As a result of a Facebook status that got a lot of attention, I’ve decided to write this post. It’s often the case that a status or Tweet is not worthy of the attention and thoughtfulness that certain subjects require. It became evident to me that this particular subject deserved more than 140 characters, as many people “liked” it and some others disagreed, respectfully. After talking it over with some friends and thinking about it more, I discovered there’s more I want to say.
I want to give three reasons that I think hymns are better than contemporary praise songs. I think they are better:
The third one is the one that really matters, and why I chose to write this post. You can chalk the first two up to aesthetics and preferences, but the third one is something I think deeply matters for the church, and perhaps the other two do as well.
A few side notes.
I want to say that I’m only speaking of the songs I know. That means the hymns that have survived this long, not ALL hymns, and it also means only the contemporary songs I’ve heard. That being said, I’ve worshipped in many, many congregations, and have found myself in a “worship leader” position in several churches, youth groups, retreats, camps, etc. So I am quite familiar with the common songs of today.
I’m not talking about YOUR church, and I’m not talking about YOUR songs. I’m speaking of the church generally, and what I recognize to be the popular and oft-heard songs across the evangelical world. I truly believe there are churches doing more than this.
Secondly, I want to emphasize that I don’t fault any churches, worshippers, or worship leaders, and I especially don’t want to take away from anyone’s religious experience in musical worship. If you’ve found God in modern worship songs, then Praise God for that. I wouldn’t dare limit God’s ability to function and bless even if we gathered every week and sang the ABC’s. That being said, I do think there is more to consider.
Let’s jump in, shall we?
(1) Hymns are better musically
If you play any instrument in a praise and worship band, it won’t take you long to realize that 90% of the popular songs are in the key of G (or can be easily converted to that with a capo), are in 4/4 timing, and follow a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format. One of my favorite things to goof around with as an acoustic guitar player was to play a G-C-D-C pattern and see how many songs I could sing along with it. To name a few: Holiness (Take My Heart), Holy is the Lord, Enough, Every Move I Make, Lord I Lift Your Name on High… every single one of these songs could be sung simultaneously without the band changing a single thing.
That seems like a problem. At best it’s a lack of originality or creativity; at worst it’s an invective against the church, that we’ll accept just about any string of words that sounds worship-y.
Hymns, on the other hand, are musically rich and complex. I remember hating hymns as a guitar player, because I had to learn new time signatures, and there were these surprise chords that came out of nowhere that I had to Google. You can tell that the music took time to compose, and that the music is linked to the lyrics in a way you don’t see in choruses. Sure, you might see an “E minor” or even an “A minor” in the bridge, but in hymns you see complexity and craftsmanship to match the angst of the lyrics. And even though it frustrated me as an under-skilled musician, as a worshipper I value the originality and creativity of the music that we offer to God in worship.
(2) Hymns are better lyrically
This point takes two different forms. First, I want to talk the way they use literary “person”, and then I want to talk about the use of words for meaning.
The examples I will choose to use for “contemporary praise choruses” are the top 4 songs on CCLI’s Top 100. This is the primary resource for worship leaders to legally get lyrics, sheet music, etcetera for church worship, so we can reasonably say that these are the four most-used songs in evangelical churches. The songs are:
- How Great is Our God
- Mighty to Save
- Our God
- Blessed Be Your Name
So for the first point, let’s use the two Chris Tomlin songs on here, “How Great Is Our God” and “Our God”. (By the way, what’s up with Chris Tomlin and demonstrative pronouns with God? Anyone else sense an anti-other-religions agenda? My theological problems with “Our God” will have to be saved for another time.) Let’s compare that to the most similar hymn, “How Great Thou Art”, and another example, “Be Thou My Vision”.
Praise chorus lyrics:
How great is our God. Sing with me, how great is our God, and all will see how great, how great is our God.
Our God is greater, our God is stronger, God you are higher than any other. Our God is healer, awesome in power, our God, our God.
Now compare that to the hymns:
Then sings my soul, my savior, God to thee. How great thou art, how great thou art!
Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart; Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art. Thou my best Thought, by day or by night, Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
The first thing most people notice is the difference in language, but there’s something fundamentally different in terms of literary “person”. Note that both of the praise songs sing “about” God in the third person (save one phrase in the middle of “Our God”), whereas the hymns are “to” God in the second person. We’ll discuss the theology of that in a minute, but it brings up a fundamental question: Who exactly are we singing to?
