Worship and Hymns

The worship wars have been a battle fought for decades now. The two sides: pro-hymn and pro-modern stand on two sides of a peaceful fence. But in order to stand on one side or the other, we have to be aware of what each side stands for. We have to understand what defines a ‘modern’ song, and what defines a ‘hymn’.

Definition: Hymn. Worship

The Webster definition of hymn is as follows:

a) : a song of praise to God
b) : a metrical composition adapted for singing in a religious service

The Concise Encyclopedia gives a brief history of the use of the term:

“Song used in Christian worship, usually sung by the congregation and written in stanzas with rhyme and metre. The term comes from the Greek hymnos (“song of praise”), but songs in honour of God or the gods exist in all civilizations. Christian hymnody grew out of the singing of psalms in the Temple of Jerusalem. The earliest known Christian hymn dates from c. AD 200. Hymns were prominent in the Byzantine liturgy from early times, and in the Western church they were sung by congregations until the Middle Ages, when choirs took over hymn singing. Congregational singing was reestablished during the Reformation Martin Luther and his followers were great hymn writers, while the Calvinists preferred setting psalms to music. The compositions of Isaac Watts and John Wesley were notable in English hymnody. The Counter-Reformation led to the composition of many Roman Catholic hymns, and the Roman Catholic church restored congregational singing of hymns after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.”

Concise Encylcopedia

There are also some detailed ideas in Christian Today’s article ‘Pop goes the Worship‘ (March 2011).

Yes, and there are objective criteria for what makes some music better than other music. Sacred music has special demands beyond aesthetic demands. Some musicologists argue that hymnody is actually a subcategory of folk music—distinguished from classical music because classical music is performance music, beyond the capacity of the average person to produce. But folk music, by name, suggests music produced by the people. It’s the way a people join their heritage, and it’s participatory in its very nature. Therefore, I don’t think hymns should strive to compete with Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem or the solos in Handel’s Messiah, because a congregation wouldn’t be able to sing them. [pullquote]A hymn shouldn’t be beyond the capacities of a good, intelligent church to sing[/pullquote]….
Hymns should be easy enough to learn for people who do not read music, so people can pick up the melody quickly. When I was a young child and we’d take drives, the family would sing folk music or hymns. If Mom or Dad started singing “Fairest Lord Jesus,” we sang along, and before long we were harmonizing. And we couldn’t read music. Hymns aren’t too difficult to sing; most of them are easier to sing than the contemporary stuff… They (modern songs) are not really easier to learn than hymns (unless they are profoundly simplistic). They seem easier to some people whose sensibilities have difficulty with anything that is not pop. But musically speaking, they are not, as a genre, substantially easier; they just sound more familiar to our culture. When people describe them as “easy,” what they mean is “familiar-sounding.”

With all this in mind, we can define important traits that we can agree all hymns should have:

  • Hymns are first and foremost a song of worship and/or praise to God.
  • Hymns are created to be sung corporately in worship together.

There are some some traits that are common in hymns, but are not in any type of formal definition. These are from a collection of readings and discussions about hymns:

  • Hymns are usually steeped in history, are sacred, or have some other spiritual significance.
  • Hymns are deeply theological and based on solid foundations of the Christian faith.
  • Hymns are written to teach God’s people biblical truths through repetition, musical memory, and other such faith building devices.
  • Hymns often (but not always) have a simplistic approach making them accessible to people regardless of musical ability or talent.

When we look at the first definitions, we can see that if we were to substitute ‘hymn’ for ‘worship’, then what we call ‘worship’ in it’s musical form fits seamlessly in its place. In modern day language however, we have somewhat exchanged this terminology of ‘hymn‘ for the word ‘worship‘. We know worship is so much more than songs and music, but we often accept this common knowledge and use the term ‘worship’ with this in mind. We call the music we play in church and sing together as a congregation as ‘worship’. If we were to define the term worship in relation to music, it would be relatively similar to that for which exists for the term ‘hymn’.

