Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Last Hymn Sing?

Here's the other experience from the weekend that left me pondering the passage of time and the previous generations: the choir concert/hymn sing that I participated in Sunday afternoon.

The premise of the concert was to present different styles of hymns in chronological order. Our director is a renowned choral conductor and professor at the University of Houston and he did a wonderful job of selecting hymns from medieval chants through modern hymns. We did old English hymns, gospel hymns, spirituals, ethnic hymns, you-name-it. And the concert was interactive--the congregation sang most of them with us.

As I looked out over the audience from the choir loft I saw mostly grey and white hair. Many were quite elderly, leaning on walkers or being assisted to their seats. But they sang out with great feeling and you could see the joy on their faces when they did. I'm sure many of them, like me, had fond memories of singing these hymns in other churches, with loved ones since departed for the church triumphant, a long time ago.

A feature of the concert was a section where we all sang together hymns selected by vote of the church congregation. Surprisingly, the most requested hymn was the Navy Hymn--Eternal Father Strong to Save. Were there a lot of former navy men in the congregation or did a couple of them stuff the ballot box? I don't know, but it certainly brought back memories of my father and uncles--especially my Uncle Wendell because we sang this hymn at his memorial service a few short years ago.

Here's what made me sad: the realization that in 20 years or so a concert/hymn sing like this will probably not fill the sanctuary again. Many in my own generation and certainly in the generations that follow me in the church do not identify and love these hymns because they don't sing them. So the fond memories I have that make them more meaningful to me would not be there for them.

As this concert demonstrated, hymn styles change and evolve over time. I'm not a fan of praise music but appreciate that it speaks to many people today. I wonder whether in 20 years a crowd will gather for a retrospective praise song fest and if so, will those in attendance fondly remember past times they sang "Awesome God" or "I Love You Lord" ? Or will the popular praise songs of today be wholly replaced by something completely different? What do you think?


Bad Alice said...

We can only hope that the praise music of today will be replaced by something. Anything.

ellbee said...

I am amongst those odd ducks who were raised on the old hymns, have grown to appreciate (if not truly love) the newish ones, and are moved by praise music. My pedigree includes the Baptist, Methodist, Presby and Disciples of Christ hymnals, as well as the folk songs from the brown church camp book.

There are some "hymns" from the 70s and 80s in our hymnal that sing like church mission statements from that era, full of buzz words that make me giggle. And there are modern hymn-writers (check out GettyMusic.com) that move me to tears. Yes there are really bad praise songs. But there are also many that ARE theologically sound.

Those of us who are "bridges" between the traditional and contemporary have a special duty- to honor those who came before, to engage those who come after, and to bring the words and notes to life with joyful hearts and voices.

Hmmm... probably ought to build a rant like this into a post on my own space, eh?

ellbee said...

Oh- and on a totally unrelated but fun note... I was reading an article in the NY Times the other day, and had to stop a moment when the author used the word "quotidian."

In that pause, I thought of you and was grateful for the vocab lesson I received the first time I visited your blog!

Quotidian Grace said...


I couldn't agree with you more--there ARE some terrible hymns in the PCUSA hymnal and there are some great new hymns/praise songs such as "In Christ Alone" with great theology and music.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a Baptist church singing hymns. Now I attend a Presbyterian church where we sing praise songs almost exclusively. On the rare occasions when we do sing hymns I find it so moving...praise songs just don't do that for me. I deeply regret that my teenage children have never had the opportunity to learn the old hymns.

A truly incredible experience was visiting a cathedral in England for evensong...the sound of those voices soaring in the cathedral was one of the most inspring things I've ever heard...to me praise songs don't hold a candle to that!

Teri said...

I second the note that there are lots of contemporary (as in "alive now") hymn writers who are giving the church amazing gifts, hopefully as long-lasting as some of your old favorites. While I didn't grow up in the church and so don't have the associations with many of the old hymns (and find either the language or the theology in some of them to be disturbing or even outright roadblocks in my relationship with God), I do love both hymns and theologically sound "contemporary christian" music (which is admittedly harder to find, but is out there!). I'm a 20 something who enjoys both the organ and the band. Writers like John Bell and Ruth Duck and Natalie Sleeth are doing great things for my generation of church goers, and I hope that one day there will be new writers that make little old me long for the days of "the Summons." :-)

Mac said...

And why did the Presbyterian Church (USA) hymnal change "Eternal Father, Strong to save...", to "Almighty Father"?

And don't forget the most important verse:

Eternal Father, grant, we pray,
To all Marines both night and day
The courage, honor, strength, and skill,
Their Land to serve, Thy law fulfill.
Be Thou our shield, forevermore,
From every peril to the Corps.

Semper Fidelis.

Quotidian Grace said...

I don't know why they changed it (and a lot of other hymns as well which I find really annoying) but I can assure you that we sang "Eternal Father" not "Almighty Father".

Anonymous said...

Some of the "changes" in the PCUSA hymnal are restorations of original wording - responding to those people who were nostalgic for the way the songs used to be.... Kinda like some of us who have commented here! Don't know if that's the case for "Eternal Father," but it's interesting to remember that there really isn't much new under the sun!

Becky Ardell Downs said...

Actually, Mac, the Presbyterian Hymnal still has Eternal Father, Strong to Save. It's number 562. It doesn't have the verse cited though. I wouldn't dare to venture a reason.