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The Lord’s Supper Part 1: Hymns

The Lord’s Supper Part 1: Hymns

The hymnbook and singing at the Lord’s Supper has no scriptural support but is an integral part of our meetings. The Lord Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn (likely Psalms 115-118) as they left the upper room. There is no indication in Acts 2 that hymns were part of the activity of the early church.

The gathering in Acts 20 in Troas mentions breaking bread and Paul’s sermon but no hint of singing. The instructions given in 1 Corinthians 11 deals with attitudes but not with specific activities such as should we sing and how many hymns are appropriate.

A comfortable format for those who are older

Having said that, I along with most people over 50, are comfortable with the format, the hymnbook and with the quality of the hymns. Most Assemblies use either the Believer’s Hymnbook, or Hymns of Worship and Remembrance, while a few use The Little Flock. A number of places also add extra songs either in the form of inserts or a separate hymn book with appropriate hymns and songs.

Here are three things that affect the current situation.

  1. For most people musical tastes “are fixed” after 35 and seldom do those over that age expand their appreciation for different types of music.
  2. The education system has changed and there is little emphasis on poetry, or at least what some of us might consider as poetry.
  3. People are less literate and there are more who have English as a second language.

These realities should cause us to give some sober thought to the content of the hymns that are often used. The vocabulary, the grammar, the poetic imagery, and in many cases the tunes prove to be difficult for many younger people, those less literate, and immigrants to grasp.

Archaic words no one knows

A number of months ago we sang #61 (Hymns of Worship and Remembrance), Hark, Ten Thousand Voices Crying. The last verse has in it the word, “thraldom”. On the following Wednesday I asked if anyone knew the meaning of the word and though some had wondered, not one knew the word. The fourth verse has “All the Son’s effulgence beaming…” which would be beyond the comprehension of many.

Here is a sample of words in the Believer’s Hymnbook; homage, indelible, joyful lays, travail, recompense, rife, dark vale, none of which would be commonly known. Newcomers would not easily understand some of the imagery, both poetic and scriptural. A person could imagine sitting through a meeting in a foreign language and not comprehending the words.

Difficult tunes

There are tunes that are difficult to sing and some places struggle with getting them started. The Believer’s Hymnbook and the Little Flock do not have music; in some cases, only people who have heard and learned the tunes can sing them.

Depending on the assembly, some of the tunes that are used may be difficult for newcomers or visitors to grasp. In addition, many of these hymns are at a higher pitch than people comfortably sing today.

Is there a solution?

Your assembly may consist of older believers with few or no recent converts or first generation immigrants and little prospect of growth. There are two choices. One is to continue to do what you are doing as long as someone can start the hymns. The other is to think of the possibility of growth and consider how newcomers and young people would adapt.

The prevailing view in some assemblies is that newcomers and young people should adapt to the status quo without question, including appreciating the hymns and structure. The unstated rule would be that change is not an option and so it is up to others to change their views. These places could continue what they have always done, but at what cost?

Making changes

A number of assemblies have adapted in various ways to meet the needs of newer believers, young people and recent immigrants. Where the singing, tunes, and starting are a problem the piano or organ is used. One place I have been at uses the computer with someone keying in the number from the hymn book.

Some places have added more recent hymns and songs either on a screen, or in another hymn book that they have compiled. There are a number of beautiful worship hymns and songs, newer than seventy years, that are appropriate for the Lord’s Supper.

Conclusion

It is often hard for those in my age group and above to appreciate and embrace the need for change in some areas of assembly life. However, we need to recognize that it is not just a matter of compromise, or merely appealing to people, but of being sensitive to the reality of the situation.

Those of us who have input need to consider what it is like for newcomers to come into our assembly and be able to appreciate the Lord’s Supper. Personally, I like the hymns we have always used, I enjoy poetry, but I also know our world is changing whether I like it or not.

We put an emphasis on intelligent, heartfelt worship and rightfully so. The question is are we giving the next generation the opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the Lord’s Supper as a time of corporate worship?


The Lord’s Supper Series by Gary McBride

Check out all the posts in this series The Lord’s Supper.

Gary McBride

Gary and Gloria were commended into full-time work in 1981 by Grace Bible Chapel in Timmins, ON.  They were first commended to Zambia then went to Northern Ontario and were involved in camp work for 28 years. They now resides in Southern Ontario and Gary serves as itinerant Bible teacher, as well as helping with New Life Prison Ministry (nlpm.com). Gary has authored several book and loves to writes. He has a passion to see young men develop and mature in the Lord.

