The argument goes like this: The hymns are outdated. Nobody talks like that any more, nobody knows what these archaic words refer to, nobody sings melodies like that any more; therefore, the solution is to ditch the hymns and sing only contemporary songs.

But I don’t think the reason hymns fell out of favor is because they became old. I think it’s because our preaching got new.

The great hymn writers could tell the gospel story with gospel words in very solid ways. But preaching over time became moralistic stories with pop psychology words in wispy ways. We stopped giving the hymns context. We would sing “Oh how marvelous, Oh how wonderful is my Savior’s love for me!” but our preacher had long stopped marveling and wondering about the cross, so the song didn’t make emotional sense. And then it stopped resonating with us on a Spiritual level.

All good hymns declare the gospel and assume gospel context. I suspect the main reason hymns don’t resonate with people much any more is because we don’t preach the gospel.

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23 thoughts on “Good Preaching Gives Good Songs Context”

  1. Jason says:

    Honestly, with me, the reason hymns stopped resonating was because I was repeatedly told growing up that you could sing them with piano and organ but if you used anything else it was a sin and mocking God. Really turned me negative toward the hymns because of the condemnation of the "spiritual elites" that was attached to it.Not saying that's right but just providing a different view as to why hymns weren't high on my hit parade for a long time.

  2. Jared says:

    I think many hymns are in fact resonate with people to this day. The issue isn't usually the words of a song but the (as one pastor friend of mine refers to it) "ba-dum-chuck" style in which they are played. There's no emotional attachment because there's nothing emotional about the music itself. Take "I Stand Amazed" for instance. Played straight out of the hymnal in basic format renders a bland, almost marching music that seems completely detached from the words of the song. Take the same lyrics and meter but give it a more flowing feel and you'll never sing "How marvelous, how wonderful and my song will ever be!" the same way again.

  3. An Amplified Voice says:

    I have to admit, the hymns are at least theologically and doctrinally sound. Some of the new songs (besides Shai Linne) are just one inch deep, repetitive-emotion builders. So, I have to agree, match an Old Hymn with Charles Spurgeon and its like drawing a moth to flame!

  4. Jared says:

    Note: The above commenter Jared is not me, the Jared whose blog this is.I know there are a variety of ways the hymns fell out of favor, and I'm fully aware of the worship wars and the legalism they entail. I like modern songs too, most of them anyway.And I also know many churches still sing the hymns. Mine is one.But the "tradition" I grew up in ditched the hymns in large part because they were considered old and unintelligible to modern people, especially nonChristians. As I look back, I don't think it's the songs that got old but that we started preaching things that were foreign to the contexts of the songs. When we began to be fed pop psychology, singing timeless truths seemed less resonant.

  5. Jared says:

    Forgot to add I'm not THE Jared, just another Jared. :D

  6. Jared says:

    Amplified Voice, yes. I have noticed my appreciation (and exhilaration) in singing the hymns came to me for the first time after the gospel renaissance that occurred in my life. I can feel them now.

  7. Joseph Louthan says:

    My quest in life is to do two things when it comes to corporate worship:1. Find hymns that have been put to modern instruments (Mars Hill's excellent Rain City Hymnals Vol 1 comes to mind)2. Critically evaluate every single worship song that has ever been written (yes, I include the works of preacher-emcees) and matched that against three things: Is the gospel preached, is it theological sound, does it teach the doctrine of the Bible.

  8. Daniel says:

    "Sing a new song …"At one point those old hymns were new. Don't ditch the old just because it's old but keeping adding new songs to your congregational singing.I don't see why this is such a fight.I agree with the point of your post. Knowing what we are singing and why make s huge difference.

  9. Jared says:

    Daniel, I'm not trying to revive or instigate the fight. As I said, I like most modern songs too. Our church sings them too.I'm just trying to offer a theory as to the motive beneath the motive of those who have ditched the hymns.But I'm definitely in favor of singing old and new songs.

  10. Matt Lane says:

    Jared I think you are on to something. Hymns used to be old, stale and very dry to me. But now after almost a couple of years at a church that celebrates the Gospel week after week,the old (and new)stuff moves my heart like never before.The problem with bad preaching is that people only know what they know and too many don't know much. Bottom line, when you pair up bad preaching with fluffy music, all you get is anemic, malnourished "Christians" who sing. Been there, done that.