If the choruses of “Our God” and especially “Blessed Be Your Name” are any indication, this is not something that song writers are even trying to think about. Both songs break continuity of person within the same verse! It goes from “Blessed be the name of the Lord” (third person) to “Blessed be your name” (second person). We wouldn’t allow this in a third grader’s english paper, why do we let it slide in our corporate worship? It seems to me there has been a completely unconscious but important shift in the object of our singing.
Now let’s simply compare the word choice in describing God, and Christian experience, using the other two songs:
Blessed be the name of the Lord, blessed be your name. Blessed be the name of the Lord, blessed be your glorious name.
Savior, he can move the mountains. My God is mighty to save, he is mighty to save. Forever, author of salvation. He rose and conquered the grave, Jesus conquered the grave.
And now a couple hymns:
When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, though hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul
Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace. Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise. Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above. Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it, mount of thy redeeming love.
Once again, we see the conflict of “person”, but more importantly, we see a fundamental difference in the way the songs talk about God. The first two are naming attributes of God. The second two are describing the attributes of God with metaphor. The difference is this: modern praise songs simply “name” attributes of God, but great hymns “describe” attributes of God.
I’m becoming convinced that contemporary artists just put the same twenty words like “holy”, “God”, “savior”, “blessed”, “awesome”, “great”, etc. into a jar and shake it and see what comes out; throw a few prepositions in between so it flows, and put it in the key of G. Boom, top of the charts. We’ve become satisfied with singing the same songs in the same ways every Sunday and just get excited at the ones we get to sing a little louder or in a slightly higher key.
Hymns, on the other hand, aren’t satisfied with saying “God is holy”. They want to talk about how God is holy, or what it means for God to be holy. They look around for things to relate God’s holiness to. You could sing an entire contemporary worship song about God being holy, great, or even Savior, and leave the song still wondering, “How is God great?” , or “What does God’s greatness look like?”
(3) Hymns are better Theologically
When it comes down to it, who are we singing to, and what are they worthy of?
Number 2 brought up the theological issues. What’s the difference between “How Great is Our God” and “How Great Thou Art”? The title tells us everything. One is about God, and one is to God. When we consider the type of songs we ought to be singing as worship, the “direction” of the songs should matter.
I’m not saying third person songs aren’t worship, or that God isn’t glorified by them. But what, over time, are we training ourselves to believe about God and about us if our songs are songs to each other about God rather than with each other to God. Because we end up believing in the way we practice, and I wonder if our theology hasn’t suffered for it.
And I really truly believe our theology suffers when we would offer up songs that sound like doctrinal statements rather than poetry that explores and marvels at the complexity of God and God’s work among us.
Yes, God is great! God is mighty! God’s name is blessed! But what does that mean for us?
For me, the song “It Is Well” is a rehearsal in really exploring what it means to call God great. For those of you that don’t know the story, this hymn was written by a man who lost his wife and children and all he had worked for at sea. When this man wrote, “When sorrows like sea billows roll”, he meant it with every fiber of his being. He knew exactly what sorrow felt like, and used that imagery to really explore what it means for God to be great even in that circumstance. That is what our songs should say! Our songs should come from a place of reality, of experience, of angst, and should be written by poets, who have a gift for attributing words and imagery to that angst.
Forgive me for being sounding antagonistic to this song in particular, but I’m growing tired of hearing congregations of Christians tell each other how great our God is. If you’re going to tell anyone, tell God! And then, explore what that might actually mean, rather than just putting four chords behind it and calling it worship.
Worship should be provocative, not shallow. We should have to reflect upon the words we sing, not just be able to glance over them and affirm them. Essays upon essays could be written exploring “Be Thou My Vision” or “Come Thou Fount”, where the imagery could be poked at, questioned, affirmed and enlivened. Today’s songs are disembodied statements about God. And while they may be true, they don’t mean anything on their own.
If I could pick one natural gift/talent to add to myself, it would be songwriting. Because I don’t think “hymns” are the answer to the problem, they’re just among the best we have. The answer is new, great songs, that take the musicality, lyricism, and theological depth of the hymns seriously and bring that creativity and theological formation to a pen and paper. But alas, that is not me. But I can at least hope and encourage.
Our songs should reflect the depth and complexity of God.
And they should really be sung to God. Really.
Please comment. If the status was any indication, this is something worth talking about, and while I do have strong opinions, I really try to remain open and hear rebuttals. It helps me learn, and it makes us all better people if we talk about stuff. The only comment I don’t want to see is, “Well, this song is like this, which makes your point invalid.” Because it doesn’t. There are always exceptions. There are some wonderful songs being written and sung in churches today, and there are god-awful hymns that survived containing miserable theology. But I really don’t think you can argue against the generalizations I’ve made, even if they are only generalizations. Thanks for reading, as always.