Why Hymns?

(This was my column for our June church newsletter, introducing a summer series on “Our Favorite Hymns.”)

As a lot of you know, I am a folk music geek. I’m not talking about “folk music” in the sense of “acoustic music that was popular in the 1950s and ’60s,” but the actual music of the folks, the common folks who sang and played music both to make daily work a little easier and for entertainment in the days before television and radio.

Some of the folk songs that are out there tell the story of historical events. Many of these are based on actual events, and told stories that nowadays might be on the local TV or radio news. They may have had little importance outside the immediate area where they happened, but the songs spread anyway—which is why I know the story of an unimportant battle that happened in 1411 at a place in Scotland called Harlaw.

There are also cultures around the world that have people whose life work is to learn and tell, mostly in song, their people’s stories. Fred Craddock told the story of Native American author Scott Momaday’s encounter with one of these among his own Kiowa people. Alex Haley sought out a griot in West Africa, who sang the story of Haley’s family before the time of his ancestor who was taken as a slave to America.

The reason for these ballads, and for people like the griots of Africa, is simple.We have a better chance of learning and remembering information if it is set to music. It engages more of our brain that way.

Do you remember how you learned the alphabet? I’d guess a great many of us learned a song. When it was time for my Sunday school class to learn the books of the New Testament, we learned a song. The earliest theology many lifetime churchgoers learned may well be, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” A song! And we continue to learn theology through the songs we sing.

But why hymns? Personally I prefer hymns to a lot of the contemporary worship music. Part of that is that most hymns share a lot of characteristics with folk songs, especially simple melodies and repetition. You can learn the tunes relatively easily, and then focus on the words, so that they soak in. I might feel different if I had been raised in a church that sang contemporary songs. But when I was a kid and the Sunday sermon was too heavy for me to grasp, I would often spend that time thumbing through the hymnal. I read words, and learned hymn tune names and what meter means, and I got hooked. And I probably learned as much about what it means to be a Christian from those hymns—the ones we sang as well as the ones I read when I couldn’t understand Glenn’s sermons—as I did anywhere else. (This means that we absolutely must make sure the hymns we sing are teaching good theology and an appropriate version of the Christian life. As modern hymn writer Brian Wren says, we need to be careful that our songs don’t teach us something we will have to unlearn down the road.)

There’s something else about hymns. In churches where worship is led by a band playing praise songs or other contemporary worship music, congregations sometimes don’t sing. The songs are hard to pick up, a lot of the time, because the tunes aren’t quite as straightforward as they are in folk songs and hymns. The bands are often amplified, so we can’t hear ourselves or our neighbors singing. So, in many cases, we just don’t sing. We stand and listen to the band.

Since hymns are (at least I think they are) much easier to sing, we are more likely to sing them. And right now, in our culture, church is about the only place where groups of people sing together—unless you happen to be at Wrigley Field, where thousands of people join in singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch. Civic groups like the Lions and Kiwanis used to sing together at their meetings, but they don’t do that very much nowadays. I even saw a video of a training convention of Tupperware sales representatives where the whole crowd sang songs that related to Tupperware! (Let’s not discuss the fact that some of them were re-written hymns…) Singing together builds a sense of community. It unites people in a very visceral way—when we sing together, we are breathing together. And in this fragmented world, we need all the community, all the unity, we can get!

So this summer, we are going to focus each Sunday on one of our favorite hymns. I may ask someone to read the hymn so we hear the words apart from the music, to appreciate the poetry. We will always sing the week’s hymn together. We will consider out why we love these hymns, and what they teach us about God, about Jesus Christ, about what it means to be Christian. If you haven’t shared with us what your favorite hymn is (and why, if you’re comfortable), please do so! I hope we reach the end of the season with a greater appreciation for our hymns and what they mean to us.

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