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Let's Not Lose Our Old Hymns

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About a year into our marriage, my wife Katrina told me she might be pregnant. There were no home tests in those days and it took awhile to get definitive answers from the doctor. He suggested we come back for the results in a few days. For reasons I don't remember, Katrina didn't accompany me on the return trip to the doctor's office; I went to hear the news by myself. Yes, the nurse said, we were expecting.

Though excited by the prospects, I drove home in a state of nerves. I didn't have a job, nor health insurance. I had no idea how to support my family. Absently I switched on the car radio and heard the words of an old hymn wafting through the speakers: "Be not dismayed whate'er betide, God will take care of you!"

Civilla Martin wrote that hymn at the beginning of the twentieth century (as well as the words to "His Eye is on the Sparrow"). She died before I was born; but her song lived on to calm my spirits that springtime day in 1977. Decades have passed, but I vividly recall the assurance I gained from the words of that hymn.

Do you have a similar experience? When we're gripped by nervous tension, nothing soothes our souls like one of our beloved hymns. Since writing Then Sings My Soul, a three-volume set of stories behind our favorite hymns, I've received stacks of letters from people who love the hymns and don't want to lose them. They agree with me: Nothing can replace the heritage of our hymns, for there's a part of our spirits that only responds to God's truth in musical form. A good hymn combines prayer with praise, keen theology with vivid imagery, and majesty of God with our daily needs. That's something we can't afford to misplace.

Don't get me wrong. I love contemporary Christian music, and we sing it at the church I pastor. It's important to keep our songs fresh and living, for if there's ever a generation of Christians that doesn't write its own music, Christianity is dead. Every generation needs to compose its own praise. But the popularity of today's Praise and Worship music is threatening to do something that hasn't happened in all of Christian history -- sweep away the heritage of hymnody that represents a treasure trove of praise for the church. There's never been a generation of Christians that sang only its own music while discarding all the songs of prior epochs. This isn't the time to begin the trend.

I believe heaven will ring with songs from all the ages, so why shouldn't we practice now? If worship unites the entire family of God -- past, present and future -- isn't it appropriate to intertwine the ancient with the modern? When I sing the "Doxology," I'm joining an exercise of praise known to my grandparents and great grandparents. When I sing the newest upbeat chorus from a praise-and-worship band, I'm joining voices with my grandkids. Our appreciation for the hymns doesn't preclude us from embracing next-generation praise. But the freshness of today's praise flows from a history stretching back to the first recorded hymn in the Bible, in Exodus 15.

Interwoven or blended worship is the standard operating procedure of church history. When the New Testament Christians developed the songs we see in the pages of New Testament, I don't think they stopped singing the psalms of David. When Ambrose created new music for his generation, they didn't discard hymns from the first and second centuries. When Isaac Watts wrote his newfangled hymns in the early 1700s, the congregations still sang from the psalter too. When Fanny Crosby gave us "Blessed Assurance," the church didn't discard "A Mighty Fortress" or "All Hail the Power." When I was growing up, we sang John W. Peterson's new songs alongside "Holy, Holy, Holy." We added the new to the old and enjoyed both together.

Younger worshippers need the legacy of the great hymns; and older worshippers need the exuberance of fresh praise. That's the long and short of it. Disregarding two thousand years of hymnody is irresponsible and, if not corrected, irreversible. The old hymns are fading away like World War II veterans, passing from the scene a few each day. But if we lose the legacy of our past, we'll have no foundation for the future.

The good news is that great hymns can be rediscovered, revived, and woven into the mixture of the musical formulas used every Sunday by millions of Christians in thousands of churches. We can tell the stories behind the hymns, as I've tried to do in my books. The history of hymnody is an enthralling study, acquainting us with thousands of years of rich legacies, brave heroes, and astounding stories of the faith being passed down by Spirit-filled witnesses from one era to the next. The history of the church is encoded in her hymns, and the story of Christianity is enfolded in its songs. If you know the hymns of the ages, you'll know the history of the church. If we lose the hymns, we'll lose a priceless legacy; and we'll be the first generation of Christians to do so.

Jesus said in Matthew 13:52 that wise stewards bring out of their storehouses treasures both old and new. The loss of either the old or the new is greater than we can bear. Worship wars are a useless exercise. The same Bible that gives us 3000-year-old Psalms also tells us to sing a new song unto the Lord. So let's sing these new songs with all our hearts.

But let's not forget the old ones.