Few things are more awkward than an adult youth worker trying to sound like a teenager. Equally awkward is the adult youth worker flaunting theological astuteness by using words students don’t understand. Both, however, illustrate the importance of language in youth ministry. Especially when we are communicating the gospel.
This is why the language of the songs we sing is important. Many worship songs are either simplistically shallow or awkwardly antiquated. For many students in our youth groups, hymns fall into the latter category. But while the language might be lofty and unfamiliar, hymns can teach students that worshiping the Almighty God is not a casual encounter.
While the language might be lofty and unfamiliar, hymns can teach students that worshiping the Almighty God is not a casual encounter.
As for the students not understanding the words, isn’t that what we want as youth ministers—to teach our students something true and beautiful about Jesus that they might not already know? Corporate worship need not be only experiential or emotional; it can also be an occasion for learning.
I’m not saying we should only sing hymns. There are plenty of incredible modern worship songs out there. But ignoring older hymns altogether is an enormous oversight.
Here are 10 hymns I believe youth groups should try to sing.
1. “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” is one of my favorites of all time. Written by Henry Lyte in 1825, this hymn walks us through the labors of the Christian life, teaching us that our hardship has a purpose. When we suffer, we look forward to the new creation that Jesus will bring when “hope shall change to glad fruition.” This hymn will help prepare students to suffer with hope instead of futility. Listen on Spotify.
2. “How Firm a Foundation” gives us a wonderful lesson in the poetic use of repetition. When a word or phrase is repeated in Scripture, it’s for emphasis (for example, “Holy, holy, holy”). The last stanza declares, “That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.” As this verse is written from the perspective of Jesus, we are hearing Christ emphatically repeat that he will never leave nor forsake us, no matter what comes our way. Listen on Spotify.
3. “Be Thou My Vision” was written in the eighth century by an unknown Irish poet. It’s one of the oldest hymns in our hymnals. “Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise; thou mine inheritance, now and always.” This line is a gripping reminder that the wealth of treasure we have in Christ far outweighs the approval we seek from others. We all need to hear this—but especially teenagers in an Instagram age. Listen on Spotify.
We all need to hear this—but especially teenagers in an Instagram age.
4. “Pensive, Doubting, Fearful Heart” is a slightly more obscure hymn written by John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace.” As someone who spent much of his life at sea, Newton was familiar with the “tempests,” or mighty storms, that tossed his ship to and fro. Despite all our fears and doubts, our names are graven on the heart of Christ, and he promises that we won’t be lost to the storm. Listen on Spotify.
5. “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” contains a perfect example of one of those lofty, outdated words. When author Robert Robinson speaks of raising his “Ebenezer,” he’s referencing the story in 1 Samuel 7 when the prophet Samuel raised a stone of help (Ebenezer) as something tangible to remind the Israelites of God’s faithfulness. In a way, this song itself serves as an Ebenezer to all who sing it—a beautiful reminder that “Jesus sought me when a stranger / Wandering from the fold of God.” Listen on Spotify.
6. “Heal Us” was written by William Cowper in 1779 but was recently set to new music by Kevin Twit and Lucas Morton. It’s a beautiful gospel tune that points us to the stories of those who encountered Jesus in desperate need of help. As Kevin Twit has pointed out, students need to know that God is not the great “Pharmacist” who fills our prescriptions and sends us on our way; God is the great “Physician” who actively works to heal and restore the brokenness in our lives, in our relationships, and in the world around us. Listen on Spotify.
7. “This Is My Father’s World” reminds us that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” Christians have always lived in a world that doesn’t seem to belong to them, and the world we inhabit today is no different. But God has called us to spread the gospel and to remember that this world has a King who is redeeming and restoring all things to himself. Listen on Spotify.
8. “Nothing But the Blood” is simply the gospel. The refrain tells us that nothing can wash away our sins except for the blood of Jesus—not our good works, not our obedience, not our trying, not our checking off the box and coming to youth group. Nothing but Christ’s blood can save us. And once we are saved by his blood, he becomes more and more precious to us. Listen on Spotify.
9. “There Is a Balm in Gilead” is an African American Spiritual taken from Jeremiah 8, when God’s people are searching for healing in all the wrong places. Jeremiah asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” Aside from being one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, this hymn brilliantly connects Jeremiah’s rhetorical question to the Great Physician who promises to heal and redeem his people’s suffering. Listen on Spotify.
10. “Abide with Me” is the second hymn on this list by Henry Lyte, written just weeks before he died. The song serves as a sobering reminder that death comes in shadow and gloom. The hymn is a simple prayer asking God to abide with us as we journey closer to death. And it’s a prayer God never fails to answer, for he himself has made that journey—parting the sea for his people to follow him into the fullness of resurrection life. Listen on Spotify.
Ignoring older hymns is an enormous oversight.
As with almost any other list, this is far from comprehensive. Many more wonderful songs could be added. But please don’t miss the point. Youth ministry is often critiqued as being the “shallow” ministry arm of the church. But there is a depth and richness to these hymns that, I pray, will take younger Christians to a deeper and richer place in their faith.
Let’s be forward-thinking in youth ministry by singing the excellent hymns of old.