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.
- For most people musical tastes “are fixed” after 35 and seldom do those over that age expand their appreciation for different types of music.
- The education system has changed and there is little emphasis on poetry, or at least what some of us might consider as poetry.
- 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.
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?
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.
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.