Who Owns a Hymn?
This article was originally published in Worship Leader magazine (March/April 2006). For more great articles like this one, subscribe today.
A few years ago, I was blessed to take a trip to participate in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s annual Church Music Workshop. In addition to meeting a diverse group of highly talented church music leaders, the stunning gem of the week was experiencing the Sacred Gala Concert held in downtown Fort Worth Bass Hall.
I attended the concert with my own long time teacher, Dr. Gordon Borror, who is presently a professor at Southwestern. Gordon and Ronald Allen wrote one of the very few books concerning music and worship, entitled Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel, before the avalanche of thinking about the subject. Along with over 1,700 people, Gordon and I participated in the sacred gala, which blended the unique talents of a gospel harpist with the music mastery of the Fort Worth Symphony and the 225-voice Southwestern Seminary Oratorio Chorus.
The event started on a high note with Isaac Watts’ “Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past.” Watts, the son of a Congregationalist minister and student of theology, was equipped with a thorough knowledge of the text as well as the giftedness of a poet. He not only put the praise of God in the vernacular of his day but also gave us glorious words by which to praise God in our modern world. The text itself is simply a dead letter on the page, but when re-spirited by outstanding gifts of performance and embodied by the heart of a faith audience, such as was assembled that Thursday night at Bass auditorium, our prayer of praise united with Watts and Christians from past generations through the centuries. To paraphrase Watts, God has not only been our help but He is our hope to come. This phrase rings with the ancient shout of maranatha! It is the meta-narrative of faith which radical post-modernist such as Foucault have claimed has ended.
At the time of the conference, some Christians had adopted the “end of the church” radical postmodern message, as well. They forgot, or never understood, the relational nature of Christian community. The body of Christ is a heterogeneous community of charisms—the chief of which is Love. In his day, Watts began by working with his dad’s congregation to the glory of God giving us a language with which to experience and know the Word—Jesus Christ.
Our Song of Praise
It is in this tradition of relationship with community that we see thousands of new songwriters expressing the prayers of their congregations, enriching God’s international house of prayer with a new song. This new song is a creation in community; it is unique to hymnology that we do not think of hymns as if they came from a single artist, like Shakespeare. No, the new song is our song of praise. We own it, no matter who is credited on the printed page or overhead. That, my friends, is a hymn. And it expresses the ongoing narrative of God’s salvation throughout history. It is not demonstrated by our own narcissistic images or self will, but by the selfless love that comes through Jesus Christ, by the work of the Spirit, in a community made up of people that may be quite different from ourselves. By creating devotional art that congregations embrace, songwriters today are creating hymns that are as important as the ones Isaac Watts wrote. Not to immortalize oneself, but in praise of the true Text, Jesus Christ, the Word of God. And if your church benefacts you as the resident worship theologian, one of your responsibilities is to give a musical voice to their prayers. Then with and through you, your community will author and adapt songs that have all the significance of the cherished hymns in history, simply because they are the cries and praises of a people in spirit and truth. Through the ages our collective identity is not Boomer, millennial, post-modern, nor Jew or Gentile, but rather a hymn of praise to Jesus Christ.
Chuck Fromm is the publisher of Worship Leader magazine.