“I think he really gets that worship is formative,” he said.
The Rev. Constance Cherry, professor emeritus of worship and pastoral ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University, believes “In Christ Alone” has succeeded by combining the traditional structure of a hymn with the kind of instrumentation used in more contemporary worship settings.
She said the structure of a hymn makes it easier for hymn writers like Getty and Townend to dig deep into a theological topic.
Cherry also appreciates that the Gettys are focused on creating hymns that make it easier for congregations to sing together. That’s a lost art, she said, in a time when many more contemporary worship songs are modeled after what is popular on the radio. While she appreciates contemporary praise songs, she said they are often focused more on the musicians than on the congregation.
“Every worship song in any worship service has one goal — and that is for the people to sing,” she said.
Brian Hehn, director of the Center for Congregational Song, the outreach arm of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, also points to the flexibility and beauty of the melody of “In Christ Alone” for the hymn’s enduring success. The melody falls in a comfortable range for most people and is simple and accessible while still intriguing to listen to. And it works for praise bands and choirs alike — a key to a successful congregational song, he said.
Townend’s lyrics, Hehn added, are beautifully crafted and full of nuance. They walk the worshiper through the life of Jesus, from the Incarnation — “Fullness of God in helpless babe,” as the hymn puts it — to the death of Jesus and then his resurrection. The song also connects God to the life of worshipers, “from life’s first cry to final breath.”
Because of that, the hymn works in a variety of settings, from a Christmas or Easter celebration to a regular Sunday service.
The song also contains surprising theological complexity, said Hehn. It’s perhaps best known for a line about the wrath of God being satisfied in the crucifixion, which reflects a theology known as penal substitutionary atonement that’s commonly accepted in evangelical churches. But that has led other churches to change the lyrics of the hymn — and caused the song to be dropped from a Presbyterian Church (USA) hymnal after a proposed lyric change was rejected.
But “In Christ Alone” also references the Christus Victor view of the atonement, which celebrates Jesus’ victory over the grave, and the ransom view of the atonement, which stresses that God purchased forgiveness of human sin from the devil with the sacrifice of Jesus.
“I find that wonderfully broad,” he said.
While congregational singing may be on decline in American churches, Hehn said it remains vital in many churches around the world. And there will always be a need for songs like “In Christ Alone.”
“No matter how you interpret the Bible, it is impossible to get around the fact that we’re supposed to sing together,” said Hehn.
This story has been updated to reflect current attendance projections for the Sing! conference.
This article originally appeared at Religion News Service.