If there was ever a tradition that should have violently held to their traditional hymnody it would be the Wesleyan tradition. Let me be clear, I am not a hyper-traditionalist, there are good a number of contemporary hymns, praise songs, and choruses that I like and think are valuable to the church. This posting is in no way a rant against contemporary worship per se. I’ll admit that I personally find myself annoyed with most contemporary worship, but I will be the first to admit that there really is some lyrically excellent music being produced in our day and being used in the contemporary setting. Nonetheless the trend in the UMC toward using more contemporary popular worship songs is a huge problem for Methodism, larger than it would be for a Lutheran, Reformed, or even the Catholic Church.
Awhile back I posted regarding Creeds and Catechisms, and expressed my disappointment in the fact that the UMC is very sporadic (at best) in their use these historic statements. I stand behind that post, especially in the way we see the UMC’s incredibly (dare I say fatally) broad theological spectrum. Methodism has not always been that way. The Wesley’s were adamant about ‘catechesis’ yet their method was music. Consider the thousands of hymns written by the Wesleys alone all with the purpose of expressing doctrinal truth in a repetitive and memorable manner. They wrote the hymns to the tune of familiar entertaining pieces of the day which served to enhance the ability to memorize the key doctrine which the hymns were to communicate. The Wesleys were specific in how hymns should be sung, and adamant about not taking artistic license to improve upon them, knowing that artistic license created individualism out of what was meant to be community worship and dare I say a form of covenantal catechesis. In many ways this method of songs, hymns, and spiritual songs as a method of catechesis could be seen as having more biblical support than the standard question and answer format of the reformation and catholic traditions. Clearly the Hebrews did this with their Psalms, and Timothy was commanded by Paul to continue in this vein.
The point is that in Methodism our entire ‘indoctrination system’ hinges upon hymnody. Other traditions continue to recite creeds, catechisms, and so on, but we rarely do so. Instead historically we have been a people who use hymns for that purpose. Now as we see Methodism going contemporary and choosing songs based partly upon doctrine, partly upon singability, and largely upon popularity we have created a more appealing worship setting but have removed our primary method of indoctrination. (I use the word indoctrination in the instruction sense, not the propaganda sense). This is a serious problem for us.
Whenever you attempt to address this you will find Methodists telling you “we originated the contemporary scene when Charles and John started putting all their music to the tune of popular tunes sung in the pubs”, or they say something similar to that. However they miss the original intent of this. ‘Pub music’ was not used to make hymn singing popular and fun, in fact the Wesleys put very stringent guidelines as to how hymns could be sung, and it was clear they were not doing it just to be attractive. The reason for using the bar tunes was because they provided an already clear framework for memory of doctrine.
Now that we have forgone an intentional hymnody and replaced it with a series of contemporary songs that people enjoy, we fail to commit our whole theology to memory. Again, much of the new music is doctrinally excellent, but it is not intentional in the same way that the early hymns of Methodism were, and the newer music has not been written with the same intent that the original Methodist hymns were written.
Other traditions can survive being loose with their music because there is a consistent system for imparting their theology to their adherents. Methodists’ music is our system, so we do not have the liberty to be loose with it.