to make it attractive to the non-churched crowd. And in the 20th century, even Billy Graham had Cliff Barrows lead the music in his revivals. Each generation struggles with how much the church should tailor our music to attract the un-churched. I believe, however, that the more recent attempt to change to mostly praise choruses is NOT evangelistic in nature. I believe it is simply the way Christians are trying to update to match the kind of music they hear on a near-daily basis.
Alongside of the notion that hymns are out-of-date is that there are seemingly no new hymns being written. Although that is not entirely true, it is an issue. But, this is a case of “self-fulfilling prophecy”. A songwriter COULD write a hymn if they so choose, but they more often write a praise song instead and then complain how hymns are out-of-date. The dated verbage of many hymns is a contributing factor as well. It is understandable why a young Christian would not want to sing a song with words that have fallen out of use over a century ago.
2. Hymns are too musically complex for the average church-goer. I’m going out on a limb saying this, but I believe that the majority of Americans for centuries have had music as an intergral part of their education. Not only did churches teach people music, but so did schools. As schools began to tighten budgets by cutting music programs and as philosophy of music education in most schools changed (or vanished) the thought that the average student should know how to read or at least appreciate complex music began to fade. It stayed strong within the church for a bit longer, but even that began to fade. So, the demand for simpler music was not coming from an evangelistic point of view, but one of instructional necessity. It became tougher for the average congregant to pick up on musical cues and other things like four-part harmony. Praise songs simplified all of that.
3. The move to post-modernism lead to more of an emotion-based musical movement (as opposed to theology-based). Post-modernism emphasizes individual response and de-emphasizes the importance of propositional truths. Since most praise songs leave LOTS of room to believe whatever you want theologically, it became the favorite type of song to sing in most young churches.
4. Although this has been hinted at already, it should be noted once more that the worship wars was more about the formation of the youth culture in the 1960s than anything else. The more that traditionalists and fundamentalists bucked against any new trend that young people would embrace, the larger the wedge was driven in-between the two generations. The friction obviously stretched across every facet of church life. However, none are more immediately felt and more ultra-sensative to most people than church music. Unfortunately for the traditionalists, the youth culture of The Beatles generation has won by simply out-living their parents’ generation.
As you can see, the worship wars were broad in scope and impacted the church in ways that could not be controlled. Going back to that first question: “Should it even matter if hymns are sung?” Yes, because as I said before, God’s word commands it. The consequences to not teaching them and singing them will not only lead to a warped and unbalanced worship experience, but will also spread (indeed, they already have spread) to other parts of the church. So, let us take a trip back to the Bible and rediscover why hymns were sung by the prophets, apostles, and by Jesus himself. Let us rediscover why it is vital that we sing them, too.