What's Tony Thinking

The Life Span of a Hymn Ain’t What It Used To Be


Turns out in the world of contemporary Christian music the life span of a hymn, or “worship song,” has gotten pretty short. Used to be 10 to 12 years, now it’s down to 3 or 4, according to an article in the magazine Christianity Today. 

Here’s a bit from the article, which does not actually speak of “hymns” but “worship songs,” which may be telling in itself.

“Worship songs don’t last as long as they used to. The average lifespan of a widely sung worship song is about a third of what it was 30 years ago, according to a study that will be published in the magazineWorship Leader in January.”

This, to some of us in the more traditional church world, is odd. We’re used to hearing and singing stuff that is hundreds, even thousands of years old. Every now and then a new one comes along — as it should —  but the whole body of Christian hymnody is held as a kind of trust to be stewarded. It is a legacy that nurtures faith from generation to generation.

But maybe no longer. In the world of the megachurch, contemporary worship and praise songs, there’s a steady demand for new. Even a great worship song, apparently, wears out quickly.

Back when I was pastoring a church we thought we wanted to give three things to our children: relationships (with other kids and with adults), the stories of the Bible, and the great hymns of the church. We made lists of what we thought of as the Bible stories and hymns no one should be without.

I probably should have prefaced this piece with a “Curmudgeon Alert,” but it seems to me a loss that church music should become so transitory, subject to the culture’s imperative of “the newest,” “the latest” and “most popular.”

In the less liturgical churches, those that did not have a “prayerbook,” the hymnal really was our prayer book. If you look at them most hymns are prayers, some of them of great beauty and theological depth. I’m pretty sure most of us have learned more theology from hymns than from any of the great theologians or their tomes. Over the years these hymns would, through repetition, be written upon our hearts. And, then, as someone put it, “When our hearts break, the words written upon them fall into our broken hearts” to bind and to heal.

In a personal or communal crisis you turn to the great hymns of faith as a foundation and source of strength. It mattered, at least to me, that my ancestors had sung some of the same hymns in their day.

At this time of the year, I particularly want to hear and sing the great hymns of Advent.

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” is the best known of these. But there are others that are unique to the season and which express so exquisitely Advent’s themes. I think of “Watchmen, Tell Us of the Night” to the great Welsh tune ABERYSTWYTH or “Wake, Awake, For Night is Flying” set to the Bach Chorale, WACHET AUF. Another favorite, of mine, which hasn’t made it into some of the recent Protestant hymnals is “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” to the tune PICARDY. So haunting and lovely. I am linking to recordings/ videos of some of these if you wish to hear them. Now-a-days, you really will only hear these in the church.

I suppose that the trend toward “worship songs” (some of which I like) and their shorter life span reflects a move toward worship as more of a production and performance than the work of the people, which is the meaning of the word “liturgy.” Instead of being actors in the drama of worship a congregation is an audience.

If you are one of those stewarding the great hymnody of the church, our sung prayer book, good on you! It’s okay to mix it up, to add new ones, but don’t lose the richness of the past. We need our roots. We need the things that have stood the test of time, perhaps now more than ever.

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