Ten reasons we need those great hymns

The great hymns of Christian history expand the mind, illuminate the understanding, and excite the soul.

Bill O'Connor was a Church of the Nazarene pastor for many years and now is the executive director of the La Grande-Union County Chamber of Commerce, Newberg, Oregon.

In recent years worship and praise choruses seem to be replacing old hymns. The idea isn't all bad. Many worship services need greater spontaneity, depth of emotion, and congregational involvement. Praise and worship choruses help to meet this need. But should this entirely displace the singing of traditional hymns? I think not. Here are 10 rea sons to keep singing hymns even as we sing contemporary songs.

1. The great hymns keep us in touch with our Christian heritage. "A Mighty Fortress" takes us back to the Reformation and allows us to hear the words of Martin Luther. "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" exposes us to the music of Beethoven and lets us revel in the melodic mastery of one of the great composers of church history. The hymns of Charles Wesley immerse us in the spirit of the Wesley an revival. Depending on our denominational heritage, the hymns we sing remind us of our founders, our history, and our doctrinal distinctives. Without the great hymns we would lose touch with our past.

2. The great hymns expose us to some of the greatest music ever written. "How Great Thou Art" comes from a Swedish folk melody. "Be Still, My Soul" is Jean Sibelius' "Finlandia." Our hymns set before us music from the centuries. Some go back as many as 800 or more years, while others date from the turn of the century, and still others (in the newest hymnals) come from the present decade. With all their advantages, many choruses lack that rich, broad musical variety and heritage.

3. The great hymns expose us to superb poetry, with the most beautiful words ever penned. Consider the words of Katharina von Schlegel from "Be Still, My Soul":

"Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.

Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;

Leave to thy God to order and provide.

In every change He faithful will remain.

Be still, my soul: the best thy heav 'nly Friend

Thro' thorny ways leads to a joyful end.


"Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake

To guide the future as He has the past.

Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;

All now mysterious shall be bright at last.

Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know

His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.


"Be still, my soul: the hour is hast'ning on

When we shall be forever with the Lord,

When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,

Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.

Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,

All safe and blessed we shall meet at last."

4. The great hymns give our worship a sense of majesty and beauty. The great cathedrals were built to convey a sense of the greatness and majesty of God. Their vaulted ceilings were designed to direct our attention upward. Often their acoustics gave one the feeling of being part of a heavenly choir. Many of the early hymns were written to complement the sublime sense inspired by those cathedrals.

Though we seldom build cathedrals anymore, and though our worship has become more personal and intimate, there is still a place for being deeply moved by our Creator's majesty. Though some choruses achieve this goal admirably most notably Jack Hayford's "Majesty" the hymns usually do it better. Who can ever forget, having sung it even once, the sense of God's greatness evoked by such hymns as "How Great Thou Art," or the deep appreciation summoned by "Great Is Thy Faithfulness"?

5. The great hymns embed Christian truths in our minds and hearts. Some say they can't memorize; as a result they seldom attempt to commit God's Word in their hearts. Without our even realizing it, the hymns do that com mitting for us. Christians who couldn't quote 10 verses of Scripture could easily sing dozens of hymns that are based on or directly drawn out of Scripture. There are any number of Christian concepts tucked away in our minds ready to be pulled out when we need them, and they were put there by the repeated singing of the great hymns. Thanks to our hymns we know that God is faithful, that He provides a firm foundation for our lives, that we should "Take Time to Be Holy," and that God's love will not let us go. Our hymns teach new truth every time we sing them.

6. Singing great hymns is one of the most effective ways the church has of teaching Christian doctrine. Systematic theology is often communicated in a dull, dry way. If you announce that you're going to preach a series of sermons on the attributes of God, most people will yawn and quietly slip into a silent ho-hum mode. If you conceive and build a well-implemented thematic service around each of the attributes of God and let the great hymns do the teaching, people will learn about God without knowing they're being exposed to systematic theology. Just think of the theology that would be taught by a course of hymns such as these:

"God the Omnipotent!"

"Holy God, We Praise Thy Name"

"O Love That Will Not Let Me Go"

"O Splendor of God's Glory Bright"

"Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise"

Who could sing such hymns without gaining a deeper appreciation and understanding of our heavenly Father?

7. The great hymns contribute to the depth of our Christian experience. Choruses tend to appeal to the emotional side of the worshiper. The hymns excite our emotions as well as our minds; as a result, even our emotional response is deeper. You can't reach much deeper into eternal truth than when you understand the God found in Walter C. Smith's "Immortal, Invisible."

"Immortal, invisible, God only wise,

In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,

Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,

Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise


"Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,

Nor wanting, nor wasting, Thou rulest in

Thy justice like mountains high soaring above

Thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.


"Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,

Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;

All laud we would render: O help us to see

'Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee."


8. The great hymns help us to lift our hearts to God. No thinking Christian could sing the hymn just quoted and not be moved toward the Lord. Such hymns take us out of ourselves, out of our problems, out of the pressures of the present moment, and into the throne room of God's majesty. There, along with Isaiah the prophet, we cry out, "My eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty" (Isa. 6:5, NIV).

9. The great hymns exalt and magnify the Lord Jesus Christ. The hymn-writers had an experience with Christ that had to be explained, an encounter with Him that had to be shared. They put the very heart of their experience and encounter into their hymns. Many of Charles Wesley's hymns once had several more verses than we sing today. Some of the stanzas were so personal to the writer himself that they can hardly be sung by anyone else. Listen to the intensely personal nature of the first and last stanzas of Wesley's "And Can It Be?"

"And can it be that I should gain

An int'rest in the Savior's blood!

Died He for me, who caused His pain?

For me, who Him to death pursued?

Amazing love! How can it be

That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?


"Long my imprisoned spirit lay

Fast bound in sin and nature's night;

Thine eyes diffused a quick'ning ray,

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off, my heart was free;

I rose, went forth and followed Thee."


There is another verse to that hymn that is even more personal and more exalting of the Lord and His saving work.

"No condemnation now I dread;

Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!

Alive in Him, my living Head,

And clothed in righteousness divine,

Bold I approach th' eternal throne,

And claim the crown, through Christ my own."

10. The great hymns do more than other resources to help us actually worship God. If you have entered into the poetry of the verse quoted in this article, you have worshiped as you've read. The power of the great hymns is such that you can't be exposed to them with an open heart without worship taking place. The hymns, carefully planned and scheduled in worship, pave the way for great preaching, giving the message a better chance of making a lasting impact. Without the hymns where would some of us poor preachers be?

We need the choruses of worship and praise. They excite the emotions, lift our spirits, and help release us to glorify the Lord. We also need the great hymns. They expand the mind, illuminate the understanding, and excite the soul.

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Bill O'Connor was a Church of the Nazarene pastor for many years and now is the executive director of the La Grande-Union County Chamber of Commerce, Newberg, Oregon.

September 1996

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