hymns are not better than new worship songs

2 12 2009

Have you ever wondered why people argue that hymns are better than modern worship songs?

When people say they have better lyrics it seems to make sense.

Here are lyrics to “How Great Thou Art”:

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,

Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,

Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;

Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;

That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,

He bled and died to take away my sin.

When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,

And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.

Then I shall bow, in humble adoration,

And then proclaim: “My God, how great Thou art!”

No set of lyrics are perfect, but these are good lyrics.

But here is the real challenge: How many hymns do you know?

We go through less hymns than we do modern songs. When I think back to being a kid I still know more modern songs than old hymns.

So, are hymns better? No.

The reason people think they are better is because they have stood the test of time. Good lyrics are what is  key to a song standing the test of time.

The good ones keep being sung, while the old ones fade away. Have you ever looked at a hymnal? Those things are huge and we usually only sing a few dozen at most, and a dozen of those are Christmas songs.

This is the point if someone ever argues that hymns are better: hymns we sing are good because they have stood the test of time. Truth endures.

We are actively going through the sifting process. It takes many years to define a song as a classic.

Advertisements

Actions

Information

5 responses

29 09 2011
Jonathan

My goodness. Where to begin?

“Have you ever looked at a hymnal? Those things are huge and we usually only sing a few dozen at most, and a dozen of those are Christmas songs.”

If this is your experience, then you’ve never been in a vital traditional congregation for any length of time. I am a traditional church musician, and in the past year, I have programmed nearly 100 individual hymns. There are a few that we do more than others, but we have a very wide rotation.

Plus, the text you picked, “How Great Thou Art,” hardly is a prototypical traditional hymn. It is a gospel song from a relatively recent time and is not a good example of true hymnic characteristics. Examples of these would be “Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above” or “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” or “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”

“This is the point if someone ever argues that hymns are better: hymns we sing are good because they have stood the test of time. Truth endures.”

I’ve never personally made this point, at least not alone. I have a number of other arguments.

First, I believe there are very specific theological issues with the character of a contemporary service as opposed to hymn-based traditional service. Hymns are text-driven, strophic pieces, while contemporary songs are music-driven. Hymns are corporate, contemporary songs are soloistic and often border on self-indulgent. Hymns use more neutral and classical tunes and harmonies. Contemporary songs use a vernacular, popular sound that is, first and foremost, modeled after secular contemporary music, which is a craft geared toward making money.

Second, much of the poetry in contemporary songs is quite poor. They often contain mixed metaphor and non-sequitur. The fact that these are often lost on a populist audience is, well, disturbing, to say the least. Hymn poetry varies in quality, but most of it is clear and cohesive, illustrating the transcendent characteristics of God.

Third, hymns are just more theological in general. There’s a reason the average Christian doesn’t know crap about the history and content of the Christian tradition. It’s because the Church doesn’t sing theology anymore. And while you could probably pull out a few of the very worst of hymnody, like “In the Garden,” to claim otherwise, there’s not much of an argument in support of the theological content of the CCM genre.

Fourth, hymns are “top-down,” with humble texts emphasizing the attributes of a glorious God. Contemporary songs are usually “bottom-up” in their perspectives, often not saying anything distinctive at all about the Christian God nor affirming anything distinctive about Christianity. God is something that makes me feel good.

I would encourage you to spend some more time with the standards of hymnody. A good place to look for guidance would be to a recent article in Christianity Today, which counted down the more popular hymns. Spend some time with the texts.

2 10 2011
Jonathan Louie

Thank you for the thoughtful response. I don’t want people to just accept what I say, but think about these topics.

Honestly, I have never been to a church that had a “vital traditional congregation.” My comment about the hymns was based on flipping through the thick book and realizing that there are songs that are no good lyrically in there. The point being that modern songs fall into that category. I’m pretty picky and would argue that some modern songs would fall into the once-done-but-now-thankfully-forgotten category, just as those unsung hymns.

The only song I am familiar with the three listed is Martin Luther’s song. Lyrically, I believe they are theologically sound.

