As someone who has an affection for both modern worship and classical hymns, I’m a sucker for any piece on any blog — or any sermon on any podcast — that addresses the issue. Sometime in the last week I heard or read something that I felt really charted some new territory for me.
Critics of modern worship tend to suggest that the choruses are simplistic and repetitive and dismiss them on that basis. For them, the hymns are better because they are — and this is the phrase that always gets pulled out — “rich in theology.”
Now I do think they have a point. If some choruses are simple it’s because by comparison some hymns are complex. And if some choruses are repetitive it’s because some hymns, particularly ones that have no chorus of their own, add new and different lyrical phrasing with each new verse.
But what does that all mean at the end of the day?
The thing I heard this week that nailed it for me was the idea that many of the older hymns don’t just express a theme, but are developing a theme. (I seem to remember the example was the hymn, “There is a Fountain;” a lyrical analysis proves the fresh direction of each verse.) Those hymns begin with a premise and then exploit that premise, and then move on to some kind of consequence or application of that premise?
It should because it’s not unlike the classic three-point or four-point sermons that were preached in the same time periods as those hymns were written. Today, despite being able to absorb more complexity through visual imagery as the sermon is being spoken, we’ve tended to move toward one-point sermons.
Don’t get me wrong; I think people like Andy Stanley has moved the whole preaching genre forward by reintroducing the idea of having one idea or one thing that you really want to get across. In a world of distraction, you want people to have one take-away that stays with them the following morning. But I think that the same people who criticize modern worship are probably quite willing to jump all over modern preaching with the same charge: Simplistic and repetitive.
Personally, I’d rather have one point that I can still remember the next day than a much more ornate oratory that goes in the one ear and out the other.
But I also think the idea of developing a theme is one we must not lose. It will also improve our writing on the days we only want to make a single point, because it will teach us focus and concision, and also because trying to be a Christ follower in a modern world is equal parts doctrine, narrative illustration or expression of the doctrine, and application.
If you have an old hymnbook in the house, check out the flow from verse to verse. Some hymns are quite different as you progress from verse to verse; even the popular “Joy to the World” only has a single verse that really speaks to the Christmas story. But remember there are modern hymns, too. Check out the lyrics of “In Christ Alone.”