Sep 10, 2012

Hymns and the Anti-Genre

Last Sunday at Hillcrest I decided to use all hymns for the music portion of our worship service, at the suggestion of an elderly lady in our congregation.  I was happy to oblige, not just because it was a great idea, but because I was thrilled that somebody actually had an idea/suggestion/input regarding their worship service.  (In over a year of doing this, this is the first time anybody has suggested anything.)

In short, it was really good.  The songs were more-or-less traditional arrangements with an acoustic guitar, piano, bass, and a female lead vocalist.  People were singing (which is a pretty big deal here at Hillcrest!), clapping, and smiling.  I had fun playing the music, as well as preparing it during the week.

This whole experience got me thinking, What exactly is a hymn, anyway?  Why is it that we can automatically differentiate a song as being either hymn or not a hymn?  And why does EVERYBODY have an opinion regarding hymns?

According to Wikipedia the definition of the word "hymn" can vary depending on the time period and/or religion one is referring to.  But when I boil it down, I would define a hymn as basically any liturgical music written before the 1960's.  Before this time, what we know as "hymns" was all that existed as far as liturgical music goes.  With the rise of rock 'n roll in the 50's people started writing their own music, and in the case of the Jesus Movement of the 60's, their own liturgical music.

As a gross generalization, people (especially Americans) are afraid of change.  This was the first strike against non-hymns: People simply weren't used to them.  Silly?  Yes.  But this fear still lingers in people alive today who were raised in that time period.

During the 1960's new "praise choruses" were introduced via the Jesus Movement, which borrowed tones and stylistic cues from the supposedly devil-inspired rock 'n roll music.  This was the second strike against non-hymns, albeit a subjective one.

The last strike against non-hymns, however, is a legitimate one: At the time of their inception, the lyrics were largely shallow, offering little more than a feel-good experience of happy praise.

Although they may have been flawed in their infancy, I feel that post-hymn* music has come a long way since the 60's, both in style and lyrical depth.  There's no reason to dismiss all non-hymns as being shallow anymore.  There are definitely specific songs that are worthy of such criticism, but as a generalization it just doesn't apply anymore.

At the same time, many hymns are very appropriate to use today, and in fact would be sorely missed by myself and others if they were disregarded simply because of their difference to modern music.  In fact, most hymns, when you strip them down to their most basic chords and rhythms, are ripe for rearranging and bringing to new life.  (Just because the old lady playing the organ at your Grandma's church doesn't know how to make Just As I Am sound good doesn't mean that the song itself isn't good!)

For worship leaders, there's a lot of music to pick from these days, but there is simply no way to please everybody.  So quit trying.  Choose songs that are appropriate for your congregation and your situation.  If you like the lyrics of a certain hymn, but don't know how to make it sound good, there are plenty of artists out there who will let you copy them--I do it all the time!  Or, if you think a certain song is shallow and lacking lyrical substance, simply don't use it.  But don't say that such-and-such style is all bad, or such-and-such time period is irrelevant.

In short, look for your anti-genre.  Strive for lyrics that are honest and a sound that transcends style, rather than caters to one.

*See what I did there?  I made myself look smart buy putting the prefix "post-" onto something church-related.  Boom roasted.