Savi Hensman

Worship, song and its impact on Christian imagination

By Savi Hensman
June 17, 2013

In many churches today, hymns have been largely or wholly replaced by worship songs. Some of these are of high quality and accessible to a wider range of worshippers. However, perhaps there should be more discussion of how this trend may influence the ways in which Christians relate to the Bible and understand themselves, God and the world.

Church music and styles of worship

Like many (but not all) Christians, I find music of many kinds can make a huge difference to worship, moving me in ways that words alone might not. While Quaker assemblies in Europe do not generally involve singing, in most denominations it is a feature of at least some gatherings.

I am used to services in which praise songs play an important part but more time is spent in singing hymns. I also sometimes worship in churches where such songs are not sung, while elsewhere the shift away from ‘traditional’ hymn-singing has been complete.

There is not a rigid division between ‘hymns’ and ‘worship songs’. However, in today’s Britain, hymns may be old or new and usually consist of several verses (often rhyming) and sometimes a chorus. They tend to be sung in unison (though a choir may sing some hymns in parts), often accompanied by an organ, piano or other instrument(s). Common hymn-tunes may be used for different sets of words.

Praise and worship songs generally have modern lyrics and tunes – though, like hymns, some are based on psalms. Such songs tend to have fewer words, which are often expressions of personal devotion to God or quotes or paraphrases from the Bible, which may be repeated. They may be sung unaccompanied or with musical instruments, for instance drums and electric guitars, sometimes with lead singers.

Some people – often those who prefer formal liturgical worship – tend to dismiss worship songs as repetitive and simplistic, while others – often those who like more ‘charismatic’ forms of worship – tend to regard hymns as dull and old-fashioned. This may to some extent be a matter of taste and upbringing.

Theology can be involved too, with worship songs sometimes associated with evangelical, Pentecostal or charismatic worship, though chants recalling ancient monastic traditions may also be classified in this way. Hymns however can reflect a wide range of theological beliefs; and, as with worship songs, they can be expressed with varying degrees of skill.

Both worship songs and hymns may portray God in damagingly misleading ways. However a variety of images and approaches can be useful in reminding worshippers that the Divine who is infinite cannot be neatly summed up, which can get in the way of a deeper relationship and indeed result in idolatry, where a concept is worshipped rather than the living God.

Balance with regard to the Christian life is also important. For instance the occasional hymn or song about the individual journey of faith may be uplifting but constantly singing about “I” and “me” with no sense of “us” and “we” is too individualistic. Likewise focusing wholly either on joyful praise or grim reminders of the suffering in the world can lead to imbalance.

Singing, the Bible and imagination

There are people who join in worship songs wholeheartedly while generally finding hymn-tunes less engaging or the words harder to follow, especially if these require a high level of literacy or familiarity with seldom-used terms. Some may also find words like “thee” off-putting, though modern hymns would anyway avoid such language.

In addition songs and chants may sometimes help to create a meditative mood or one of awe, gratitude or love, which may move worshippers towards greater spiritual openness.

However I think that the greater potential for complexity in hymns means that those who never sing them may miss out on something valuable.

In particular, they may help to counteract the tendency to view Christian faith as agreement that a particular set of historical facts and statements about the nature of reality (based on the Bible and church teaching) are accurate and carrying out any accompanying instructions. While many non-Christians hold this mistaken view, this is in part due to the way in which the nature of belief is sometimes communicated.

Words, and the quest for truth, can be extremely important, but cannot replace our personal and communal relationship with God, based on love and trust, and hence with our fellow-humans and indeed other living beings.

The Bible is not like a set of blueprints or computer manual. Instead, through sharing others’ experiences of the Divine and their attempts to put this into words, it can invite us to greater awareness and openness, like the first disciples to set aside lesser priorities and follow Christ into the unknown.

Here, the imagination can be vital. Many congregations are aware of this in relation to children’s activities but are weaker on this when it comes to adults. So while in Sunday school younger members may be drawing pictures of or acting out Bible stories, maybe imagining themselves in the lion’s den with Daniel or in the crowd surrounding Jesus, the grown-ups are being lectured about what they should think and do.

The best preaching is very different – but sadly some churches encourage preachers to be formulaic or indulge in rhetoric that closes off areas of thought and feeling that could valuably be explored. Here music and singing can play an important part.

Hymns may enable us to enter imaginatively into a world different from, yet connecting with, our present reality. In a sense we may inhabit, not just read or hear, the Bible and hence be better able to grow in, and live out, our faith. We may also be prompted to be more attentive to our outward surroundings and inner longings, as well as to our calling.

Love and grace, then and now

Hymns can bring a sense of immediacy and participation in the drama of salvation, in which sin and death are vanquished and humankind restored through God’s love. To quote “Love’s redeeming work is done”:

Soar we now where Christ has led,
following our exalted Head;
made like him, like him we rise,
ours the cross, the grave, the skies.

The author, Charles Wesley, does not quote a set of verses from a particular book of the Bible (as in some songs). Here and in many other hymns, the extent of his knowledge of and immersion in Scripture is displayed, as well as his talent for vivid imagery. For instance:

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal

is a reminder of the resurrection stories in the Gospels, while the question:

where, O death, is now thy sting?

is from 1 Corinthians 15, in the New Testament. Though he wrote in the eighteenth century, Wesley’s hymns remain very popular among English-speakers.

Likewise the plea for Christian – and human – unity in Christopher Wordsworth’s “Father of all, from land and sea”, draws on a variety of biblical images and the doctrine of the Trinity as well as people’s yearning for unity and fellowship:

Join high and low, join young and old
In love that never waxes cold;
Under one Shepherd, in one fold,
Make us all one.

Even a short, apparently simple hymn such as Christina Rosetti’s “Love came down at Christmas”, with just three verses, may reflect complex truths, linking the infancy narratives in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels with teachings on love in the epistles, particularly 1 John.

Admittedly there are hymns in which some may find the quick succession of images excessive. I tend to get lost during “Disposer supreme”.

Hymns, like some songs and poems, can also have layers of meaning that may become apparent as we grow older or hear them in different contexts.

This breadth and depth can also be found in modern hymns such as “I, the Lord of sea and sky” by Dan Schutte. It alludes to biblical passages on God’s compassion in the light of the suffering and need in today’s world, while the chorus echoes Isaiah 6.8: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’”

Church music and Christian formation

Singing in church can be a source of joy for many, but far more too: it helps to shape both individual Christians and a “Church on a pilgrimage, called to embrace transformation”, to quote Delores Dufner’s hymn “Maker of Galaxies”.

So attention to the words that are sung as well as the tunes and quality of musicianship is important. There is indeed a treasury of fine hymns (old and new) and songs from which to choose to which modern hymnwriters and translators are adding.

In worship in settings in which hymns have been entirely replaced by songs or where music is not used at all, there can be other ways of encouraging use of not only reason but also imagination. This may foster greater openness to the Holy Spirit.

Meanwhile, in many churches, hymns – if carefully chosen and well-led or accompanied musically – will continue to nurture worshippers’ understanding and love of God and neighbour.

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(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice, welfare, religion and spirituality. She was written extensively on the theological and religious issues involved in debates about sexuality and other 'hot topics'. She works in the care and equalities sector and is an Ekklesia associate.

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