Point one shows lack of knowledge when it comes to modern songs. There really is nothing wrong with that. If I was only familiar with poor modern songs, I’d stay away too. I don’t know if I mentioned it in the post, but I think most of the songs released are throwaways. “Revelation Song” – by Gateway Worship is something I think lyrically you would appreciate. One of my favorites. Some songs that are lyrically simple/r, but speak truth are “Our God” by Chris Tomlin and “Holy” by Matt Redman, my current favorite song. Musically, I wouldn’t say I really love these songs (especially “Revelation Song”), but lyrically they speak truth. So, if they are music driven, it isn’t what drives me to those songs. To address the last sentence: the way a song is crafted is neither right nor wrong. It is.

Point two. I agree. If God is deserving of our best, shouldn’t we try to write songs that are poetically excellent too? Though, form can dictate richness. I wouldn’t say that all the worship/praise psalms are poetically amazing. Psalm 117 is shorter than most modern songs.

Point three I think is partially true. Because of the limitation by modern song form one cannot write as much theology into a song. But the same truth should resonate when singing the less verbose modern song. Songs like Hillsong’s “Desert Song” touches on good theology. To address the last sentence I’m not arguing for CCM, I’m arguing for modern worship songs. Most CCM I can live without. I don’t even listen to it because after hearing a few songs there is nothing to draw me to it lyrically or theologically.

Point four is something I’ve heard a lot about. And I will admit that a lot of it was true. It’s just that those happen to be like the lost hymns that fill the pages that no one ever turns to. I wish I had a hymnal with me so I could quote some lyrics, but I don’t because I don’t go to a church that sings out of one. If you have looked at the songs I mentioned in this reply I hope you can come away encouraged that not all modern songs are bad, just as all hymns aren’t good, which was the main point I was trying to get across.

Lastly, there are two points I think modern worship songs have over hymns. The first is in aiming for better, while the second is aiming for scriptural correctness.

1. As God reveals Himself to the church He emphasizes different areas. One major one is the relationship aspect. There is something to be said about crafting a songs completely to God in second person, which I talk about in a post. If there are hymns that craft such intimacy with God please send them my way, so I won’t make a poor argument. My past experience growing up in church with hymns isn’t as rich as yours. I must mention, though, that because relationship has been emphasized so much, their is a hunger in the church for good theology, which I am thankful takes place in my church.

2. If we search “new” and “song” in the Bible we will find we are commanded to sing a new song. Continually singing old songs is disobedience. If hymn style is important than more songs like Stewart Townend’s “In Christ Alone” and “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us” should be undertaken. It is our duty to obey Scripture and write new songs. Thankfully, God didn’t demand a style.

BTW just to give it a shot I found the article mentioned and looked at the list and read the lyrics to “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” It’s truth, but it’s not worship. It is us singing to us to remember truth. There is nothing wrong with that (as we are commanded to so by Paul), but I wouldn’t sing it call it a worship song. My main point of this blog is to clear up worship and the ideas surrounding the topic. So I’ll end with a thought to ponder: we can remind others of truth, we can even praise and thank each other, but we can’t worship another human being. While it is good to do the former three, worship is reserved for God alone.

2 10 2011
Jeff Martin

I have, at times, enjoyed modern praise songs for their emotional pull. But in general I prefer 4 part hymns for their harmonic complexity. I’ve never thought too much about lyrics, but you make a good point about them standing the test of time.

3 10 2011
Jonathan

So you’re “Jonathan,” too. Cool.

Let me address a few points.

“Honestly, I have never been to a church that had a “vital traditional congregation.” My comment about the hymns was based on flipping through the thick book and realizing that there are songs that are no good lyrically in there. The point being that modern songs fall into that category. I’m pretty picky and would argue that some modern songs would fall into the once-done-but-now-thankfully-forgotten category, just as those unsung hymns.”

Again, my guess is that not being familiar with the standard repertoire is a real problem here. My guess is that some of the best hymns are those you’re not familiar with, such as those by Wesley or Watts. There are vapid hymns (though most of them are gospel songs by definition), though most of them have fallen out of use prior to the publication of any modern hymnals. “In the Garden” is the best example of one that has remained, and without apparent reason that I can see.

