“From the spiritual hymns, however, proceeds much of value, much utility and sanctity, for the words purify the mind and the Holy Spirit descends swiftly upon the mind of the singer. For those who sing with understanding invoke the grace of the Spirit.”
Shortly after his conversion, C.S. Lewis refused to go to church on Sundays. Later, he realized that it was the “only way of flying your flag,” but still grumbled a bit, because to his literary mind, Christian hymnody was nothing more than “fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.” As he continued on, he was broken of his conceit. It began to “peel away,” as he came to know ordinary people who would sing the hymns with devotion, people whose boots he wasn’t worthy to clean. It’s funny today to think that hymn-singing could ever be viewed as the activity of ordinary Christians, because the norm has become something of a performance - worship music performed by experts. Surely, something has been lost in this. Something which we should try to recover.
Hymnody as a Cure to Spiritual Pride
Lewis was quite right to say that Christian singing was a cure to his own conceit. In the initial phases of conversion, so much hinges on our objective experience of things. But, if we are to grow in Christian discipleship, we must take on a new vocabulary, one not our own. We must relocate that subjective experience within the living witness of the Church. To do so requires lending our voices to others, both in supporting their voices, but also in singing their words. When we sing the words of John Wesley, or Isaac Watts, or even the Getty’s, we say for a moment, we submit our own understanding to the wisdom of the whole communion of Saints.
We have to consciously work to blend our voices, keeping our own at bay. This requires a degree of humility and attention to the whole body of gathered believers.
Hymnody as Theological Exercise
Some people have mentioned to me through the years that singing hymns takes work - the engagement of the mind, the voice, and the body in worship. Modern worship choruses tend to be rather easy-going. They’re easy to sing. They don’t require much thought. And musically, they’re designed to be led by people with only a basic musical ability. Hymn singing done well, with four-part harmony and strong accompaniment, requires the ability to read music while simultaneously contemplating challenging theological themes. It takes practice!
If you can’t read music, perhaps follow the melody line - make note of the shapes of the notes and their intervals. Most hymn tunes are familiar, and singing hymns is a great way to learn to read music. If you have trouble staying on pitch, practice matching pitch with the radio or a keyboard (even a simple keyboard app will do). Maybe even take some monthly voice lessons! When I was in seminary, every student had to take church music and learn to sight read hymns. The professor of church music took great delight in finding the inner musician in people who thought they couldn’t carry a tune. And they, in turn, took great delight in finding that they could join in the Church’s worship in a way the didn’t think possible. It takes exercise and practice, but it shows us something even greater - that practice, habits, and exercise are the very things that are necessary to the spiritual life, in which we meet God, and in which we come to know His constant love.
Hymnody as a Sign of the Visible Church
It’s a sad fact, but it’s true, that Sunday mornings are just about the only time when ordinary people come together and sing. We know that Jesus sang with His disciples after breaking bread with them on the night before He was crucified. (Matt. 26:30) We know that Paul and Silas sang hymns while in prison and that Paul commended hymn singing to the churches (Ephesians 5:19). Hymns are a sign of a people who are at peace with each other, a people in whom the word of Christ dwells richly, overflowing with thanksgiving and praise. When people of various backgrounds, incomes, and educations sing together, it is an eschatological sign, not only of what will be, but of what God has done now, what has been realized among believers today.