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Sing Old Hymns to Encourage New Life

We’re often told singing in church “isn’t about us,” but Scripture does tell us to address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19). Yes, the ultimate goal of our singing is glorifying God, but this is often accomplished by edifying his people (Rom. 15:2).

While we can address one another in any style or era of music—including contemporary worship choruses and modern hymns—time-tested, four-part hymns are specifically composed for mutual upbuilding. When we sing these older hymns, we build one another up in at least seven remarkable ways.

1. We teach one another.

The words we sing—whether at a ball game, at church, or alone in our cars—tend to penetrate our hearts pervasively and permanently, so it’s logical that Scripture links teaching and singing (Col. 3:16). In well-written hymns, each verse builds on the previous verse, expositing a rich theology of the hymn’s topic, sharing the testimony of the hymn writer, or recounting plot points in a biblical narrative.

For example, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” takes much of its text from Psalm 23 and moves singers to consider, verse by verse, Christ’s tender care as a theological truth and an experienced reality.

2. We warn one another.

Colossians connects “admonishing,” which most simply means warning one another, to singing (Col. 3:16). I’ve yet to find a good contemporary judgment day song. But hymns don’t shy away from recognizing Christ as Savior and Judge, and from exhorting Christians to live with faithfulness, expecting his return. I regularly encounter urgent warnings in my hymnal, such as this:

The clouds of judgment gather,
The time is growing late;
Be sober and be watchful,
Our judge is at the gate.

3. We weep with one another.

Proverbs 25:20 says, “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” If our songs are exclusively exuberant, we fail to be sensitive to one another’s suffering. Worse, we risk neutralizing the grief that leads to repentance by insisting on immediate cheerfulness (2 Cor. 7:10).

Hymns provide appropriately solemn texts and tunes for lamentation and confession, both of which are necessary for transformed lives. Hymns such as “We Sing the Praise of Him Who Died” overflow with grief and gratitude, helping singers sorrow over their sin and, through this, better adore their suffering Savior.

4. We encourage one another.

Hymns provide appropriately solemn texts and tunes for lamentation and confession, both of which are necessary for transformed lives.

The last time I played “Fight the Good Fight” for a worship service, I used a baseball organ riff as the introduction. A couple of singers nearly shouted “Charge!” as we began the first verse. This received a few chuckles, but I did it to emphasize the point of the hymn: Christ is victorious, but we still must “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call” (Phil. 3:14). Hymns frequently remind singers of their identity in Christ and charge them to persevere. Martin Franzmann captures this succinctly in his line “Glorious now, we press toward glory.”

5. We pray for one another.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that Christians must sing when they gather “because in singing together, it is possible for them to speak and pray the same Word at the same time.” Hymns provide blessings to sing over one another, often to mark momentous occasions in one another’s lives. For example, “Gracious Savior, Grant Your Blessing” is a prayer for newlyweds that uses the same tune as “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling,” which praises God for his love. As we sing such hymns, we intercede for one another.

6. We include one another.

Hymns assume confessional unity and vocal diversity. Although the congregation sings the same text, written harmonies empower singers of all ranges to participate appropriately and beautifully (I know the altos in my church choir appreciate those low harmonies!).

Steven R. Guthrie writes that singing together renders Christian unity an “aural reality.” When we sing hymns in harmony, we embody what the church is: many members of differing gifts and abilities, all proclaiming “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:5–6).

7. We remember one another.

G. K. Chesterton defines tradition as the “democracy of the dead.” In hymns, previous generations of Christians continue to have a vote in what and how we sing. Hymnals are a rich inheritance of theology, poetry, and music, curated and cherished by generations of Christians. By singing hymns, we honor the work and witness of those who came before—and who are praising God even now—as we look forward to rejoicing with them in eternity.

Hymns assume confessional unity and vocal diversity.

I hope these points inspire you to sing more hymns, not from allegiance to a particular musical style but from a commitment to teach, warn, weep with, encourage, pray for, include, and remember one another. These are weighty tasks, but isn’t it wonderful that we can begin practicing them simply by singing hymns together?

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