Why We Still Need Hymns
In A Postmodern World:
The Formative Power Of Worship

Rev. Kevin Twit (July 2003)

Introduction: Is There Really A New “Movement” Going On?

Lori’s testimony “Coming from a typical praise chorus-reliant high school youth group I sort of turned my nose up as I was handed a notebook of hymns at my first visit to RUF. I didn’t understand a lot of the poetic and imagery-driven lyrics and the word hymn automatically meant boring music. But as the weeks passed, I found myself falling in love with the old hymns and the idea of putting new (and very beautiful) music to them. The words are so profound and full of truth one can’t help but be broken. Singing hymns has seriously changed my life and freed me from feeling frustrated by surface lyrics that focus on how I feel about God, which is always changing. Hymns have allowed me to center my worship on the Gospel, which in turn compels me to love the God I am prone to hate and wander from.”

What’s going on? See “The Younger Evangelicals” by Robert Webber, “Bobos in Paradise” by David Brooks, and “The New Faithful” by Colleen Carroll. Webber writes, “I find three trends in the worship of the younger evangelical. They are (1) a reaction to entertainment worship, (2) a longing for an experience of God’s presence, and (3) a restoration of liturgical elements of worship.”

“My grandmother saved it, my mother threw it away, and now I’m buying it back”

Roots and wings! “The challenge is to provide roots and wings – to bring young people into a sense of connectedness with the past that doesn’t rob them of their vision of the future.” Gerard Kelly “Retro-future”


I. Worship Is Formative – Lex Orandi Lex Credendi (The law of prayer is the law of belief.)

“And we, who with unveiled faces all gaze upon the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” 2Corinthians 3:18

The expulsive power of a new affection! Worship shapes and molds us! Our hearts are drawn from other “treasures” as our eyes are opened to see Jesus for who He really is. Thomas Chalmers (19th century Scottish Presbyterian) called this the “expulsive power of a new affection.” By that phrase he means that you never really get over one love until a new one comes along. In worship we seek to have Jesus become more beautiful and believable to us. (Bill Lane’s wonderful phrase!) See “Thou Lovely Source Of True Delight” by Anne Steele (18th century), “Thou lovely Source of true delight, Whom I unseen adore. Unveil Thy beauties to my heart, That I might love Thee more!”

Worship restores our sanity! We seek to have God restore our sanity so that we can live in line with the truth of the gospel rather than in accordance with the fantasy world in which we must earn God’s favor and manipulate Him to do whatever we want. Our basic problem as believers is that of idolatry, we too often worship a “god” who is so much less than the God of the Bible. But the gospel heals us of our idolatry by showing us that we already have what we are trying to get from our idols. Whether it be power or security or meaning, we already have it in Jesus. When we see this, and the truth of it connects to our hearts, we are transformed!

The longing for experiencing God. Postmoderns long for experience with God and the hymns are some of the richest expression of Christian experience we have – they are a real doorway into sensing the truth on our hearts rather than just “knowing” it in our heads! See Wesley’s “Arise My Soul Arise” for a great example of crying out to God to sense what we confess. “Arise my soul arise, Shake off thy guilty fears, The bleeding sacrifice, On my behalf appears.” This communion hymn is a pleading with the soul to feel what we see displayed in the sacraments!


II. Hymns Help Us Grow Up!

Hymns teach us the rich theology we really need! If we have a limited view of who God is and what the gospel is, our experience of it will be limited as well. Why does Paul write the longest explanation of the gospel to people who are (literally) world-famous for their faith? (Romans 1:8) Because as Luther said, we leak the gospel and it needs to be beat into our heads over and over again!

Hymns stretch us! Postmoderns despise a watered-down, content-less gospel! “People think if we make it easy on young adults, we’ll draw them in, [but reality] is the very opposite. Youth are looking for a casue, a reason to live. They need something to give their lives to. A Christianity that says, “Go to church on Sunday and be a good person” – that’s no cause! Christianity doesn’t say go to church on Sunday, Jesus said, “He who loses his life will find it.” In other words, “If you don’t love me above all things, you’re not worthy of me.” But few people are given that message.” Rosalind Moss (quoted in “The New Faithful” by Carroll) Don’t be afraid of content in our worship services! Sometimes we might even have to ask someone what a line means. But who says that everything we sing must be instantly accessible? Is there no value to learning songs that take some work? Why is “Henry Lyte’s “Jesus I My Cross have Taken” one of my students favorite hymns? I think it is because it offers us orientation to what the Christian life really is all about and doesn’t sugar-coat things at all!

