The gospel is an old hymn. The gospel is sheet music printed in antiquarian typeface on a yellowed page in a dusty book. It’s the “old, old story” and the “old rugged cross.” It is four verses—and please don’t skip the third verse to expedite the invitation! The gospel is an invitation to a bygone time that feels new again, even in our age of ever-dawning progress and modernity. The gospel gets “dug up” and “trotted out” and sung ironically and apologized for by leaders too clever for their own good. But then it lands in the ears of those led as sweetly familiar, warms their souls like celestial comfort food, and it always gets sung louder than those Jesus-is-my-boyfriend ditties.
At first glance, the gospel of the kingdom is not much to look at. Too many evangelicals tend to take it for granted. It sits in the splintery pew rack of our imagination like some hallowed curiosity. And, when bored with the latest distractions, we happen to take it up again and turn to our favorite number, it’s like coming face to face with an old friend. It’s like we never neglected it. We pick up right where we left off.
I notice this phenomenon every time I hear audiences sing actual hymns during congregational worship time. It’s even noticeable at student ministry events, although you wouldn’t expect it to be so. It is young people, we assume, who find the old hymns most musty. “They only want the new stuff,” the common wisdom says. But I’ve spoken at more than a few student ministry events, and while most Christian teenagers seem engaged enough during worship music of all kinds, I hear the difference when some leader, immersed in the fog and lasers of newness, “dusts off” an oldie. The kids sing.
I notice this in plenty of other venues as well—at church services, men’s retreats, and Bible conferences. Why?
I don’t think it’s just because hymns are familiar. These audiences know the new stuff too. In fact, the new stuff dominates the worship scene for a reason. I think the persistent resonance of hymns does have something to do with the fact that hymns—for church folks, anyway—are historically familiar. These old songs take us back to simpler, more formative times in our life of discipleship, and few things beat nostalgia for warming the heart. But I don’t think it’s simply nostalgia that makes the hymns so affectionately singable.
I think many of the old hymns, the ones that have endured—and plenty of the newer hymns too, actually—tap into a deeper reality than a lot of the more explicitly emotive stuff. In a strange way, the old gospel hymns affect us more emotionally by not dealing primarily with how we feel. There are plenty of emotional exclamations in the old hymns, of course—“How marvelous, how wonderful!,” “Then sings my soul, how great Thou art,” “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” etc.—but these songs don’t make the emotional the primary point. They make the emotional the response to something much sturdier—namely, the gospel.
Most of these old hymns follow the gospel storyline. The first verse usually presents the problem of sin in some way. The second and third verses typically introduce Christ and his cross, the work of the Spirit, or some other proclamation of redemptive narrative of the gospel. And the last verse typically puts the Christian in heaven, focusing on the blessed hope of Christ’s return and our glorification.
The classic hymns, like the gospel they help us exult in, are much bigger than they appear.
This is why I say my gospel is like the old hymns: I very often treat the gospel like something I’ve moved on from, but every time I bring it back to mind, every time I put my stupid little eyes on its familiar truths, it transports me to a more beautiful, more powerful, more helpful place than any of these newfangled messages I flirt with every day ever could.
A lot of the new songs—not all of them, of course, but a lot of them—head straight to how I feel about Jesus but never take me into the depths of why I ought to feel that way. We’re summoning the wind, calling down the fire, pleading for rainfall. (I begin to wonder if I’m worshiping God or reciting some kind of medieval weather report.) I’m telling God what I want, what I need (what I loooong for, ooooohh).
But what I really need is to rehearse what he’s already done for me, what he’s already done in Christ that has satisfied my desires, met my needs, and answered my longings. In the rush to emotional outburst, I miss affectionate remembering.
Here, I’ll tell you what it’s like: The difference between a lot of modern, emotional worship songs and the classic, gospel-rich hymns is the difference between the romantic ruminations scrawled in a pre-teen girl’s diary and the decades-long marriage etched upon the hearts of a tired-but-God-dependent man and wife. We take our old marriages for granted too; they become too familiar to us, old hat. It is hard to muster up the romance of the newlywed days, well nigh impossible to dig up the gosh-darn “twitterpation” of wet-eyed, dimple-cheeked courtship. In a hard-earned marriage between two survivors of the early mutual surprise that they married a more sinny sinner than they anticipated runs something deeper than mere feelings and stronger than flimsy romantic greeting card proverbs. In long marriages between two Jesus-followers we find a bedrock of true affection.
It’s not for nothing that God categorizes the relationship between his son and Christians as one between a groom and his bride. And just as in worship music and marriage, keeping the relationship fresh means frequently revisiting some old, familiar truths.
— this is an edited version of an excerpt from my forthcoming discipleship book (2017, Baker)