Singing Faith: The great texts endure

Why does some sacred music, like “Amazing Grace,” remain popular for generations while other worship songs come and go?

By Ken Camp

singingfaith cover600Musical tastes and worship styles come and go, but some hymns of the church endure for centuries. Worship leaders say hymns that cross denominational lines and span generations are those that people can embrace as a shared experience, both corporately and as individuals.

“Essentially, they are hymns that give us the sense of a shared identity that is sustainable across many eras and cultures,” said John Jackson, minister of music at First Baptist Church in Farmington, Mo., since 1971. “Many times they are passed down from generation to generation within families, churches and denominations through various means as a result of this shared identity.”

Bob Brooks, a veteran church musician and dean of the graduate school of ministry at Dallas Baptist University, said enduring songs of worship “are biblically accurate, theologically sound, musically well-written and singable by the people of God.”

Many people view “Amazing Grace” as the quintessential enduring hymn. Brooks noted it appeared in Olney Hymns in 1779, but it wasn’t paired with the New Britain tune — with which it is known now — until the 1844 edition of The Sacred Harp.

hymn lyricsmerged600Another important case study is the Bible’s Book of Psalms.

“The psalms help us with our understanding of timeless theological concepts and worship experiences,” Brooks said. “But we are freed up, because the original music is not extant, to create music that gives those lyrics wings in the 21st century.”

Brooks said “great texts endure,” adding that classic hymn texts set to newer tunes often find a new and receptive audience. A contemporary setting of “Be Thou My Vision” has become a favorite among students in DBU chapel services, he said.

Terry York, professor of Christian ministry and church music at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary, agreed that “some texts have been rescued by new tunes,” but what matters most is a good marriage of melody and lyrics.

“The wedding of the text and the tune is incredibly important,” York said. “The tune’s job is to deliver the text without distraction or distortion.”

“In a good marriage, the tune does not fight the text but underscores and maybe enhances it,” said York, who has written more than 40 published hymns. “New musical settings must match the mood and the meter of the text — one is not enough.”

Todd Wilson, pastor for worship and music at First Baptist Church in Abilene, Texas, said enduring worship songs have a text that aligns with biblical truth, a melody “that expresses the height and depth of the text” and language that speaks across generations.

“Great truth can be lost in language that can be easily dated or music that is poorly written and not easily sung by a local congregation,” Wilson said.

While the timeless character of some hymns never should be discounted, worship leaders should also recognize the importance of songs that speak meaningfully to a particular time and place, York added.

“It’s OK that some songs don’t endure,” he said. “Some are long-lasting, and there are some that are for the moment, and that’s all right.”

“Songs of worship that endure are both timely and timeless,” York said. “Their timeliness never goes away, and they become timeless. Some are timely, period. There are none that are timeless without first being timely.”

— With reporting by Vicki Brown of Word & Way

Related New Voice feature:

Singing faith: Hymns both praise and teach