“Jesus I my cross have taken, all to leave and follow Thee.
Destitute, despised, forsaken, Thou from hence my all shall be
Perish every fond ambition, All I’ve sought or hoped or known.
Yet how rich is my condition! God and heaven are still my own.

“Let the world despise and leave me, They have left my Savior, too.
Human hearts and looks deceive me; Thou art not, like them, untrue.
O while Thou dost smile upon me, God of wisdom, love, and might,
Foes may hate and friends disown me, Show Thy face and all is bright.


III. Hymns Focus Us Where The Focus Needs To Be!

Hymns are mini-meditations on the “paradoxes” of the gospel that drive us to worship. C.H. Spurgeon once said “When I cannot understand anything in the Bible, it seems as though God had set a chair there for me, at which to kneel and worship; and that the mysteries are intended to be an altar of devotion.” I think that is good advice. Hymns are an opportunity to sit in a mystery like “And can it be that Thou my God shouldst die for me?!” until it begins to enter into our heart! Another great example is Augustus Toplady’s “O Love incomprehensible, that made Thee bleed for me. The Judge of all hath suffered death, to set His prisoner free!” The greatest mystery is not why is there evil, but why God would suffer for His enemies?! If we ever lose our amazement at that, then we are in deep weeds!

Many hymns actually are born out of mediation upon scripture – an art we desperately need to relearn! Tim Keller (pastor at Redeemer Church in NYC) says meditation is thinking a truth in [into your heart] and then thinking it out [thinking out the implications of this truth for your life etc.] That is what the hymns help us do as they take their theme and turn it over and let us gaze upon it form all different angles. And they often will suggest (though by no means do they ever exhaust) ways in which this truth should change our lives. In this way they model how to meditate upon scripture and the truths of the gospel. This is not just a happy coincidence, it is born out of the fact that hymns are usually the result of mediation in the first place! A great example of this is “How Sweet The Name Of Jesus Sounds” by John Newton (18th century.) We have the notes from Newton’s sermon the day he introduced this hymn to his congregation and it reveals that his text was “Thy Name is as ointment poured forth” (Song of Solomon 1:3). As he reflected upon that text all week he saw it’s fulfillment in Jesus and the implication for the trials and tribulations of the Christian’s life. When was the last time you got that much out of meditating on Song of Solomon 1:3?

Hymns remind us that we can only approach God through the shed blood of Jesus (1Pet 2:5) It is amazing how little the gospel is celebrated in some modern choruses. The idea that we only approach God as Christians through the blood of Christ is (I hope) assumed but it is too rarely mentioned! And when the cross is mentioned, it is only mentioned, it is never explained or unpacked or gazed upon. The major theme is wanting to see God’s face and His glory, but the cross is the way we see God’s face and it is the fullest expression of His glory! (Luther called this the “theology of the cross” and we need to relearn this theology – especially in Middle Class America!) We need deeper and richer, and longer, looks at the cross and all that it means! As Luther advised, “For every one look you take of your sin, take 10 looks at the cross!” But we rarely look at our sin, perhaps because we don’t look at the cross enough! Because if you really look at your sin without seeing the cross as huge – it will devastate you!

Hymns focus us on God’s promises more than upon ours! We grow by feeding on God’s character revealed and by feasting on His promises. Many modern choruses, with their almost constant emphasis on what we want to do, (“Lord I just want to …”) fail to teach us to rely on God’s love for us as 1John 4:16 says (“We know and rely on God’s love for us”). We need to recall Augustus Toplady’s hymn “Rock of Ages” (originally titled “A living and dying prayer for the holiest believer on earth”): “Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone, thou must save and thou alone!”