“Point one shows lack of knowledge when it comes to modern songs. There really is nothing wrong with that. If I was only familiar with poor modern songs, I’d stay away too.”

Point taken, and though I certainly don’t keep up constantly, I’m around the scene enough to here what’s happening. I am occasionally impressed by a text, that’s for sure.

“So, if they are music driven, it isn’t what drives me to those songs. To address the last sentence: the way a song is crafted is neither right nor wrong. It is.”

Well, I think we need to think more deeply about this, and I won’t go on and on here, other than to say that music matters theologically, as does everything else we do. There are theological connotations to musical setting.

“Point three I think is partially true. Because of the limitation by modern song form one cannot write as much theology into a song. But the same truth should resonate when singing the less verbose modern song. Songs like Hillsong’s “Desert Song” touches on good theology.”

You’re right in that not every song needs to be a deep theological treatise, but they should be a) correct, b) well-crafted, and c) solid.

“To address the last sentence I’m not arguing for CCM, I’m arguing for modern worship songs. Most CCM I can live without. I don’t even listen to it because after hearing a few songs there is nothing to draw me to it lyrically or theologically.”

I use the term to abbreviate. If it’s more inclusive, we can use “modern.”

“If you have looked at the songs I mentioned in this reply I hope you can come away encouraged that not all modern songs are bad, just as all hymns aren’t good, which was the main point I was trying to get across.”

You’re right. Not all the texts are bad. But there is more to consider. First, the best of hymnody is better than the best of “modern” and reflects a deeper theological concern. Second, never in the history of congregational song has it been the practice to only sing new songs and in a new style. New hymns were always being written and added to the ranks of the previous years. Now, the practice is to only sing new songs and to sing them in a vernacular style. There is, quite simply, no reason for this.

“If we search “new” and “song” in the Bible we will find we are commanded to sing a new song. Continually singing old songs is disobedience. If hymn style is important than more songs like Stewart Townend’s “In Christ Alone” and “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us” should be undertaken. It is our duty to obey Scripture and write new songs. Thankfully, God didn’t demand a style.”

When we are told to “sing a new song,” it most certainly doesn’t mean songs that are chronologically “new.” That is a complete “uninterpretation.” It means that we are to rejoice afresh in the love and grace of the Lord. And the traditional format, again, does not mean just simply “old.” There are new hymns being written all the time, as there always have been, in a classical or neutral style, instead of a vernacular, fleeting style.

:BTW just to give it a shot I found the article mentioned and looked at the list and read the lyrics to “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” It’s truth, but it’s not worship. It is us singing to us to remember truth. There is nothing wrong with that (as we are commanded to so by Paul), but I wouldn’t sing it call it a worship song. ”

Sorry, friend. This statement demonstrates the influence of contemporary understanding of “worship.” Worship is “reverential human acts of submission and homage before the divine Sovereign, in response to his gracious revelation of himself, and in accordance with his will” (Daniel I. Block). The contemporary definition is something like “speaking directly to God in a church service with simplicity and felling.” That is completely unbiblical and erroneous. Singing songs about God are concise reminders of God’s self-revelation can be very worshipful. Humbly listening to Scripture is worshipful. Reciting creeds is worshipful. These are all worshipful acts. Additionally, whatever we do in a service can only compose a tiny piece of worship, if that much. We are to encourage each other and listen to God’s self-revelation, so that we can spur one another on to actual, life-consuming worship.

In fact, there are some who would suggest what we do in a service is not worship, because it doesn’t demand anything out of us. I’m wouldn’t go that far, but words, even if we mean them honestly and authentically, cost us next to nothing. It’s the same thing if I were to tell me wife all the nice things I think of her, but I do nothing to actually show it, the words have no meaning.

It’s time we get this straight. You, me, and everyone. Singing songs about God, that draw on concrete knowledge given to us by revelation, are as worshipful as songs can get.

21 02 2012
“Hymns Are Not Better Than New Worship Songs”: Aigner’s Response « to god all praise and glory

[…] During my regular stroll through the neighborhood of church music blogs, I came across this guy at Thoughts on Worship and his post on why hymns are not better than new worship songs.   Of course, this is just the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: