Are Hymns Lost Forever? (part 2 of 2)

Previously, I discussed why hymns are in decline and why we should care. Unlike some social issues, where one could argue how much the Bible actually says about that issue, singing hymns has to do directly with God. So it should be only natural that we Christians look to scripture to direct our worship.  There are several examples of people singing hymns in the Bible. Let’s take a look at just a few:

Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn immediately following the last supper (Matthew 26:30).

Paul and Silas sang hymns in prison (Acts 16:24-26).

The church in Corinth is recognized as having sung hymns (I Corinthians 14:25-27).

So we do have examples of the apostles, churches, and even Jesus himself singing hymns. But, just because that was the practice back then doesn’t mean it’s commanded for today, does it?  In two different passages, it is clear that singing hymns is commanded by God.

Ephesians 5:18-21 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Colossians 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

It is clear, even in the greater context of these two passages of scripture, that God expects us to sing hymns during the regular worship gatherings of a local church. One could argue that only those churches that Paul was writing to had to sing hymns, but then you would also have to make that apply to psalms and spiritual songs (which, according to New Testament scholar A.T. Robertson, “spiritual songs” is a catch-all for any song sung to the Lord).

But, what exactly is a hymn?

I have asked many different musicians and even some choir directors and music ministers what they think a hymn is and I usually get a very generic response or a shrug of the shoulders. I’m not surprised though. I think it’s just the nature of the question. It’s like asking why 1+1=2.  People look at me as if the term doesn’t need any explanation.

But, seeing the two above-mentioned verses causes me to continue asking the question. If God’s word sets apart the term “hymn” and uses it in a unique there has to be a reason why. So, I have collected what I think are the most common characteristics of a hymn- characteristics that make them unique. Some of them I have gathered from other sources and some I have come up with on my own. In listing them, there is a built-in comparison to praise choruses. Here they are:

Hymns are poems that have literary characteristics. But, a hymn also has to be set to music for it to be a hymn. Augustine once said, “If you praise God, but do not sing, you utter no hymn.”

The majority of hymns are metrical.  Meaning, it  has a way of organizing stressed and unstressed beats in predictable patterns in a line.

Hymns are more complex musically than praise choruses. Here is the best example of the level of depth between the praise chorus and a hymn.

Hymns can be used to teach basic Christian doctrine and consequently are pedagogical. Because they are more complex musically, they can allow for a more dynamic theological message than a praise chorus can. Praise choruses rarely teach us anything meaningful about God. Singing “God is so good” means nothing if you cannot define “good” or be able to compare “good” to something in scripture that can paint a picture of what God’s goodness is like. Let’s take a look at a popular praise chorus and a hymn to see the difference:

I could sing of your love forever
by Mercy Me

Over the mountains and the sea
Your river runs with the love for me
and I will open up my heart
and let the healer set me free.
I’m happy to be in the truth
and I will daily lift my hands
for I will always sing of when Your love came down.

I could sing of Your love forever.
I could sing of Your love forever.
I could sing of Your love forever.
I could sing of Your love forever.

Oh, I feel like dancin’
It’s foolishness I know
But when the world has seen the light
They will dance with joy
Like we’re dancing now

There is nothing in this song that teaches me anything about who God is. It’s still praise, but it is a very personal and subjective praise.  Now, let’s take a look at a hymn and see if there is a difference:

And Can It Be
by Charles Wesley
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

This is just an excerpt of Wesley’s hymn. It has several more verses. But, I hope you can see the difference. Wesley tells us how God’s love can be so amazing. That he left his father’s throne, came to this earth, and died for our sins. Even the subjective elements teach us about who we are in Christ (being alive in Him, not being condemned, etc).

Hymns also tell of a journey. It usually starts with creation or, like in Wesley’s hymn, with the lost sinner. And it almost always ends up with the sojourner going to heaven (or Christ returning for his own). Praise choruses are more static in that they focus mostly on the present. There is not a sense of where Christ has brought you and where He may be taking you.

