As a worship music pastor, I am exposed to a lot of music, seeking to find new songs that will encourage and edify the congregation I lead. There are a good deal of songs being written today by excellent artists; as I write this, I'm listening to a (relatively) new song I want to introduce on Good Friday this year. But often I find songs that may be new to me, but the church has been singing them for centuries. I love looking through hymnals for ways to join the chorus of God's children throughout history.
But I think there's a misconception when it comes to what people think a "hymn" is. Some people think that the word "hymn" is just a short way of saying "a really old church song." But there are people still writing hymns today! I think immediately of Keith and Kristyn Getty, whose whole career revolves around writing new hymns for the church. Hymns are a genre of music, not just a category for church songs written over 100 years ago.
Colossians 3:16 poses three specific categories of music that the church should engage in: psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We have a great wealth of psalms in Scripture (the "Hebrew hymnal," as one of my old professors loves to call it). The psalms are primarily interested in giving praise to God, and calling the people of God to praise Him. They give descriptions of God (Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd"), His Word (Psalm 19, "The law of the Lord is perfect"), and all sorts of other subjects. Though we no longer have the music that accompanied these psalms, they still inspire us to praise the Lord.
So the psalms give specific directions to praise the Lord, how to do so, and why we should. Along with that, Colossians 3:16 refers to spiritual songs. Much of today's music would fall under this category. Spiritual songs praise the Lord specifically because of what He has done for us. Much of what I write comes from what the Lord has been teaching me through different stages of my life. These songs are meant to focus on God, but with a viewpoint through how He has worked in and through us. These songs, by nature, have a relatively short shelf life. They are written within the current fad and fade along with it. Soon someone else will write a song about the same topic with updated music, and it will fade into the background eventually as well. There's nothing wrong with this; Scripture evens gives the command to "Sing to the Lord a new song" (Psalms 96, 98). We simply sing these songs for a time, and as we continue to grow in our walk with the Lord we will write new songs to continue to describe why the Lord has been good to us.
So how do hymns fit into all this? Well, think about the hymns that you sing on a regular basis. Usually they end up being longer, very detailed, and quite wordy. That's because the hymns are meant to be teaching songs. Hymn writers throughout the centuries have sought to take theological truths and topics and put them to rhyme and music. We see the identity and role of the church in "The Church's One Foundation." We find unshakable hope in our Savior through hymns like "The Solid Rock" and "Be Still My Soul." We relish in the sacrifice of Christ in "There Is A Fountain." These songs cause us to mull over the things of God as we continue to sing these songs to ourselves throughout the week. This is the same for modern hymns, like the Gettys' "In Christ Alone" or Enfield's "Anchored." These songs are written so that we can continue to sing timeless truths. This is why the hymns have stood the test of time so well; they were written not for a certain generation.
It is always my desire to find a good combination of these three categories when I lead music in the church. Many young leaders my age tend to stick to music that has been written in their lifetime, in an effort to remain "relevant." But those songs will fade out of memory much faster than you think. The hymns will continue to be sung in the church for decades, centuries (if the Lord tarries). Let's join in the chorus of the ages, singing praise to God and being reminded of truth. These hymns will be there in times of joy and sorrow, always pointing us back to the Savior. Let us never neglect that.
A simple servant of the Master.