The Importance of Lyrics for Hymnody

Let me begin this post with two assertions:

  1. The lyrics of church music are important
  2. Picking the music sung in congregational worship is not a task to be taken lightly

I begin with those points because any discussion of church music is likely to be emotionally charged and painstakingly scrutinized, at best. My point here, which may be a disappointment to those looking for a heated argument, is not to rail against any particular style of congregational music and suggest that any one style is better or worse than any other. While I certainly think some styles are better than others for consideration in worship, I am aware of my biases and try to be more concerned with content over style. Perhaps, I’ll open that can of worms on another day…(grin)

As a pastor, I get a kick out of the things people remember from the sermons preached in our church, by the senior pastor or me. Occasionally, someone will directly ask me about one of the points of the sermon…most often if they have a theological bone to pick with something I said. Quite often, folks will remember an illustration, especially if they find it humorous. Most of the time, however, I think hearers walk away from sermons without being able to even summarize the thesis or any main ideas presented.

At first, that was a hard pill for me to swallow…think of the fallenness of these hearers who cannot even recall any of the points of a sermon I labored so many hours to prepare! While I’m certainly not closed to the possibility that I am simply a poor communicator, I find that I am often unable after a couple of days to recount the argument presented in even the best sermons…and yet they sustain my soul. Beyond realizing I was guilty of the same mental lapses, I also realized the quasi-related point that I ordinarily can’t recall most of the best meals my wife has prepared after they fade a day or two into the past…and yet they sustain my body.

What does this have to do with music and the importance of good lyrics? A lot! While I do not think hymnody is a means of grace, like preaching, it certainly is a valuable teaching and catechetical tool. Even though none of us can ordinarily rattle off even one of the main teaching points of most sermons, how many of us can finish at a verse from a hymn (maybe more!) just from hearing someone mention the title or hum a few bars? With that in mind, how important does hymn selection seem now? As a Christian facing hardship, uncertainty, suffering, etc., which lyrics would better serve to strengthen one’s faith in the midst of crisis:

“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing;
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.”

OR

“Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away.
To a home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.
I’ll fly away, O Glory, I’ll fly away.
When I die, Hallelujah, bye and bye, I’ll fly away.”

(Aside: Lest someone accuse me of creating some sort of ridiculous straw man argument to try to prove my point wrongly, these are two songs that have been sung in our congregation within the last quarter.)

Now seriously, is there really any doubt as to which is the more edifying hymn? Is there really any contest as to which is more likely to remind us both the power and grace of our glorious God in whatever situation we find ourselves?  I didn’t think so.

So, having established the importance of sound lyrics in our hymnody, how do we do on to choose our music? Is any song mentioning God or the Lord good enough? I don’t think so…and maybe we’ll take a look at that sometime via the “Gospel According to Bob Marley.”

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