Hymns as a Liturgical Guide for Life

by: Adam Holland

Adam is the teaching pastor at Hope Church of Knoxville. He has also the author of Friendship Established and Friendship Redeemed.


Our truck slowly came to a halt as we pulled into the gravel driveway at the local Midway Barbershop. This weekly visit had become a cherished part of my childhood routine. Our visits were a fixed part of our weekly schedule whether we needed them or not. My grandfather would tell us we were going to visit “LB’s,” as if it were a fixed place on a map which everyone knew. “LB” was the nickname of the local barber. It was only recently that I learned that this was not the true name of the barbershop. This barbershop was the local version of Cheers, a place where “everyone knew your name.” This was the type of barbershop where you could hear joyous laughter and town gossip as soon as you pulled into the parking lot.


The building had become dated over its years alongside its aging clientele. The front door would always creak and a bell would ring as you walked through the door. The front window held a flashing “open” sign that had a buzz to it that would slowly became melodic to the ears of all the regular patrons. The entrance of my grandfather, brother, and me was always met with a nearly scripted greeting of, “Welcome preacher, welcome boys.” My grandfather would then pull up a seat and wait for the next barber chair. This liturgy along with many others shaped my childhood. This routine was more than an act that I performed on a weekly basis. This routine was a practice that slowly shaped me.


In James K.A. Smith’s book You are What You Love, Smith defines ‘liturgies’ as “Love shaping practices.”[1] Liturgies are practices or routines that you regularly perform. These practices testify to and even shape what you love. Smith points out that there is a divide between what we know we ought to love and what our affections demonstrate that we do love. Liturgies work as a shaping agent that help us re-align what we know in our heads with what is true in our hearts. Fighting an addiction provides an excellent analogy of this point. A person who is addicted to something must establish new practices in hopes of changing his/her affections. New practices over time establish new affections. In a journal about “Hymns and Hymnals” what does liturgy have to do with our topic?


Our routines shape us whether we recognize it or not. Whenever we gather together with our local congregations and the minister says, “Open your hymnal to page …,” this action shapes us. As a congregation we sing songs that were written well before our lifetimes. The congregation joins in unison to sing songs that may not relate to every individual in the congregation. John’s struggles then become my struggles. Julie's successes then become my successes. The songs that we sing make the individual part of the whole. The practice of singing hymns calls us to abandon individualism and embrace our corporate identity. Not only does singing hymns connect us with our local churches, but it also connects us with church history.


Hymnals are a window into the history of the church. These songs show us that we weren't the first Christians to ever exist. The church did not begin with me! The practice of singing hymns reminds us that God led his church long before we ever got here. It also reminds us that God will continue leading his church long past our lifetimes or until He returns. By singing many of the songs that our grandparents and their grandparents sang week after week, we are able to join alongside them in one unified voice.  


In an age where music and preaching lack theological depth, hymns challenge us to think deeper. Week after week congregations sing the same ole hymns. Many of these hymns use language with which most people are not familiar. Like visiting a foreign country, to fully experience a new culture one must know the language. Once you have learned the language, an entire new world of experiences will be opened to you. Hymns teach us a language to which we are not familiar. As a young child you may not understand sin, substitutionary atonement, imputation, the deity of Christ, and etc. A child though can learn a song with these concepts within it, and as he grows older these truths which he sang for years slowly come to life. Many people will never set foot into a systematic theology class, but they can certainly hum a tune. As these lyrics get implanted within one’s heart, like a seed it will slowly grow into a tree with deep roots. May the church experience a revival of singing rich theological hymns that have passed the test of time. Once hymns return to being part of our regular liturgy, it will be then that their biblical and historic truths will shape our congregation.


[1] [1] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/you-are-what-you-love-a-conversation-with-james-k-a-smith/