First, the praise music. Where to begin? First, since I am an English teacher, the lyrics are inane, both in overall theme and vocabulary-wise. Sometimes, the only way to know a praise song is religious is that some of the words are capitalized. Otherwise, it can read like a love letter to the singer’s girlfriend. Common words in praise music: awesome, great, good, holy. God is all of these, but singing them over and over and over again, just seems lazy to me. Again, if praise music functions like a love poem to God, they’re really awful ones. If my boyfriend wrote me a poem that said “I could sing of your love forever” eight times in a row or repeatedly called me ‘good,’ I would buy him a thesaurus and tell him not to come back until he had something better.
Let’s next address the fact that some praise music is barely music. Melodically it’s uninteresting at best and unmusical at worst. If you kind of sing it monotone, it sounds better than if you try to figure out where the melody is going. Of course, if there were music printed along with the lyrics, it might make it easier to follow along, but there never is, which leads me to my next point about praise music.
It’s not just the music itself, but the way it is always presented. It has become increasingly (and frighteningly) the norm for churches to present a worship service that looks like this:
1) If the church builds a new building, it builds a box with little or no identifiers. I went to one for a year in Nevada and tolerated the crap music until it built a new building that had nothing in it to indicate it was a church. No cross, no banners, no baptismal, no altars, absolutely nothing. I’m not asking for a giant bloody, mutilated Christ on the cross, but SOMETHING to differentiate the building from a civic community center.
2) When it is time to worship, all the lights are turned down except the spotlights on the praise band. All you can see is the band, not the congregants. The amps are turned up and all you can hear is the band, not the congregants. The purpose of church is to create a sense of community; not to put on a show that, again if it weren’t for a few capitalized words on the screen, could just as easily be mistaken for a really bad local band in concert. I find it ironic that some who claim to be worshipping the Light of the world, choose to do so in buildings intentionally designed to keep out natural light.
3) Finally, as I mentioned, repetition is de rigueur for praise music. It turns into a chant, which would be fine, if Christianity were an Eastern religion the point of which was to empty the mind. But Christianity is a religion of thought, reason, and apologetics. It’s important to know what you believe and why. Praise music represents the dumbing down of our society and Christianity. It doesn’t require thought on the part of the singer.
But hymns do. Hymns have fantastic, challenging lyrics. Their themes are of basic Christian doctrine and their words engage the singer’s mind. Praise music’s most difficult word is probably ‘awesome,’ which has lost its real meaning to today’s Americans. In its true definition, God really is awesome, but when most Americans sing it, it’s like saying God is gnarly. Hymns, however, have words like diadem, bulwark, and ebenezer (a word only known to non-hymn singers as Scrooge’s Christian name).
My favorite hymn is over five hundred years old and is still meaningful today. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” was written by Martin Luther, and through its verses tells the basic story of good vs. evil in Christian doctrine. But it does it beautifully, both in words and the music that accompanies it. Musically, hymns are so superior to praise music it hardly needs saying. You don’t sing praise music in four parts.
And hymns tend to be sung in churches that have congregants you can hear and see singing. If there are instruments, they don’t drown out everything else. The lights are on and usually the building was designed to let natural light, God’s light, shine in to remind us who and why we worship.
The typical argument for praise choruses is that hymns sound “old” and “stuffy.” In an effort to make church “relevant” to young people, there was a movement in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s to produce worship music that sounded more secular. The problem with this approach is that it completely ignores the point of church. Church is supposed to be a respite, a break, a set apart time. Monday through Saturday we live our lives in the world among people who do not share our belief. We walk with God and struggle to live right. Sunday is our chance to be refreshed, to congregate with other believers, to ensure we are staying on track. Why then should church service be anything like what we experience the other six days of the week? Just because I listen to Metallica on my way to work doesn’t mean I want, or need, Metallica-inspired music in Sunday’s church service. Sunday’s music should challenge me to think theologically not make me feel all warm and fuzzy.
Furthermore, hymns remind us that we are part of a tradition, a family that is bound by shared belief rather than blood or nationality or era. When we sing “Silent Night” we are partaking in worship that was also offered by 19th century Germans. When we sing “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” we share in an unbroken tradition dating back to 18th century England. Many of the songs that my grandmother listened to are foreign to me. Likewise, most of my music is foreign to her. But our shared pool of musical reference is the hymns we sang in church.
Another reason I love hymns is the hymnal. Besides the fact that the music is printed along with the words in hymnals (which makes singing an unknown song much easier), I like to hold the hymnal in my hands, to feel the pages on my fingers. I’m a very sensual person. I’m a very tactile person. The act of touching something as I worship is just as important to me as the sound of the music or the vision of the Cross at the front of the sanctuary. Worship then becomes a more holistic experience.