I am eternally passionate about worship and it’s musical form. I am passionate about deep poetical, creative, and meaningful music and lyrics that engage the heart, mind, and soul of my fellow believers. I am passionate about leading people to meet with God through song, praise, anthem, music, and sound. I am continually renewed by worshipping God. I have burned out over many other things in my life, but the fire for worship through music continues to burn strong and will never lessen – purely because for me, it is my passion.

Because of this however, there are some that say that hymns are much more than just songs we sing in church. They are more than just the ‘style’ that hymns fall into. They have some other traits; of which I have listed above. T. David Gordon says that ‘Sacred music has special demands beyond aesthetic demands.’ (Pop Goes the Worship, March 2011). Aesthetic demands, as Gordon puts it, is what I refer to as ‘style’.

[pullquote]Sanctity (or sacred) seems to be an important factor as to what people will consider a hymn or not. But what makes a song sacred? Is sanctity a man-made attribute or a God-given aspect?[/pullquote] Simply, through a few different readings, describing something as sacred is to say that it is holy, or hallowed. We find these words related to the ground in a couple of places in the Bible. Moses and the burning bush: Exodus 3:5, and Stephen telling the story of Moses: Acts 7:33. Here, it is the Lord God that has declared the ground as Holy. Likewise in 1 Corinthians 6:11, Paul says that we are sanctified in the name of the Lord when we became followers of Christ – once again, a status given by God. When we think of a person who is holy, or saintly, we might use the phrase that they are ‘blessed by God’.
All of these factors leads me to think that for something to be considered sacred, it is not something that we as humans can impart, but must be bestowed on by God.

Definition: Modern. Worship

The Webster definition of modern is:

a) : of, relating to, or characteristic of the present or the immediate past: ‘contemporary’.
b) : of, relating to, or characteristic of a period extending from a relevant remote past to the present time

Modern worship therefore is a subjective title given to songs that are of the present time to the immediate past. How long this time is would be relative to each person’s perceptions. When we use the term ‘modern’ worship, we might include songs from the mid 1990’s to the present day. Some may include songs from earlier such as those written in the 1980’s, or even the 1970’s.

Unlike the biblical definition of the term ‘hymn’, the term modern is actually more centred around a particular time, or ‘style’. When we look at songs that we would consider ‘not modern’, we would probably consider the classic hymns such as ‘Amazing Grace’ (1779), ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ (1912), or ‘How Great Thou Art’ (1885) in that category. It is not that these are not great songs, but that they are not modern.
Likewise however, it doesn’t mean that modern songs cannot be ‘hymns’. Take modern songs such as ‘I Stand in Awe of You’ (1987), or ‘How Great is Our God’ (2004), both of which I personally would consider to be hymn in terms of the definition above.

But why is modernity important in church today?


The Hymn Style

What I dislike is the ‘hymn’ as a style of music. Often when we use the term ‘hymn’ (or at least when I use it) I am talking about those grandiose, organ filled, old-english songs. Songs such as ‘How Great Thou Art’, ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’, and ‘It is Well with My Soul’ – great songs. But still hymns. I even extend this to modern day hymns, such as those written by Townsend and Getty like ‘In Christ Alone’, and ‘How Deep the Father’s Love For Us’.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the aim for Christian musicians was to create religious masterpieces that had been previously owned by painters and sculptors of years gone by. They had their instrument of choice – the pipe organ – which could make enough sound for an entire orchestra with the use of only one person. The words, rhythm, rhyme, and melody were all designed to be theologically correct, easy to remember, and find a commonality with reality that allowed people to connect with them and connect with God through them. With the organ, both melody and chord structure merged together and a popular upbeat 3-quarter time was set as the precedent for praise and worship in the church.

Why We Need to Make Hymns for Today

kjv1611Three centuries ago this same time, around 1611, the Bible was translated into English, called the King James version. You may have heard of it. It was the closest translation to the actual Biblical languages that existed, and is still one of the most accurate even today. All English versions of the bible since all herald back to the King James version. It is Adam for English translations, and there is always a link to it in some description when we read.

Why do I mention the King James bible?

