Recently I read this blog about The Glory of Historic Hymns. There didn’t seem to be an opportunity to reply and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong with the article.
And then it hit me. The writer asserts that hymns teach us. He quotes R W Dale saying “Let me write the hymns of the church and I care not who writes the theology.”
We assume this is true, and I’ve even made that claim myself in the past, yet where is the evidence that hymns teach us theology?
Now you might say that traditional hymns are chock-full of good theology, and you would be right, but that’s the answer to a different question.
To take it to the extreme, no doubt Japanese language hymns are full of good theology too, but whether they would teach the person in an English pew is a different matter.
What is taught is not the same as that which is learnt.
Let me give an example from my own Wesleyan tradition. I had a traditional congregation sing the well-known Charles Wesley hymn Give me the Faith, which they had no doubt sung many times before. It contains the verses:
I would Thy precious time redeem,
And longer live for this alone:
to spend, and to be spent, for them
Who have not yet my Saviour known;
Fully on these my mission prove,
And only breathe, to breathe Thy love.
My talents, gifts, and graces, Lord,
Into Thy blessed hands receive;
And let me live to preach Thy word,
And let me to Thy glory live;
My every sacred moment spend
In publishing the sinners’ friend.
They sang heartily. Then I asked them, how many people had “published the sinners’ friend” and talked to somebody about Jesus in the last year? No hands went up. How many people had invited somebody to church in the last year? No hands went up.
This hymn may be teaching an evangelistic theology of Grace, but it was not being learnt. There was a cognitive dissonance between reality and what was being sung.
It’s sometimes patronisingly alleged that modern music sways the heart, but traditional hymns engage the mind. I’m not seeing that engagement.
Or how about a Wesley hymn known much more widely throughout the church? Love Divine, all loves excelling is a hymn which teaches the important doctrine of Christian Perfection. But is that what people are learning from it? Or is it a good sing for a wedding?
I don’t know what proportion of churchgoers agree with the doctrine of Christian Perfection, but I would assert that singing hymns no more makes you a theologian, than singing songs about Steven Gerrard makes you a football pundit.
If it is true that traditional hymns teach us theology, then where is the evidence?
So do people learn less theology from contemporary Christian music?
I don’t know. You would have to survey believers from churches with different worship styles and then compare and contrast.
I am aware that Willow Creek did a survey which showed that their contemporary services were not helping people to grow in their faith as much as they would like, but I haven’t come across a traditional church doing the same research.
I agree that what we sing in church matters. Absolutely it does.
I am aware that some people have a strong personal preference for traditional hymns.
What I don’t see is any evidence that traditional hymns are teaching people theology better than modern worship songs.
Unless you know different?