  11. Jeff says:

    I think that when you talk about "old hymns", you need a bit more nuance. During the mid-19th century, revivalism and romanticism began to exert major influence on worship music. The year 1850 is a bit of an arbitrary dividing line, but I have noticed that most hymns written before 1850 are better both theologically and musically than those written after 1850 (with some exceptions in both directions). While the gospel can still be found in many post-1850 hymns (or "gospel songs"), these post-1850 songs lack much of the theological richness and precision found in the pre-1850 hymns, and the focus seems to shift from the work of Christ to the experience of getting saved. Also, the tunes of the post-1850 hymns have just not held up very well, and many of these tunes don't even sound good with different instruments.

  12. Matt says:

    Thanks for the post Jared! I think your theory is valid, but I also think after singing hymns to the same melody time and time again the words can lose their luster. As someone who grew up singing hymns in the church it wasn't until I heard the Indelible Grace renditions of some older hymns that I really began to see the power behind the words. The force of the language was masked for me by an all too familiar melody. I appreciate your point though about the hymns falling out of favor because the emphasis of the gospel was lost in our pulpits.

  13. Rachael Starke says:

    As a member of a worship team who strives to invite the congregation to preach the gospel to itself through music each week, this post really hit home.But with respect to those who might want to go down the hymns vs. "praise songs" trail one more time, this post seems to be more a healthy indictment against lifeless, law-saturated, earthbound preaching. That's a message the whole church needs more of, especially given that many "hymns/piano only" churches suffer from that problem, as much as your typical evangellyfish church.

  14. Jared says:

    Rachel, yes. I hope everyone will notice this is not a "hymns are better" post. (I personally like the lyrics of hymns set to more modern instrumentation, but that's *me*.)And for those who think I am saying that *all* hymns are gospel-centered, please notice that my 2nd to last sentence in the post says "all *good* hymns." That was intentional for the very reason that there are some terrible hymns out there.

  15. Roberta says:

    My cousin belongs to a church which does not preach the gospel but good works. The only joy for me when attending this church is the liturgy and the hymns!

  16. robert austell says:

    I would go one further and say good preaching and intentional integration with the worship music gives good hymns and contemporary songs context. Far too many churches (regardless) of style have no real connection between the word being read and proclaimed and the music being sung. I have found that music that builds on the proclamation not only enhances the music and the message, but also gets people's attention off of stylistic preferences.

  17. worship.com says:

    When all is said and done, one key reason is that the style is not what is popular today. And today, if it isn't cool, it isn't going to make it in most churches. And that's unfortunate, given how much more of a story–the gospel story–a hymn can tell than the structure of a typical pop style song can.

  18. Brett L says:

    Thanks for this. Great thought.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Hymns are beautiful and inspiring. But, a lot of the new songs are beautiful and inspiring. As a worship leader I have found that many Christians sing the hymns by ROTE. The words mean nothing to them. I have told our choir many times that we can sing "Amazing Grace" and put them to sleep or have them on their feet. It is up to the individual Christian to worship with a lamp lit for Him. Don't hide it. Just sing the song, hymn or new praise song, TO HIM with a grateful heart.

  20. David says:

    Amen and amen

  21. Debbie says:

    For me, the hymns are not the issue. The issue is bad preaching. If you notice, when the preaching goes south so does the music.Pure preaching produces pure worship. It sounds simple but for me, that's it in a nutshell.

  22. Anonymous says:

    I think that there are many reasons one could point to as to why hymns fell out. One reason I think they fell from grace is because the music is lame! i for one like the lyrics but could absolutely do without the music. set it to a new beat and i'd be down! To point to one and highlight just one reasons seems narrow.

  23. Wenatchee the Hatchet says:

    I would tend to agree that solid preaching can contextualize and strengthen weak music. I was at Mars Hill for ten years and let me affirm that from where I stood many of the bands were medicore to terrible but the preaching made the music better.THat said I do understand if many newer songs don't make it for long because they are not easily sung. having sung in college choirs and sung some great but difficult music church musicians of every stripe can mistake musical quality for liturgically suitable music. There is an extra-musical value to making music to the lowest technical and theoretical common denominator. It seems unglamorous to us because we don't realize how much our whole harmonic and melodic vocabulary is indebted to jazz and blues these days but many of the old hymns sound dry because harmonic thought has changed. What makes a piece of music seem bone-head and dull makes it easier to sing and the right kind of simplicity never gets old. People can still easily sing "Amazing Grace", for instance. Of course if we dumped the isometric "A Mighty Fortress" from the Baroque period and tried getting people to sing the original Luther penned the congregations in our time would trainwreck through it. The oldest and best hymns have melodies and harmonies that will survive rhythmic and harmonic tinkering.

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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