Hymns and Choruses

Most choruses, by their very nature, are brief and therefore have little, if any, serious content.  Some in fact are quite banal.  Repetition of banality does not improve it!  However, there are a few short verses or choruses that are beautiful, meaningful and devotional.  On one occasion when the late Dr. D. M. Lloyd-Jones was preaching for us I used two or three worship choruses.  After the service I asked him if he minded us using them.  “Not at all,” he replied, “they helped me.”

 

Hymns or songs of worship are not necessarily bad because they are short, nor are they good because they are long.  I was present at a meeting when a well-known evangelical uttered a tirade against what he called “four-liners”.  I was tempted to point him to Psalm 117, an inspired four-liner.  At the end of the meeting, the chairman, with a twinkle in his eye, said, “We haven’t time to sing now, not even a four-liner!”

A generalization is often expressed, that old hymns are good but new hymns are, on the whole, bad.  There is a measure of truth in that, but we need to understand why that appears to be the case.  The fact is that loads of rubbishy hymns were written in the past, especially in the Victorian era.  But in the process of time they have (thankfully) dropped out of use and are now forgotten except by hymnologists.  But that leads to another statement, namely that hymns are not necessarily good because they are old, neither are they necessarily bad because they are new.  The bad hymns and songs written today will also, hopefully, fall into disuse and so be forgotten, while the good hymns will endure.

What, then, are the criteria for choosing good hymns, songs, or even choruses?

First, a word about the music.  The tunes must be singable.  Some tunes are so complicated, that it takes ages for the congregation to learn them, and at the end they are more of a performance than an act of worship.  Incidentally, in some modern hymn books familiar tunes have been so ‘arranged’ that the four-part harmony has disappeared, and the tune now shows off the arranger’s skill and the organist’s versatility rather than the harmony, as at first written.  The loss of four-part harmony in congregational singing is to be deplored.  Human voices singing in harmony even without instruments, can be very beautiful.

In addition to being singable the tunes must be suitable for worship.  Some are so jazzy and others so mournful that they overwhelm the words. Some modern tunes are rather monotonous, based on just two or three chords. However, the tune is not the primary thing. Be very careful of people selecting a hymn because they like the tune!  If the music is too dominant and the words become secondary that is a disaster.  Tunes must also fit the mood of the words.  Turning from the sacred to the secular for a moment, you would not sing a love song to the tune Men of Harlech nor would soldiers sing a battle song to Brahms Lullaby!

But whether hymns, choruses or songs of worship are used, the words are the vital thing.  The words must be sound, scriptural, grammatical and good poetically in order to honour the Lord.  Many hymns have unsound doctrines or thoughts expressed in them.  Preachers should scrutinize their choice of hymns very carefully to ensure that the people are not singing error or even doubtful sentiments.  This is where a good hymn book can be an enormous advantage. Many Christians absorb their doctrine partly from hymns by a kind of osmosis.  So hymns, according to Colossians 3:16, should be also didactic.  Therefore they should cover a full range of doctrine, and not just focus on self-centred enjoyment.

Some excellent hymns have words or phrases in them which are not easily understood today.  Rather than re-write the hymn and introduce lower quality poetry (which usually happens when people tinker with a poet’s work) it is better to explain the difficult word or phrase before singing the hymn, even for the sake of children present.  The hymn then becomes a teaching opportunity.  For example, it only takes a moment or two to explain that ‘Ebenezer’ means ‘stone of help’ in Robert Robinson’s fine hymn, Come Thou Fount of every blessing, and to relate it to the story in First Samuel.

Personally I do not mind if some choruses or modern songs are accompanied by guitars.  But I have heard great hymns with stately tunes massacred by being forced into a sort of Rock rhythm.  Horrible!  Let the words be sound and elevating, let the music suit the words, and let the accompaniment (if there is any) be suitable to the words and music.

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