So, what happens when you don’t sing hymns regularly as a part of corporate worship?

Several things can happen, all of which are negative. Your congregation will have a harder time making the connection between scripture and praise songs. They will also let the music become so subjective that they fail to see the importance of the church singing as a church. They will become lazy musically so that when they do come across a more complex hymn, they won’t even bother learning it. Most important of all, by not singing hymns you are essentially disobeying God. He wants worshippers who will worship him in spirit and in truth. How can someone honestly believe they are worshipping God in truth if they refuse to sing hymns?

The Real Issue

The real issue with the worship wars is not one of hymns vs praise songs. It is one over musical  preference. It’s unfortunate that when the words “blended worship” are spoken, many church-going Christians think of two trains colliding and leaving a big mess. I have seen a “blended worship service” where a music director will stand in front of everyone and lead them in two or three hymns with an organ and piano (and sometimes choir) accompaniment. Then, half way through, he will sit down, and let a BAND get up on stage and rock out to some praise choruses. All for what? So people can get the music style they prefer. It’s religious schitzophrenia. Once worship becomes about personal preference it ceases to be worship.

So, really, the attitudes in the church have to change about the MUSIC for the two types of songs to be sung together. I think most churches could benefit from both sides compromising. Maybe get rid of the organ or use it sparingly. And, for Pete’s sake, buy an electric drum kit (or buy some gel dampeners for the drum skins)!  Most churches cannot handle the loudness of a regular drum set. 

Probably the best compromise I could recommend is turning electric guitars into acoustic ones. I was at a Campus Crusade for Christ spring retreat not too long ago and I stood amazed at how tuned-in those college students were to some old (Reformation old) hymns. They loved it! Why? Because there was a really good all-acoustic band up on stage.  Acoustic guitars and a few stringed instruments can play both praise choruses and hymns and make them all sound modern in a good way.

So, tone down the rock n’ roll praise choruses and update the words and tunes of some classic hymns. I know it’s easier said than done, but it can be done!

But, that’s not the end of it. It can’t be. Singing just old hymns smacks of nostalgic traditionalism. If hymn lovers are really serious about hymns staying in the church, then new hymns have to be written.  Pastor/theologian Don Carson is one of the few leading evangelical voices that are not only encouraging pastors and musicians to pen new hymns, but is leading by example, as he has written several hymns recently. Here is a young couple, Keith and Kristyn Getty, that have gained notoriety for being committed to writing modern hymns. Then there are people like Passion, who are taking the classic hymns and putting a modern edge to them.

I leave you with what I consider two modern hymns (and one classic hymn remixed) for your enjoyment:

Glorious Impossible by Gaither Vocal Band

In Christ Alone by Keith and Kristyn Getty

O Worship The King by Chris Tomlin (Passion)

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One thought on “Are Hymns Lost Forever? (part 2 of 2)

  1. Interesting. I have some views on worship of course, being a worship leader and teacher in this capacity, and to be honest, I don’t believe in catering to generations, and I don’t believe in “matching the world.”
    Hymns are a wonderful example of excellence for God, but being a classical musician, I can contend that hymns(19th century and onward) were to traditional church music as today’s praise and worship is to today’s proponents of hymns.
    My first experience as a praise and worship musician was playing the electric guitar in an old southern Pentecostal church where hymns were the >onlyexcellencetendenciespraise and worship< our Father in spirit and in truth, whether by hymn or otherwise, and let's produce excellence!

    I have a little clip of a song that some of my students performed at a competition. This is praise and hymn combined, I want to know what you think.
    Keep in mind the quality isn't great, and also, keep in mind that they are kids, and they have lots to learn, and this piece was put together in 3 days or so, in 1-hour sessions, so it isn't as great as it could have been, but this is purely a demonstration of format. I see no reason to conform to this, as I said, let's not find ourselves in a linear box, but in a cycle inspired by the Holy Spirit.

    Nathan, thank you so much for this post, this is a problem that should have been addressed long ago.

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