Hymns: Cultural Touchstones

I have to admit if you asked me if I would rather listen to Pillar or the Gaither Vocal Band I would choose Pillar every time. I am not a hymn type guy. I like music that has a little bit of a beat to it, and generally I prefer a song led by a band rather than just a piano and a song leader.

But there is something to be said about “classic” hymns of the church. When people have these conversations they normally talk about the deep doctrine contained in them. That isn’t really much of a reason for me because 1) newer songs have deep doctrine too and 2) just because a song is old doesn’t mean that it can’t have flawed doctrine.

For me what makes singing hymns important in the church has as much to do with the cultural component as it has to do with the message of the song. Classic hymns (for those raised in the church) not only call us to focus on God, but also remind us of the other times when we have sung those songs. It may be a grandmother who just loved “I Love to tell the Story” or a father who loved to sing the low part in a particular song. These songs bring back memories of family and of shared experiences at church. They are reminders of triumph and sadness and life lived in community with other believers.

In a world that is becoming increasingly fragmented, with services like Facebook helping us to stay isolated while feeling connected the church becomes a force for community. It reminds us that we are to live with others, walking with others, crying and laughing with others. Hymns remind us of that community and draw us close together.

I say all of this to tell this story. Last night we were singing lots of classic hymns and we sang “The Old Rugged Cross.” My mother thought it was fun to sing “On a hill far away, stood an old Chevrolet, it’s tires were as flat as could be” There was more of that song, and she would never sing it in church, but it was as song that she taught my sister and me. So when we would sing it in church she would always get this very knowing smile and look down at me and I would smile back and right there in the middle of the church I would feel like I belonged to her and that we had a deeper connection.

So last night when we were singing that song I was transported back to those days of being a little kid worshiping beside my mother. I remembered her smile and the embracing life attitude she had about God, and for a moment in that hymn I was worshiping with her again.

I know that one day there will be old choruses that do the same, (You could argue that “I Love You, Lord” may already be in that category) but right now there is nothing like a classic hymn to remind me of the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before me as I turn my eyes toward God.

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