Yesterday at church we sang two hymns in a modern arrangement and it got me thinking: How much of this do my fellow worshippers really understand? I’ve been in enough mixed Bible studies to know there’s a significant population, especially among the younger crowd, who find the NIV and the HCSB to be too advanced (they’re about a 7th or 8th grade level).
The Bible makes it clear the words we speak (and by extension, sing) should be intelligible. Paul says he’d rather speak 5 clear words than 10,000 words in an unknown language (1 Cor. 14:19). Many people in my generation complain about older hymns because they are difficult to understand. I’ll grant them that. I prefer a music service with modern arrangements and newer songs because of that principle of intelligibility. Yet I also recognize the great value of some of the older hymns. We shouldn’t just cast them off because people (specifically the younger generations) can’t understand them. I’m convinced that the reason most people (high school age and up) don’t understand older hymns is because they are lazy, not incapable.
That’s so important I’ll say it again:
I’m convinced that the reason most people (high school age and up) don’t understand older hymns is because they are lazy, not incapable.
I have to give a caveat. I’m not saying we should prefer older hymns or always include them in our services. If faced with the choice of singing Jesus Messiah or A Mighty Fortress, I’m probably going with the first one. Yet we need to recognize the value and richness of hymns like A Mighty Fortress and Nothing but the Blood. Casting them off completely because you can’t understand them is pure laziness. Here’s why:
Many of the same people who don’t understand hymns don’t understand other modern-day songs either. Consider David Crowder Band’s SMS [Shine], one of the best examples of a modern psalm that I’ve ever heard. I wrote a whole article about the meaning in the song. The song is not written in archaic language and a lot of people from the younger crowd actually enjoy the music. Yet the words can be confusing, the meaning missed.
My generation and those coming up after it value instantaneous information. We expect the answer to be only a few clicks away. Understanding songs like [SMS] Shine or Come Thou Fount requires more effort than a few clicks and keystrokes because they are not just music, they are poetry.
When we sing songs, we’re not just singing, but praising God. Paul said, “What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (1 Cor. 14:15, ESV).
Whether we’re singing modern songs or ancient hymns, our minds should be engaged. We should be thinking about the words, even if that requires us to stop singing and contemplate what is coming out of our mouth. The singing part of the service should never be a mindless activity, but one that involves both the spirit and the mind.