Christianity Today once published a survey of the most popular hymns appearing in the 28 mainline Protestant hymnals from the late 1800s through the 20th century. This study of 4,905 hymns produced some interesting results:
The table presents the 13 hymns that have appeared in all 28 hymnals, as well as 9 others that appear in 27 of the 28 hymnals, and 5 more that appear in 26 of the 28 hymnals. The average date of the top tier of hymns is 1788 (excluding “O Sacred Head”). Still, wide acceptance of these and other hymns did not come until the middle of the 19th century, after a prolonged contest with the once-predominant practice of singing the Psalms.
When I read the list I was happy to find that all my years of church-going had taught me something, and I could bring to mind all but one of these hymns. Good to know I’ve at least caught up to the 19th century.
I enjoy hymnals and the interesting bits of church history they reveal. Most denominations will produce a new hymnal about once a generation with a lot of old favorites and a few newfangled ones to try out and see if they’ll make the cut. Some songs will stay and some will go, but every hymnal will say something about the time in which it was produced and the denomination that put it together. That’s why so many of us have hymns we remember singing when we were young that we just don’t sing anymore. And that’s why it can be a good thing to go back to older books and sing through some of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ hymns. It can give us a feel for their experience of faith and worship.
And speaking of history, I learned the other day that “Modern Worship” (a.k.a. Contemporary Worship Music, or CWM–part of the larger category Contemporary Christian Music) turned 10 in 2008. Given that children now dress up for “90s day” at school, I’m thinking that Modern Worship barely qualifies as modern anymore. At this point it’s practically traditional, with people complaining that CWM has become too predictable, emotionally monotonal, and lacking in creativity.
Meanwhile some folks, notably the late Robert Webber, have advocated for ancient-future worship which views worship as a retelling and reenactment of God’s story. Ancient-future worship is liturgical and often makes use of shorter songs based on biblical passages. Depending on how you think about it, that could represent a return to the counter-cultural Jesus Movement songs, or it could be taking us back to that place in history where the Church was singing the Psalter. I guess that means the next movement to follow will look like the the days when Isaac Watts came in to shake things up by writing…hymns.
The moral of this story for me is that worship and worship music are a bit like a pair of shoes. They’re a little uncomfortable when you first put them on, then you break them in and they fit perfectly–until you’ve worn them so long that they don’t really do their job anymore. One day you look at them and they seem old-fashioned and they don’t feel good. It’s time to try something new. Some styles are classics (think pumps and penny loafers), and others are failed experiments or just fun while they last. But you shouldn’t be surprised to one day find you need a new pair.
Finally, here’s a bit of fun to remind us to keep our perspective, and laugh at ourselves when we need to. Because as long as we keep gathering together, the Church will continue to explore what it means to worship God in spirit and in truth. There’s a lot of new music to be written, a lot of practicing to do, until we join the heavenly choir and find the songs we were created to sing.