Sing a New Song...Or Not

It happens every so often. Most recently, a couple weeks ago at a writer's conference at which I was speaking. We were sitting at the table enjoying a nice meal, when someone started opining on contemporary worship music versus hymns. This person regarded hymns as theologically, musically, linguistically, and maybe even spiritually superior to modern worship songs. I'm so tired of these arguments, I couldn't even summon the energy to participate in the conversation. As one who cut my teeth as a child on hymns, and as a Christian on "contemporary Christian music," the discussion (as is typical) largely missed the point.

Hymns are great. The level of erudition and expression in the hymns of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and Fanny Crosby is unequalled in today's worship music. Because they are two different genres. Entirely. They are apples and oranges.

In my experience, at least, hymns enable me to worship with my intellect, by and large. There are exceptions (Great is Thy Faithfulness, for example), but generally speaking, when I sing a hymn, my mind is engaged with lofty thoughts and divine truths, but my emotions, not so much.

Much of today's worship music, by contrast, does something else entirely for me. With some exceptions, these songs engage my heart and soul. They draw me into the presence of Jesus Christ. Some are theologically shallow--even questionable (but then so are some hymns, like "In the Garden" and "Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild"). Some are repetitive, even annoying (a little like the chorus of "Angels from the Realms of Glory" and the chorus "Be Still and Know That I am God"). And some are confusing or vapid or even comical (sort of like the song I remember singing forty years ago, "Standing Somewhere in the Shadows You'll Find Jesus;" I was never sure if it was supposed to scare or touch me, but I still chuckle at the image of Jesus as Phantom-of-the-Opera it inspires).

But many modern songs are far more like Biblical psalmody than the hymns I sang over the years (and still sing and pray today). A great number are actually Scripture set directly to music, while others are thoroughly Scripture-based. For example, the song “Knowing You” is drawn from Philippians 3, and the words of "Those Who Trust" are based on Psalm 125. And it is true that many of today's worship songs are written and sung from a highly personal, perhaps narcissistic frame of mind (the personal pronoun "I" does dominate some of them)...but then, even the most casual glance at the psalms will reveal precisely the same thing.

Most hymns were written with different instrumentation and venues in mind; they are great for pipe organ, piano, and choir. An entirely different music form might have resulted if Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley had written for guitars and drums, as many of today's songwriters do.

Moreover, a hefty portion of hymns are songs of testimony ("Amazing Grace") or sentiment ("The Old Rugged Cross") or proclamation ("How Firm a Foundation") as well as worship ("Immortable, Invisible, God Only Wise") and prayer ("Nearer, My God, to Thee"). While that is true of modern worship music, it seems to me that a much higher percentage of the worship songs we sing at my church are designed to lead me into God's presence, keep me there, express my heart in prayer, and commune with him ("Draw Me Close to You," "Blessed Be Your Name," "Breathe"), in ways that even the best hymns seldom do.

Oh, and one of the voices at that conference table a couple weeks ago mentioned the point that classic hymns have stood the test of time, which ought to prove that hymns are superior as a music form. I must grant that BOTH the "pop" nature of today's worship songs AND the frequency with which they are sung (sometimes repeated almost every week for months or more, until worn out, whereas the same hymn is seldom sung two weeks in a row) make it less likely that they will last for decades, let alone centuries. BUT that is also true of tens of thousands of hymns. The hymns we still sing are classic because they are among the few that have stuck around...among a huge number that entered well-deserved obscurity long ago.

And, finally, some of today's most popular worship songs adapt or incorporate ancient and classic hymns, like "Be Thou My Vision" and "My Chains Are Gone/Amazing Grace." So it's not a cut-and-dried either/or thing. Not by a long shot.

Most importantly, of course, the typical argument (whether for or against current worship music) misses the point. Worship is not defined or limited by musical forms. I worship regularly in Gregorian chant, a music form that is more than a thousand years old, not to mention hymns and more modern worship music. Each form assists me in worship in one way or another...but I am the worshiper, not the form I use. It's perfectly okay to prefer one form over another....but it seems silly and absolutely unnecessary to me to try to argue for or against any of the forms. If a certain way of worshiping is not your cup of tea, fine...but it's a cup of tea, not a hill to die on.


  1. Excellent post sir. I echo your frustrations with unnecessary debates regarding the validity of worship styles, or "forms" as you put it. It seems that those who are willing to die on those hills are really just trying to justify elevating a personal preference to the level of a holy standard when in reality they find themselves in the grave company of Saducees and Pharisees. I shutter to think about Jesus' sobering words, "I never knew you." not to say that I am judging another person's salvation, but the overindulgence in worship style preference smells a lot like a legalistic religion of works.

  2. Apparently, you've found the energy to participate in the discussion now! :) I always tell my high school Sunday school students they should be grateful to my generation for praise music and Christian rock and then I ask them what they'll be contributing to the church. I, like you, grew up with both and can worship happily with either. I do have a friend, however, who is an ethnomusicologist working with believing nationals in other countries to help them create worship music in their own language and style because of his belief that people deserve to worship in the musical language of their hearts. Recently, our church had a night of hymn singing (you know, for the "old" people) and there was powerful worshipping and weeping as believers sang songs they hadn't sung in years. I thought how perhaps we're having more compassion on the needs of believers in other countries than we're having on our own American brothers and sisters when it comes to this issue. It's not a matter of "old" vs. "new" but the freedom to worship with your own heart music. We shouldn't argue or be divisive over it but we should learn from the praise song "I'm coming back to the heart of worship" and remember that for many it's a heart issue not one of old/new/traditional/contemporary. Some believers just want to worship sometimes in their first language. In love, we should have compassion on that.

  3. I've seen the same thing, Lori, and had no intention of denigrating hymns. As I said, they're wonderful. And you're right, they ARE some people's heart language. As is contemporary worship music for others. But I don't extrapolate from that to say every church ought to have blended worship, any more than every church ought to include Gregorian Chant because it speaks to my heart at times, too. A clear worship vision is not the absence of compassion, no more than one form is superior to another.

  4. I just think we have to be happy that people are attending and singing, regardless of the genre of the music! Whatever gets them in that pew week after week!