Well – quite simply – I see the musical style of ‘hymns’ as the musical version of the KJV bible. It’s out dated. Time has moved on. Language (both English and musical) has developed. It’s changed. All modern songs owe something to hymns, in the same way each English translation of the bible owes something to the KJV.
We can hang on to ye olde times as much as we want, but the world has changed. The church needs to recognise this and stop living in the 19th Century, and begin living in today. Just like we have new versions of the bible today – New Living Translation, New International Version, even the The Message – these are all updated into today’s language – a language that people of today can understand and make sense of for themselves.
Likewise, I believe the songs of praise that we sing to God also need to be updated – written in today’s language – both in speech and in music. They need to be relevant to us.
Now this doesn’t stop everyone having their preference. People choose their preference of bible translation – some still prefer the KJV. Some people look at The Message in disgust. Most people accept that the NIV is down the middle of the road – as a benchmark for all that is acceptable scripture in general church use today. Regardless of this, there is little judgement as to what version of the bible the preacher is using, as long as what they are saying is biblically true.
Yet for some reason there seems to be incredible judgement around the use of (or lack of) hymns in our church services. (I make this observation based on my own experiences, not from any church situation in particular)

But if hymns are like the King James Bible, and modern classics like ‘Here I am to Worship’, ‘How Great is Our God’, and ‘Shout to the Lord’ are the NIV – then why do we continue to insist that we ‘read from the King James’ (metaphorically speaking)? I can’t actually remember the last time I read the King James, let alone go to the King James version of the bible for a better understanding of a scripture. So why would I go to a hymn for a better understanding of worship where I have plenty of modern day songs that I can understand – both musically and the language used? There is no doubt that modern day worship songs are built on the ground that were first paved by hymns – just as the NIV has been build on the foundations laid by the King James Version. That doesn’t mean we have to keep referring to the King James bible in order to understand the NIV. Not at all. So why would we keep referring to hymns to understand worship?


In the article mentioned; “Pop goes the Worship“, T. David Gordon says ‘In every generation, gifted people would write some good hymns, and subsequent generations would enjoy them. Nothing new there. What’s new is the notion that you have to have new music in a worship service. That’s unprecedented.’
He goes on to state that the commercial nature of today’s society – the ‘newer is better’ mentality – has taken it’s hold in church as well. He says that playing hymns using a modern aesthetic is better than dividing a church. ‘But better yet to be entirely unconcerned about whether a hymn sounds contemporary. No other generation was so concerned, and there is no good reason for ours to be so.’. His book ‘Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns’ raises all these questions, to ‘…ask why, for the first time in Christian history, do we feel so cut off from previous hymnody? I think the media ecology answer is largely correct, because we are surrounded by music that has these kinds of musical qualities, and therefore we expect all music to have those qualities. But why should we allow the producers of commercial music to make those choices for the church?’. 

Worshipping God has little to do with our preference, and more to do with bringing ourselves humbly before our God in complete worship.To a certain extent I wholly agree with Gordon here. When we choose which worship song we sing based on our own personal preference, it suddenly becomes about what we want, and not what God wants. [pullquote align=”right”]Worshipping God has little to do with our preference, and more to do with bringing ourselves humbly before our God in complete worship.[/pullquote] If it comes from our heart with the help of the Holy Spirit it shouldn’t matter what the song being played is, because we are wholly and solely focussed on God.
Yet I consistently find myself struggling with singing hymns and getting myself to worship. Maybe this might be the infiltration of the ‘commercial’ as Gordon puts it. Maybe it’s Satan getting a foothold within God’s Church – an unwanted distraction to get us away from worshipping God and thinking about ourselves and our personal preference, just because it doesn’t sound like the music we like and have grown accustomed to. And knowing this, maybe I need to revisit my own heart when I come to worship.

One thing I have come to associate very closely with the word “worship”, is the word “humble”. Worship without humility is nothing. If you are allowing your own preferences to come between you and God in worship, then you are allowing self to be more important than worshipping God. Humility is therefore more than just important in worship. It is paramount.

So remember. Put aside your personal preference, and worship God with all your heart, soul and mind. If you are able to do that then the song, the style, the hymn, nor the words can stop you from basking in God’s mercy and grace. And to God be the Glory. Now, as it always has been, and forever will be.

 Further Reading