Those of us who grew up in various faith communities each have a set familiar hymns that we heard often when we were young, and for many of us they had a clear influence on the way we view our faith and how we respond to other congregations and their worship.
There could of course be a lot of debate as to the greatest hymns – which ones will continue to be sung and appreciated 100 years from now. Sadly, the last 40 years have seen a fairly steady decline in the singing of hymns, as they have been replaced in many churches and congregations with more contemporary songs and choruses. Not to say that because a song was written more recently it is necessarily inferior to the older hymns; in my humble opinion, there are many hymns from decades and centuries past that are musically and lyrically unsatisfying. However, it does seem that at least to some degree the cream rises to the top – the truly wonderful and meaningful hymns are still used often, and much of the body of inferior hymnody has fallen by the wayside.
I find it gratifying that my 20-something children and many of their friends know and appreciate many of the best hymns. In my own family this is due in no small part to the influence of the parents of these children! – but as adult children, they have a great sense of which hymns are the most meaningful and have been most artistically crafted, at least among the ones with which they are familiar.
Naturally, no one can make a definitive list of the best hymns – it is a subjective matter, and music is not an exact science – quite the contrary. I could give examples of hymns that I find inferior and perhaps doctrinally weak – but the next person would take offense, and probably list some of those hymns as favorites!
Another major factor in the choosing of which hymns are timeless and the most powerful is contingent on the faith community in which we each were nurtured, as mentioned above. For example, I continue to discover great hymns that I never knew existed, simply because they were not a part of our denominational tradition. So as I create my list of the greatest hymns ever written, I will surely be committing sins of omission!