17 Responses to The Lord’s Supper Part 1: Hymns

  1. Barefoot Hippie Girl

    This was a fantastic post. And it touches on a topic dear to my heart. I’ve both taught and written about this subject-the importance of teaching the hymns. I love the timeline of hymnology. It is fascinating.
    I enjoy the majority of the older hymns. I appreciate and enjoy the new hymns-especially by the Getty. The poetry is amazing, but, as with all poetry, it takes effort to be understood. Education is an answer to this issue. Explain the words, teach the tunes. The Breaking of Bread meeting is not the venue for education. I work with my kids at home teaching the hymns (new and old). We discuss the meaning and then we sing them.
    Old hymns should not be discarded out of laziness. We should not pat ourselves on the back when we are wallowing in stubbornness and ignorance for the sake of tradition. And, as for the new hymns-there are good ones and bad ones. But, every hymn was a new hymn at some point in time. The hymns we love were considered radical and rebellious by their “older’ generation.
    I think you presented some workable solutions. Thanks for the great read!

  2. Heather Gutteridge

    Enjoyed reading this post. There are some beautiful new hymns that would certainly add to the worship service. Trying to learn and and sing them during the Lords supper though can be a little distracting. In fact there are hymns in our hymn book that are rarely sung as no one really knows them . Having an assembly “sing” to learn these hymns is a way to fellowship and learn at the same time!

    • Dan

      A few people have already stated that there are a variety of contemporary songs that we can and should be adding to the Lord’s Supper service, but none have been mentioned specifically. I would like to see a list (perhaps an article could be written) of songs that assemblies are using that are appropriate for the first meeting.
      Conversely, I would also like to see an article written on songs/hymns/choruses that we should probably exclude from our services due to their lack of doctrinal correctness, or scriptural content, although I suppose that could be more controversial than helpful if not handled correctly.

  3. James

    Thanks for your thoughts, Gary.

    On the subject of vocabulary, words mean what they mean. And the more words we can learn, understand, and use, the more ideas we can accurately communicate. “Thraldom” is a good example. While I agree that it is an obscure word, unknown to many perhaps, I can’t think of a more common word that communicates it’s many subtle connotations—slavery, servanthood, rapt loyalty, devotion and selfless love… It’s not that hard to point out that it is the core of the word, “enthralled.”

    So, maybe it would be valuable to talk about our hymns, their vocabularies, their scriptural references. I’ve always found that people (especially young people) will gladly stretch when asked to do so.

    The other day, I used the term, “spiritual exoskeleton” in the context of teaching about pharisees. Of course, it was in context, so if you were paying attention you could easily understand what it meant. But, as I expected, the term caused some people (young adults in particular), to sit up and engage. I would suggest that part of fellowship (which is found in Acts 2) would include discussing things like hymn vocabulary (just as I spend a lot of time teaching a new employee when he comes to my company—not so he can learn his craft, but so he can learn to apply in our context).

    On the subject of new music—we should look for it, write it, and when appropriate, include it. There are some excellent worshipful songs around. Having said that, we are not merely talking about two generations when we talk about hymnology. The oldest hymn in “Hymns of Worship and Remembrance” is about 1,000 years old. To stop using hymns that contain words, phrases, and references that are unfamiliar to us is to cut ourselves off from centuries of brethren and their thoughts of worship, praise, and adoration toward our Lord.

    There are plenty of hymns I would be delighted never to sing or hear again (like any hymn that contains the words, “and now I am happy all the day.”) So, there is room for cutting. Maybe we should accept the reality that we only sing about 100 hymns and go about the process of winnowing down the old and adding in the new (this was actually the process by which “Hymns for the Little Flock” claims to have been compiled). But in this process, we should remember that the young enjoy learning, and actually like being asked to stretch. Reducing the hymnology to the lowest common denominator serves neither the young nor the mature.

    Finally, on the subject of accompaniment, I can go with you pretty far for the sake of fellowship (although my preference is acapella—which, by the way, is very hot on college campuses right now). I don’t mind at all the use of a pitch pipe or equivalent. Other accompaniment would be okay if only used as a “crutch.” But we need to scrupulously avoid the temptations to perform, embellish, or otherwise distract from the serious purpose (the remembrance of the Lord), by bringing attention to the accompanist. And I must ask this: how does the pianist worship, when he/she must be focused on the work of accompaniment?

