This is an open letter to anyone who has ever written this question on your church’s Communication Card or comment card. Typically, these questions are left anonymously leaving a worship pastor unable to respond to the asker. While I can’t speak for your worship pastor, I can speak for myself!
First, at Immanuel, we do sing hymns, but they probably don’t count because they don’t sound like they used to (more on that later). At the risk of getting too musically technical, hymns have a chord change on nearly every beat of each measure which make playing them on a guitar extremely difficult!
￼Notice all the chords (notated with capital letters) above almost every syllable in this example from “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” from the Baptist Hymnal, instrument edition. A guitar player would have serious hand cramps playing this traditional version out of the hymnal! And most hymns have a similar number of chord changes. Now, let’s look at the popular worship chorus “How Great Is Our God.”
Notice how sparse the chords are which makes it much easier for guitar players. Our church utilizes a band made up of various guitars, keyboards and drums. In fact, in Immanuel’s 14 year history, it has always had some sort of band and has never had just piano and/or organ accompaniment. Simply put, most hymns in their original form were written for piano and/or organ accompaniment. Worship choruses in their original form are written for guitar/keyboard accompaniment. Quick and numerous chord changes were characteristic of a musical style that was popular when many hymns were written. Slower chord changes are the popular style now. So, the reason hymns sound different with a band is that they have to be rearranged to eliminate some (most) of the chords which has a tendency to change the harmonic structure and sound of the song, but makes guitar players very happy!
Second, you couldn’t swing a dead cat around by the tail (no offense to cats or cat lovers!) without hitting a church in our area that sings hymns almost exclusively–not that there’s anything wrong with that! The music we do is part of what makes our church unique. Not that numbers are everything, but our church is growing. We’re growing for a number of reasons–one of them is that we are doing things different–like dropping Sunday night worship services in order to offer focused discipleship electives, sending people out on mission in our community and world, small groups instead of traditional Sunday school, and, yes, updated music.
Third, our language has changed significantly since many of the hymns were written. Sadly, because of our outdated methods, church, and therefore the things of God are often perceived by the unchurched as irrelevant to their daily lives and this can be reinforced by the music we use. Before you write that nasty comment, let me say that I do not believe that we have to change the Gospel to make it relevant. I just hate to see us put up artificial barriers that can keep people from experiencing the grace of God. As scripture says, the Gospel is already an offense or reproach to overcome. Anyway, the “thees,” “thous,” and other terms like “Ebenezer” in some hymns are what I’m referring to. Not only that, but there are wonderfully deep word pictures that hold deep significance to us as believers that could be misconstrued by an unchurched person who ventures into our services. For instance, if I were an unchurched person and I heard “there is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins,” I’m running for the door! To be fair, there are some worship choruses with terminology that could freak out an unchurched person–”holy fire fall on us,” for example!
I grew up in a King James only, hymns only, “Southern Baptists are going to hell,” Independent Baptist environment. Put me up against anyone in “Name That Hymn” and I’ll probably win. I have a deep appreciation for the hymns. However, what moves my spirit in worship is newer worship choruses by Chris Tomlin and the like–including some of their rearranged hymns. In general, I select music for our services that moves me. Admittedly, my bias will be to use modern worship choruses or rearranged hymns. Besides, I’ve only been playing guitar for 2 years so I couldn’t play a hymn in its original form on my guitar to save my life!
Hope that explains why we might not sing as many hymns as some might like. Someone once said: “I don’t know the formula for success, but I do know what the formula for failure is–trying to please everyone all the time.” I realize we can’t please everyone all the time. Some will like what we do one week better than the last. More important is that we do everything to the glory of God, not just the praise of men.