A case for more hymns
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Three days a week Westmont holds chapel, a service that always includes a time of musical worship. While chapel band provides a wonderful space within which to worship God with our voices, we do not sing very many hymns. The lack of frequency with which we sing hymns is unfortunate, as hymns possess a deep richness both in their history and in their content that can help us to worship in new ways.
Hymns can connect us with the history of the church. Singing hymns enters us into a shared tradition with all those who have sung those hymns before us. Ben Patterson likes to begin each new year of chapel by making the point that while we see many congregations of Christians around us, there is only one Church. Yet, while BP’s words ring true, it can often be difficult to to remind ourselves of the body of believers who are not in Murchison gym at 10:30 in the morning. Hymns remind us to look beyond our current spatial and temporal locations.
In chapel we often sing a version of Charles Wesley’s hymn “And Can it Be That I Should Gain” in chapel and every time we do, I am reminded that churches have been singing that song for over 250 years, and that we, by singing it, also enter into that worship. Other hymns possess distinct histories and can connect us to specific times in the past. A little over a month ago, we sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn that reminds us of the past and continuing efforts to establish racial equality. We could do with singing more songs like these.
Yet hymns do not merely point to things outside of themselves; the best-written ones are beautifully crafted poems full of biblical allusions and declarations of God’s truth. If you look in the back of most hymnals you will see a page listing all the biblical allusions contained within the hymns. The length of the list is staggering. Part of the beauty of hymns comes from the fact that once you have sung a hymn, you can also simply sit down and read the words and find spiritual nourishment.
Of course, much of what has been pointed out about hymns will not be immediately obvious. If people know nothing about the history of a hymn, they will find it exceedingly difficult to connect with that history. Yet that precisely is why we ought to sing hymns regularly. A deep joy exists in learning and getting to know a hymn: the words, the music, and the history.
None of this is to suggest that we ought to cease playing any and all contemporary songs in chapel. To do so would ignore the way such songs allow many students to enter into worship. Yet chapel would be enriched by the introduction of more hymns for all the reasons stated above, but also because, for some students, hymns will touch them in ways that more contemporary songs cannot. Furthermore, even for those students who will always find that they enter into worship best when singing contemporary songs, experiencing other modes of worship can enrich their worship.
The singing of hymns enriches our musical worship, bringing us together with Christians throughout the past and pointing us towards the Scriptures. Chapel would enhance students’ lives by introducing Westmont to more hymns. As a great hymn puts it, “since love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”