Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns

Longtime readers probably know of my aversion to modern “worship music” used in many churches today. And so, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal was like preaching to the choir, so to speak.

David Gordon makes many points in this book that intrigued me:

  • “It is well known that the character of its song, almost equal with the character of its preaching, controls the theology of a church.” Many of the songs used in churches currently are pretty lite theologically. What message are our churches giving through the songs they are singing?
  • This generation is the first to insist that the church’s music mirror its own – in contrast, Christians in the 50s didn’t demand big band-style music at church, nor did 60s churchgoers insist on rock-n-roll. It’s only been in maybe the last 20 years that church music and secular music have become almost indistinguishable in sound.
  • In years past, there were many criteria for a song to make it into the hymnal (the lyrics had to be theologically orthodox and significant, the music had to be well-written, etc). Today, the only criteria seems to be that the song sound contemporary. Should contemporaneity be a criteria at all, let alone the most significant?
  • It is interesting that many young people do insist on some classical or significant music for their weddings. Are they sending the message that their marriage is more significant than a service worshiping God?
  • Neil Postman quote:  “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.” Is the contemporary music used in many churches sending the message that Christianity is “easy?”
  • Often the argument is made that contemporary music is used to reach “seekers,” although Gordon makes the point that those truly seeking would most likely be confused or turned away by the disconnect between the musical style and the message being taught. “A church that makes no demands – is this the kind of religion Christianity is?”

I think we’ve perhaps gotten a bit too bold as we declare, “God doesn’t care – it’s just a matter of personal taste!” I recall God telling Moses to remove his shoes because he was standing on holy ground. Maybe, just maybe, God does care about the way we worship.

Gordon also brings up some difficulties posed by our current style of “worship” in church – for instance, the usage of words on a large screen in front of the church rather than using hymnals at all. I’ve often lamented this, as there is no music to follow. It’s not too enjoyable (not to mention not very “worshipful”) to try to “sing” a new song with only words to go by.

Additionally, without the music, how will kids ever learn to sing music in parts? Gordon points out that most contemporary worship music is written for guitar accompaniment, which doesn’t lend itself to singing in parts anyway. Unison singing has its place, but I don’t think it can compare to 4-part singing done well (or even passably, usually).

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed this book a lot. Now, if only I could find a church that followed its thoughts …

11 thoughts on “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns

  1. Preach it, Susan! I’m with you all the way! I’m tempted to send this to our pastor.

  2. I can’t tell you all the words I have learned the meaning of from finding them in old hymns. Many are words we ordinarily NEVER use.

  3. Though I’m sure I would agree with much of what Gordon writes, let me play the devil’s advocate for a moment.

    Point 2 – If you look further back into history, beyond the 1950s and 60s, to say, the time of Luther, you would discover that he borrowed many tunes from the local bars. So for recent history Gordon is right, but there have been times in history where this was not necessarily the case.

    Point 4 – Interesting, but could the point not also be made that for wedding music, the couple wants to select what is popular. Classical music is popular, even for modern weddings.

    Postman quote – I believe there is much truth to this statement. In fact, I believe “lite Christianity” is one reason we have an abundance of shallow churches. He is right. People are actually turned off by presenting too little of the gospel. With that being said though, there are plenty of examples of deep music being written today. We sang a song this past Sunday in the 2nd service, “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord,” that certainly states we will have darkness and trials and pain, yet through it all we can say, “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord.” Granted, you have to look pretty hard sometimes to come up with songs that have much theological substance to them these days. Thankfully though, some musicians have also lamented this fact, and have begun to do something about it. (Keith & Kristyn Getty, Stuart Townend, Graham Kendrick, Sovereign Grace Music [Bob Kauflin], Matt Redman and others)

  4. I know that I would LOVE this book! I have never strayed very far from the good old hymns in the hymnal. Luckily, I have always attended small country churches where traditional services are still in vogue.
    At Pleasant Chapel (the church that I currently attend), the minister picks the hymns each Sunday to fit his Scriptures chosen for the day to also fit the sermon topic. The entire service is well-coordinated, and I do feel blessed to have been there each Sunday. It definitely feels like real church instead of just a social gathering. We have the choice to sing the hymns directly from the hymnal or watch the words only on the screen, Like Susan, I prefer watching the musical notes. Of course, it helps to be the church pianist to really know the music well. I was fortunate to be one for at least 40 years. Now my husband does the church piano assignment.

  5. My church follows this books thoughts!! We love hymns and sing them almost exclusively (once in a while a chorus or a praise song but not even every service and NO words on the screen!).
    I LOVE this post – these points are SPOT on. Do you know how many hymns (which are also often good poetry of their era) I have memorized thanks to the constant singing of them for the past 30+ years? It is such a blessing to know so many of these words by heart. 🙂

    Like another reader said: preach on!

  6. I can’t wait to read this book! It’s on my wishlist on paperbackswap.com, but I might have to break my own book-buying rules and purchase it so I can get it sooner! I am in my late 20s and can’t STAND “contemporary” Christian music in my worship service. Give me hymns or give me nothing (and then I’d have to find another church!). However, I do like contemporary Christian sometimes for the commute, when my son wants to listen to the radio, etc. There are some lyrics that connect with me, but it is definitely different than traditional Lutheran hymns and (in my opinion) not appropriate for worship.

  7. Greetings from Wordwise Hymns. Thanks for a great article, and I agree completely with Mr. Gordon’s points noted in your review. I’ve been studying and writing on this issue for 40 years (even taught a college course on it). Over 105,000 visits to my blog, from 185 countries, demonstrate that there are still many who love the old hymns.

    Not that a piece of sacred music is great because it’s old, or bad because it’s new. But speaking generally, there’s a depth of doctrine and devotion in our traditional hymnody that’s rarely approached in contemporary Christian music. Churches that abandon the hymn book are robbing the congregation of their heritage!

  8. I grew up singing hymns at church. Our church has no hymnals, just VERY LOUD contemporary music (mainly drums) that forces the older people to walk out of a service. My ears can no longer tolerate it. Some songs help us draw closer to God, but not when it’s so loud you can’t worship. If I have to, I’ll stay home & watch church services on TV where I CAN CONTROL THE VOLUME. And I will perhaps save what’s left of my hearing!!!

  9. I absolutely love singing the old hymns and many of them are so meaningful that they help me through the week as well. They are great for singing while cleaning the house – really help with the attitude, too. I happen to also like hymnals because I can sight-read songs I don’t know. Our church sings a mix of things, so everyone learns each other’s preferences. Some modern songs are awfully hard for the average person to sing, tho. But at least our church sings songs that are meaningful and truly worship Jesus Christ as Lord. We do use a screen, but in between songs there are scriptures, which is nice.

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