Bring the Past to the Present
Many individuals over the years have asked me what makes a good hymn — of course, both music and text. Melodies that last use a lot of stepwise movement, combined with the occasional leap of four or five notes. There is no better melody than “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” which opens with a drop of four notes and then runs back up the scale of that interval and then back down again — very easy to hear and very easy to sing. Not all melodies are created equal, and if a melody is weak and sentimental, we’ll enjoy it for awhile, but it won’t stick around.
But hymns that last also require good text that is multi-layered. I sang hymns like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “The Church’s One Foundation” for many years without realizing their scriptural basis. But once I began to study that scriptural underpinning, every phrase began to take on extra meaning because it echoed with the scriptural context of the phrase.
In addition, though, good hymns resonate with human experience. And so we might sing a hymn for years and have it in our memories, but when we hit certain difficult times, all of a sudden some phrase comes back to us from the hymn and gives it a new depth. Example: “The Church’s One Foundation” talks about “mystic sweet communion with whose rest is won.” That was just a nice sounding phrase until some of my family members died. Ever since those deaths, I can’t sing that hymn without tearing up. Likewise, there are several phrases in Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” that communicate his confidence in God’s sovereignty. These come back to me whenever I face serious difficulties. “And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.”
Frankly, there are a lot of traditional hymns as well as a lot of contemporary worship songs that can’t give you that kind of spiritual reinforcement when you need it.
Contemporary worship bands and pipe organs have the same challenge: how to avoid a performance orientation and instead facilitate congregational singing. This must be the constant focus of church musicians, no matter what instrumentation is being used. It’s all about supporting the congregation’s worship.
But I will say that contemporary worship bands lend themselves to hymns (songs) that have just a few simple phrases. Such music has their place. In my own music ministry, including Pinnacle, I have used music from the Taize community in France and the Iona Community from Scotland (John Bell) – simple, short, repetitive aids to meditation. I have also used African American spirituals that have minimal text, where there is just one minor change per verse. Lord, I Want to Be a Christian” and “Were You There When They Crucificed My Lord” are examples of such songs where after the first phrase of each verse, you know what to expect for the rest of the verse and can sing without a lot of complex thought.
But the gospel is rich and complex too, and songs with finely wrought texts often just do not work well with worship bands. I’d hate to lose the centuries of fine poetry we have in some of our hymnals. Because the biblical story is so rich and complex, we need to maintain a worship tradition that matches that richness.