Christians sing together. In worship, we sing together. We sing hymns of praise to the Lord. We stand as we are able and we sing. Sometimes we sing the old hymns, the ones we knew from childhood. For people who grew up in the Methodist Church, that usually means the Cokesbury hymnal. The irony is that, by and large, the old fashioned hymns are newer than most of the hymns we sing in the large United Methodist Hymnal. The old hymns were written around the turn of the last century, with few going back to the 18th century even.
The point of singing hymns is not nostalgia for years gone by. St. Augustine defines it simply in his commentary on the Psalms:
Do you know what a hymn is? It is singing to the praise of God. If you praise God and do not sing, you utter no hymn. If you praise anything which does not pertain to the praise of God -- though in singing you praise, you utter no hymn. A hymn then contains these three things: song, and praise, and that of God. Praise then of God in song is called a hymn.
We can sing together and it not be a hymn if the song is not to God. The goal of singing is to glorify God in what we do. The early Methodist movement was based, in large part, on hymn-singing. When many people were illiterate, they could still learn the words of songs and learn about who God is and how God loves us and forgives us through songs of praise. Still today, the hymns we sing shape us. If we don’t pay attention to what we are singing, we can’t be singing praise to God. We can go through the motions, but it is not a hymn.
I will close with John Wesley’s rules for singing found in the front of the hymnal. How we sing matters. Not that we sing in tune. That is not the point. The point is singing praises to God. If we are not singing because we are ashamed of our voice, we are not singing praises to God. If we are singing too loudly because we are in love with our voice, we are not singing praises to God
- Learn these tunes before you learn any others, afterwards learn as many as you please.
- Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.
- Sing All – see that you join the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.
- Sing Lustily – and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half-dead or half-asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sang the songs of Satan.
- Sing Modestly – do not bawl so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation that you may not destroy the harmony, but strive to unite your voices together so as to make one melodious sound.
- Sing in time – whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before and do not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices and move therewith as exactly as you can and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
- Sing spiritually – have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.