Hymnology

Last night I attended a lecture on contemplative prayer at Asbury Theological Seminary. During the course of the lecture the speaker made some claims about the nature of God. In particular, she was emphasizing that God is invisible. I tend to be a little bit ADHD, so my mind often switches gears when someone makes a claim like this as I search my memory banks for other places I have encountered such claims. It is my systematic way of verifying or raising questions about what someone is saying.

As this natural process happened last night, I was struck by the initial source that my mind naturally searched. That source was the hymns of the church. As she uttered the phrase “God is invisible”, I immediately began to sing in my mind the great Hymn “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise.”

Now I know that this is no exhaustive way to cross-reference someone’s claims with Christian tradition, but I think it shows the importance of hymns in the life of the Church. I have long acknowledged that there is a great deal of theology bound within the songs we sing, but I had not previously recognized just how much I have personally incorporated that theology into my being.

In a time where illiteracy was commonplace, the hymns were a way of communicating the gospel to the masses. They are an oral tradition by which we pass down knowledge from one generation to the next. The music that accompanies this knowledge acts as a memory aid, helping the singer / listener to appropriate it more easily. Even now, as I have just seen in myself, the hymns provide a fertile ground for teaching doctrine.

The current trends of Christianity have transformed the landscape of sacred music. Hymns have been largely replaced in many churches by contemporary praise music. I have no problem with such music. It is very effective for bringing people into worship. But I am concerned about the lack of theological depth found in these songs. With the loss of hymns, congregations have begun to lose touch with theological language and the basics of Christian belief.

I am not a worship leader, and I am not talented enough to become a writer of music, so I don’t know what the solution is. I am concerned with the loss of Christian education within our congregations. It is the new biblical “illiteracy” of of the masses. And we must find a way to reverse its impact on God’s people.

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