Canon of Hymns
Stagnant church, or standing firm in the faith?

A poll in an online newsletter requested reactions to the statement, "A congregation that sings the same cannon of hymns year after year is likely to be stalled in other kinds of ministry as well." Possible responses included agree, disagree, or no opinion. By the time that 44 votes were cast, 34 agreed--more than 75%!

Whether it was intended or not, the survey question contains an unspoken assumption. The use of common hymns "year after year" is treated as a church having stalled in its ministry of hymns, as opposed to "other kinds of ministry." I don't view the use of traditional hymns that way, and the popularity of internet web sites with traditional hymns tells me that I am not alone.

Music has gone through dramatic changes throughout the Christian era. David's Psalms were well known in Jesus' time. The Lord even quoted them as He cried out from the cross. Yet, we still find inspiration in those words. Psalm 42:1 says, "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God." The recent use of that Psalm and other scriptures by Martin J. Nystrom in his worship hymn As the Deer is beautiful and calming. Does using the Psalms reflect a stalling of the church? I don't think so. It reflects the timeless relevance of the inspired Word.

In 1707, Isaac Watts' hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross first appeared in Hymns and Spiritual Songs. A popular contemporary Christian song performed by Michael W. Smith is crafted mostly from the words penned by Watts. Has the church stalled, or has it found a kernel of timeless truth?

Amazing Grace, one of the Christian church's most loved hymns, was written by John Newton in the second half of the 18th century. The theme is as precious and as fresh as ever, and once again is being incorporated into contemporary songs, complete with the tune most frequently used in traditional worship services.

Polls, of course, are necessarily limited in their treatment of issues. For hymns that are loved and sung year after year, polls cannot adjust to the breadth of tradition and experience that has brought the church into the 21st century. Singing the old hymns today brings back memories of singing with parents, grandparents, and other friends and loved ones. They are memories that we cherish, and they are memories that we hope will be shared for many, many generations to come.

Does the use of a canon of hymns reflect a stalled church? No. It reflects a steadfast church. One that is standing firm in the faith. The suggestion that singing a common canon reflects a stalled church denies the value of tradition. Indeed, removing a traditional canon of hymns strips from the community of faith an important bond that has held it together from generation to generation, and can continue to provide that bond for future generations as well.

This is not to say that old hymns are the only resource for worship music. Singing new hymns is important, too. The Psalms were new 3,000 years ago. The Gospel was new 2,000 years ago. Gregorian chant was new 1,000 years ago. Watts and Wesley were new in their day, too. No doubt, some of the hymns and sacred songs written today will stand the test of time, too. But I would submit that it is not the age of the hymns that makes a church stall in its ministries. A church will thrive when it humbly obeys God's calling. A church will falter and die when it turns away.

Enjoy the hymns, old and new. Sing them well and pass them on, day after day, year after year, and generation after generation.

Be glad. Be blessed. Be Christian.

God bless you--