    All that said, I think it’s a terrific idea to seek the opinions, questions, and suggestions of young people and new believers. This is key to any learning process (everyone has to learn what the assembly is and what each meeting is for). In that process, it’s good to root our teaching in the Word of God, be prepared to adjust, eliminate non-biblical practices, and avoid being pharisees about holding onto mere traditions of men. But the process should seek grow the assembly with 100 generations in mind, not throwing out babies with bathwater to tailor the assembly to the tastes, preferences, maturity, and knowledge level of the newest generation.

    • Sherri Jason

      James, I thought I would address your question: “And I must ask this: how does the pianist worship, when he/she must be focused on the work of accompaniment?”

      I am a pianist who accompanies during the Lord Supper. At the beginning I found it difficult, especially because I felt that if I made mistakes it would be detracting from the worship. I really struggled because I really enjoy singing and I just am not capable of doing both at the same time. However, as the Lord worked on my heart, I realized I was dealing with some pride. I began asking the Lord to take my part in the music as my worship to Him. It is very important to be aware of the tone of the meeting and the lyrics of the song in order to keep a song simple or quiet when it seems appropriate or change the dynamics of verses in order to enhance the song. None of it is to be showy and I am not in any way “leading” worship. It’s just my part that I have to offer. Thankfully, I do not play every week. I alternate with another sister so that I have a chance to sit undistracted and be able to sing sometimes. When I think back to before we had the piano, our assembly struggled so much in trying to sing a cappella. There were times we stopped in the middle of songs because it became too low to sing or we realized nobody really knew the tune. Men would resort to just reading a song instead. The added bonus of the piano now is that we have added songs beyond the Believers Hymn Book to the meeting as well, bringing in some newer meaningful songs.

    • Crawford Paul

      Thanks for the good thoughts James. I think what frustrates young people more than anything is the refusal to even approach the subject and talk about it with the older ones. In a number of cases the older ones see singing as just a time filler before the speaker gets up.

      I believe we need more of a working together attitude about many of these issues. That will not only honor the Lord but it will go a long way to helping our assemblies grow. everyone should be a part of the fellowship, not just a few.

      We’ve had discussions before about the accompaniment so I won’t bore you again just to say I don’t agree. 🙂

      • James

        Wow! That response brought out some activity. Didn’t know I was so controversial. Love to have this discussion in person sometime. Gets tedious in this format, doesn’t it?

        Not sure what you are disagreeing with?

        • That I prefer acapella? That is a statement of my preference; not sure what there is much to disagree with there.

        • That acapella singing is hot on college campuses right now? That’s pretty much irrefutable fact; there are even reality shows about it.

        • That we should to avoid the performance element of accompaniment at the remembrance service? That’s pretty hard to disagree with.

        I think those were the only definitive statements I made. Or were you disagreeing with something you think I believe, rather than something I actually said? (How do you do those smiley face things? This would be a great place for one.)

        • Crawford Paul

          Try this. 🙂

          I agree with all but “Other accompaniment would be okay if only used as a “crutch.” Accompaniment can add a very positive and helpful element beyond being a crutch for bad singers. It can enhance the worship depending on a number of factors.

          The subject of music will always cause controversy because it is so subjective. That is why I believe we need to work together and not divide over it.

  4. Tom

    Gary, this is great.

    I love the old hymns, but I recognize exactly what you are saying, and we really need to get with it.

    The same mentality prevails about other things. I visited an assembly earlier this year that sang happy birthday to anyone who would admit to having one, and passed them each a pencil. The concept is laughably archaic: if we genuinely want to do something useful to improve the communication of children, we had best hand them a burner phone or a thumb drive.

    Or not. The point is, some things we used to do that worked fine for years need to be retired in the interest of being remotely relatable.

    Thanks for raising the issue.

  5. Robert Promm

    “Do this for a calling of Me to mind”. That was the Lord Jesus’ request. If our hymns, prayers and commentary during the Lord’s Supper focus our attention exclusively on Him, we cannot go wrong.

  6. Chuck Gianotti

    Gary, I’m late the conversation, but your comments are well stated and thoughtful. No one can accuse you of being a radical young person – and so it is good to hear some from the older ranks saying these things. Adding my $0.02 worth to the subject of musical styles, I think that using “only” the old style tunes can make young people feel like they are sitting in great-aunt Charlotte’s parlor listening to the old phonographs records. She loves her music and I wouldn’t want to change her, but it is not something that I would want a steady diet of. Same holds true in music for the local church. (I am 65 years old, by the way).
    Thanks for tackling this subject.

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